When I was a pubescent my Nonna spoke to my Mother about my sprouting breasts, “Si crisciono i patatti”, translated means- “Her potatoes are growing”.
It sounded so fascinating at the same time, so that I started to place potatoes in my t-shirt, so I could imagine what I was going to look like with breasts, parading around with the potatoes secured, Mum laughed her head off, and then together we boiled them and made gnocchi- Italian potato dumplings.
Nonna often used the potato analogy to describe other pubescent female cousins. I did not quite understand at the time, until I noticed that she was talking about my potatoes. She would talk about them, as if they did not belong to me, that I could not hear her banter, like it was women’s secret business, that she knew something that I did not, and clearly she did, because I was never interested in the idea of growing breasts, or what that even meant. So my mammary glands became a symbol of all breasts that had grown before and my right of passage.
My Nonno (grandfather), however, unbeknownst to anyone in particular, also had a fascination with these potatoes, with one of my cousins, her breasts were hardly perky at the age of five. He never asked me to show him mine, and I thought that he wanted to be sure that they were growing when I walked into the dusty shed and saw them together. I never did quite acknowledge that vivid minuet; a profound and poignant moment that said so much about the place of girls and women. Here I was invisible, for he did not see me. It was as if girls did not count for much unless they were cooking, cleaning, serving and doing as they were told- “show us your knockers”, became an expression I learnt later in life, where a woman is reduced to the size of her breasts, for the pleasure of the male gaze.
I really just wanted to play amongst the almond trees, gorge on fresh citrus, and help bake cookies and bread. I did not really care for breasts, they kind of got in the way. When I was 14 years old and I still did not have a bra, but the perky little potatoes had well and truly sprouted, bouncing around all over the place. They did not feel like potatoes at all! (Helium balloons come to mind.)
Such conversations were often had amongst women, during what was considered the work of women, the preparation of food. Making the bread, crushing tomatoes into red blood pulp of passata, harvesting fruit, nuts and vegetables. Also when bashing the olives with a brick to pickle and preserve, cutting the figs for drying in the sun, plucking the chook after ringing its neck and removing it’s guts, noting the underdeveloped eggs. All women’s work in keeping a house and caring for a large family. Here were busy hands and loosened tongues, discussing the politics of womanhood, while engaging in the art of making and eating food. This space was a female only zone, where no man, dared, nor cared to step, (until of course the ritual of dinner and the closing of the day).
It was in this space, my Nonna’s place that I often felt a tremendous amount of joy and an enormous sense of freedom. I now call this sense an expansion– that from one point of reference, the vibration eminates outwards and then catches, ignites delight, like a beacon.
On arrival I was drawn to the cupboards where I spent time visually, familiarizing myself with the contents. Stale treats and sweets forgotten in cupboards. Old crockery and cutlery and beautiful tea sets, wedding gifts from 50 years gone, laced in dust and saved for special occasions that never happened. I needed to know where everything was, for when I was called upon to serve.
When it came to baking biscuits, one of my jobs was to take the metal trays, scrape the crusty residue and then with a clean rag dipped in olive oil, grease each one in preparation for the shaped dough, then baked in the large wood-fired oven. I took great pride in knowing this was MY job. There were at least 20 trays, only a few were borrowed from the electric oven. I liked those the best because they had a smooth surface, they did not buckle and were the easiest to clean. Most of them however, were modeled from 10-liter olive oil tins, with the top and bottom cut off and rolled out flat.
The trays stacked on the nearby chairs, ready, I would then take on the role of assistant, with the pre-baking preparations of cracking eggs, burning sugar, grating lemon rind, spooning vanilla essence and adding flour to the mixture. The kneading of the final biscuit dough was reserved for experienced hands, that was shaped into what looked like a big round warm belly, the stickiness smoothed out and ready for shaping.
The raw dough was then fashioned into donuts, or rolled out flat with a rolling pin, a vegemite jar used as a cookie stencil, or cut into diamond shapes with a knife, then decorated with a raked fork pattern. The final touch was to beat an egg with the same fork, dip the full naked hand into the sloppy mix, and then anoint each biscuit with the palm of the hand, one at a time, blessed for a baked shiny surface.
We made batch after batch of these biscuits, punctuated with sweetened cups of milky tea and tastings, an ongoing feast. Amid this delightful cacophony of eating, the ritual of meals included morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and finally dinner.
At the close of the day, when all gathered to eat some more, dinner broke the sacred women’s space, with the arrival of the men. All us kids piled into the 1967 valiant station wagon, exhausted but satiated by the sweet aroma of the warmth of baking, our tummy’s full, content, falling asleep dribbling into each others hair on the slow drive back home.
To this day, when I visit Mildura, I find myself nostalgically sifting through old cupboards of photos, plates, clothes, bric and brac. It’s different, of course because each object reminds me of my connection to another time. The past comes to meet me, and in that act I acknowledge my evolution. It’s like this need to reconnect with myself, the young naïve girl who I will only see in hilarious memories of the analogies of food and discovered sexuality and the art of cooking with my Mother. I now document my connection to my Nonna, celebrating the wise woman, my right of passage to grow older, to discover that I am reaching a place of wholeness.