LIBBI GORR FIGHTS THROUGH HER ONION PEELING TEARS TO UNRAVEL THE SECRET BEHIND OUR LOVE OF SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE
It was always so wondrous as a 70s child to sight Mum’s electric fry pan on the bench simmering away with her Bolognaise sauce.
Spaghetti bolognaise was always a treat, and at the time – exotic and somewhat sophisticated. In childhood, the strands of sticky spaghetti were all about interwoven family and love; that and putting the bowl on the floor, clasping my hands behind my back and kneeling to nibble from the dish with my mouth in a successful campaign that eventually resulting in me getting a cat.
Now with my own kids…the strands still all lead back to mum. We had a few yardsticks to our home-made spag bol, because we ate versions at Leo’s in St Kilda, and at Ti Amo in Carlton. We always thought it was a destination meal offered as a special night out rather than Mum and Dad just needing a break and being grateful there was something on the menu we’d happily eat.
Even now at the Bondi Icebergs it takes a lot for me to get past ordering the chilli prawn pasta. So what gives with spaghetti? What makes it so significant in our generation’s emotional culinary life? My guess is it’s all entwined, like meat to a noodle, with multi-culturalism, migration patterns and memory.
The number of Itlay-born Victorians peaked at 121,000 in 1971, so to absorb spaghetti into mainstream appetites was only natural. We ate therefore we are, Spag bol was the old sushi, I guess.
MUM KNOWS BEST
But here’s the crazy think. Mum’s spag bol always tasted better than anyone’s. It still does. I can’t compete. I’ve begged Mum to share her technique, but she always glosses over a crucial element, or leaves a vital piece of information out.
So I sweat it out, with my meat mixing and browning, sautéing brown onion and celery and maybe even a little grated carrot, then pureeing it all to deny any presence of vegetables to my little ones. I cheat with some beef stock to take the tang from the tomato paste and throw caution to the wind with a slurp of wine in the pan, to knock the buggers out quickest at bedtime. Nothing works, mine gets a little picked at, Grandma gets begged for seconds. Grandma wins.
Now my mom is no Nonna – we can’t claim any Italian heritage at all. She’s a Grandma, just as adept at chicken soup and matzo balls as she is at spag bol.
But even spaghetti bolognaise doesn’t actually come from Bologna. Firstly in Bologna – up in the north of Italy, mid thigh to be precise pasta is made from egg, not durum wheat like spaghetti. It’s Naples where spaghetti is eaten, Southern Italy, down on the shinbone. And don’t get me started on the difference between the Northern ragu sauce and the Southern recipe so familiar to us. Apparently during War World II, when Allied soldiers passed through Emilia, near Bologna, they devoured buckets of tagliatelle – that’s egg-based pasta – al ragu. Back home, they asked for the dish and Italian restaurants recreated it with spaghetti. That’s the story, anyway.
Who knows if any of this is true – it’s just impressions based on memory, transcribed as a story. As is most of what I’ve written above.
But you can’t negate the memories of collective joy and love, whatever the noodle. When my kids look back they’ll have similar memories of Mum’s spaghetti. That is my Mum’s. Their Grandma’s. Which is kind of handy, because she said she’d make a batch. I wish she’d hurry. They’re hounding me.
Written by Libbi Gorr