• Renata Gortan with her dad. What was once an embarrassing mark of otherness is now a cherished memory of culture and tradition. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
They say you don't know what you've got until it's gone — and boy do I wish I could hang on to what I thought was a pointless family tradition.
Renata Gortan

2 Mar 2021 - 4:53 PM  UPDATED 2 Mar 2021 - 5:09 PM

I'm careful to ration the brown longneck bottles at the back of my pantry. There aren't a lot of them left, which makes them special.  

These old beer bottles contain something so much better than alcohol. They're home to the last lot of passata I made with my dad.  

The ritual of buying crate loads of tomatoes at the markets at the peak of summer, when they're at their ripest, sweetest and cheapest, is a familiar one for many Italian families. A day is spent stewing them, squeezing them and bottling them for the year to come, so that there is a ready supply of passata to make sugo, or pasta sauce. 

It is messy, backbreaking work that always falls on one of the hottest days of summer. It is loud and fraught, as the extended family comes together and bickers over the sheer scale of the work. The heat of the day combined with the heat of the cauldron, which is used to boil and sterilise the bottles means tempers fray, bottles smash and fights break out.  

As a kid, I hated it.  

I hated the heat, the mess, the sweat, the fights and the filth of being covered in spent tomato seeds and skin. But most of all, I hated the 'wog-ness' of it all. I wished we could be just like other families, normal families, who bought their passata from the grocery store.  

When you're a child, being marked as different was to be avoided at all costs. The goal was to blend in, be part of the pack and quash any notion of ethnicity when you grow up in a predominately Anglo-centric environment. It was bad enough that people already questioned my odd name and my strange lunchbox, there was no way they could know about this. They wouldn't understand it. Hell, even I didn't understand it.  

"Why couldn't we be just like everyone else?" I would plead as we put another bucketful of boiled tomatoes through the masher to separate the pulp from the seeds and skin.  

Dad would talk to me about the importance of keeping up the tradition, the value that it had.

Dad would talk to me about the importance of keeping up the tradition, the value that it had, how when my grandparents emigrated to Australia, they couldn't find passata so had to make their own. I would roll my eyes and keep stuffing basil leaves into empty brown beer bottles that had been collected throughout the year to be repurposed.  

I was embarrassed about the otherness of it all and couldn't appreciate the cultural connection.  

Our food traditions are the vital ties that hold us together
Passover. Christmas. Ramadan. Lunar New Year. Passata day. Sunday lunch. No matter what your cultural background, the traditions of food are almost always central in connecting family, friends and community.

But then Looking for Alibrandi came out, first the book by Melina Marchetta and then the movie by Kate Woods, and I saw my life on a page, and then a screen, as the family came together for the annual Tomato Day, or 'National Wog Day' as the title character, Josie, called it.  

I saw the women in aprons peeling tomatoes and gossiping, the men stacking and emptying the giant cauldrons of tea towel-wrapped long necks and I felt less alone. Not validated, but I understood that this is what my people did, it wasn't just my oddball family. I could finally talk about it because I had a pop culture reference in which to link it.  

It meant that others understood it too, school friends who had never gotten to grips with my mortadella sandwiches asked me if Tomato Day was real, as if it were as mythical as Santa Claus. Do you guys really do that? Can we come next time? For me, it had always been a day to dread, but they saw it as exciting and exotic, which made me appreciate it a little.  

Another round of appreciation came when I moved out of home and bought passata for the first time. Why did my sugo taste off? I had followed nonna's recipe, but something wasn't right. I checked the ingredients list on the bottle of passata, which I had assumed was just smooshed tomatoes, salt and a bit of basil, but it included sugar and mixed Italian herbs, whatever that meant. From then on, I made sure to only buy passata with tomatoes and salt on the ingredients list.  

But my sauce only ever gets close to nonna's when I use a bottle of our homemade passata. It's more than just tomatoes, salt and basil. It's the fact that the tomatoes are beautifully ripe, that the basil comes from nonna's garden, that the salt seasons it just so before it's bottled, boiled and stored in the cellar until it's needed.  

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It wasn't until we stopped doing Tomato Day that I started to miss it. Dad was always the one that drove it, he would clean the bottles in preparation, go to the markets with his trailer and set up all the equipment we needed.  

The first summer after his death we skipped it, there were enough bottles in the cellar to see us through. The second summer, nonna talked about doing it but we never got around to it. Now, I know it's done. As much as nonna wants to keep up the tradition, at 86 her body isn't as strong as her spirit. Who will drag the bottles out of the cellar, go to the markets, set up the cauldron? It was dad's domain and he's no longer here.  

"It wasn't until we stopped doing Tomato Day that I started to miss it."

As much as I miss this lost tradition, what I miss most is my dad. It was his day and he was in his element. Now that I'm a mum, I mourn the fact that my son won't get to experience Tomato Day, not only does he miss out on those big, messy family gatherings that were so much a part of my childhood, but he missed out on meeting his nonno. 

When he's older, I might be able to bring some of it back. We could make a smaller scale version in our courtyard and I can tell him about nonna's big backyard and the wooden table that dad built under the passionfruit vines which doubled as the main workstation. How by the end of the day the light timber would be stained dark with tomato juice, the seeds stuck on as if with superglue so that we needed to scrub them off. How we would then be scrubbed down to remove the sticky residue on our arms and legs and the seeds in our hair. How the interminably long day would end with a feast on that table, a selection of dad and nonna's house-made salami and pickles, softy, squishy balls of bocconcini cheese and the sharper slices of pecorino, fresh loaves of ciabatta and pasta topped with sugo made from last year's bottles. 

"I ran from my culture as a kid, in a desperate bid to fit in. But now, I feel a deep longing for it."

For me, this passage from Looking for Alibrandi is so bittersweet:

"Like all Tomato Days, we had spaghetti that night. Made by our own hands. A tradition that we'll never let go of. A tradition that I will probably never let go of either, simply because like religion, culture is nailed into you so deep you can't escape it. No matter how far you run."

I ran from my culture as a kid, in a desperate bid to fit in. But now, I feel a deep longing for it. Not just Tomato Day, but what is represented. Because when a family falls apart, when the glue that held you all together  this mismatched group of personalities and tempers that are only linked by blood  is gone, then what? What happens to that culture and how do you find it again when the roadmap is gone?  

I don't have the answer. But I do know that when I reach for one of those precious bottles to make nonna's sugo for my little family, I think of dad and thank him for having the foresight to make them.  

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @RenataGortan Instagram @renatagortan. 

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