Mr Nesci didn’t utter a word until he was seven years old. He remained a man of few words but he did love a joke – especially practical jokes and slapstick. Salvatore told me he was especially fond of the three Stooges. Imagine if a child today didn’t speak until they were seven – the endless rounds of ‘ologists’ would be hypothsising, probing, questioning until the child would scream “ Leave me alone!” – forced to speak just to have a bit of peace and quiet.
I always called him Mr Nesci. It just wasn’t appropriate to call him by his first name. My years in France had taught me the European mores of respect for age. Salvatore of course called my parents by their first names. Mr Nesci was a simple man. In Calabria he was a peasant farmer and after he married Antonuzza worked the fields of his father-in-law. He was paid very little and when he decided to migrate to Australia asked his father-in-law , the local miller and relatively well-off, for a loan. Mrs Nesci’s father was not known for his generosity to others and said no! MrNesci left Fabrizia when Salvatore was three months old and never went back. He worked hard in Australia for five years to bring out his family.
The achievement of two illiterate parents being able to educate their two boys at University in one generation is remarkable. Although Mr Nesci used to constantly say to Salvatore “I’ve paid all this money to send you to University and you can’t do anything!” Salvatore didn’t have a good knowledge of the practicalities of life until much later. He couldn’t really cook, he brought home his laundry, he didn’t know about gardening or fixing things and certainly couldn’t make salami or passata.
My first dinner with the Nescis was a memorable day. Salvatore was trying to downplay the ‘taking me home to meet the folks’ bit. Mrs Nesci had been cooking for hours and there was the usual mountain of pasta with a very rich, spicy tomato-based , meaty sauce. There was also a bowl of roasted blood red ‘pepperoni’ or capsicum. Mr Nesci used to roast them on a little BBQ outside so they were infused with a smoky flavor. Lots of olive oil, salt, chilli and garlic were added to a make a strong, delicious side dish. I devoured everything and had second and third helpings of the pepperoni and mopped it up with the bread cooked in a backyard wood oven. Brought up to eat everything on my plate I all but licked the platter clean. I didn’t realize the opposite is etiquette for Calabrians. It is polite to leave food on your plate as this is a sign that you are not so poor and hungry. I completely cleaned up all the pepperoni. Mr Nesci started laughing and I was a little perplexed and asked Salvatore what he was laughing about. Finally Mr Nesci addressing me in the third person laughingly said, “She’s eaten my breakfast!”
I was mortified. He always had this spicy pepperoni dish for breakfast and I had eaten it all.
Mr Nesci loved his pasta. Even though Mrs Nesci would put out the best plates and serviettes and tablecloth when anyone came for dinner, when the pasta was ready he would place a couple of sheets of newspaper under his plate. The pasta sauce always had pieces of bone from the veal chops used in the sauce. He would place the bones directly onto the paper which would then be rolled up and thrown away at the end of the meal. The sauce would always be ‘picante’ or very spicy and yet Mr Nesci would chomp into a fresh chilli while eating his pasta. Calabrian stomachs were made of cast iron!
The best pasta sauce was cooked by Salvatore’s father, Raffaele rather than his mother. She didn’t like to be told this of course.
Mr Nesci’s veal chop sauce
Finely onions and cook until transparent then saute chopped veal chop with the onions. Add dried chilli to taste and some basil leaves. Cook until well browned. Add peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes, a bay leaf, salt and olive oil. Later on add more basil. Cook slowly for two hours.
Even though I knew the recipe and my sauce is good, I could never make it as good as theirs. Even Salvatore made a better version than mine. Sometimes when I think I have cooked a good Calabrian sauce it’s because I put in far too much salt and far too much olive oil.
All the time I had known Mr Nesci he had had prostate cancer but it seemed to go into remission for about 10 years. Eventually it caught up with him again and the thing that Salvatore had always dreaded – the death of his father happened. We were called over late one night. The doctor was already there. We raced into the bedroom and he was still warm. I went into the lounge room and asked the doctor “Is he dead?” He nodded and I had to go back into the room and tell Salvatore his father was dead. I will never forget the look of fear on his face. I said my goodbyes to Mr Nesci and left Salvatore with his father.
When we finally got into bed that night Salvatore started sobbing and I held him, not knowing what to say and realising that there wasn’t anything to say and all he needed was to cry and be held. The next day was like a new dawn for him. That dread he had been carrying for so long was gone.
Then they all started arriving – la familiga. This was the first time I met the whole clan from Melbourne – the Monteleones – Antonuzza’s brothers and sisters – Gina, Damiano, Fioro, Antonio, and Rosa from Sydney. Bruno and Riezere were still in Italy. Various cousins and children also came.
The day of the funeral came and I could see that it was part of the tradition for the grieving widow to do nothing except grieve. I wasn’t familiar with my own culture’s death rituals let alone Calabrian rituals. All I knew was that there should be a wake after a funeral and that meant food. Bruno, Salvatore’s brother was organizing the funeral and his new partner hadn’t been around long enough to be involved in the organization of the food so I took it upon myself to do what I thought was required. I got up early that morning and made a mountain of sandwiches and bought some cakes. I laid out the best tea cups and saucers and bought some beer and wine and soft drinks. I was thinking of the good old Irish tradition of everyone getting pissed at a wake and celebrating their life rather than mourning their death.
Calabrians , of course, didn’t do this at all. They would sit around wailing and saying clichés before the funeral and pay their respects afterward but there was not a tradition of eating and drinking straight after the funeral. Family and paesani started arriving at the house to be greeted with a cup of coffee, tea and delicious Sicilian cakes and good ol Aussie sandwiches. The men were thankful for a beer. They were impressed with this Aussie tradition of a wake.
Later that afternoon friends and pasesani started to leave. Then seemingly out of nowhere the procession started - food, crockery, cutlery, drinks, pots and pans, plates, stared coming into the house. One arm of the family, Mr Nesci’s nephew was bringing in. I have never seen s a huge amount of food. I had never seen such an operation. Everything was brought into the house. “What is going on?” I said to Salvatore. He had no idea but Bruno who was 13when he left Calabria knew of the old traditions.
The grieving widow doesn’t cook, usually for up to a week after the funeral but with family living in different suburbs and towns it was only possible for the night of the funeral. The name of the custom, is the orginal name of the basket in which the food is carried into the grieving person’s house.
Mr Nesci loved practical jokes and Sam told me tht he loved the three stooges – a love shared by Sam. He was forever teasing our daughter, Raffaela by putting up his hand like Mo from the three stooges and saying “Pick two”. Of course then those two wee then supposedly to be used to poke you in the eye.
I was the butt of one of these practical jokes once. When visiting for lunch one Sunday I wandered into the kitchen and saw bubbling on the stove what I took to be the end piece of the paremesan cheese block – a chewy delicacy placed in the pasta sauce and ws always a surprise for the kids. I had grown to love this cheesy chewy delicacy. Innocently I sked “Is that a piece of parmesan you are cooking?” “Yes “ They both replied why don’t you try it. I thought this strange but didn’t want to be a wimp oso took a piece out of the pot and bit into what I subsequently found out was pig skin!! The only other time I saw them both laugh so much wsa when I asked would I be able to help with the next salami preparation. For some reason tis idea ws hilarious to them. They laughed so hard that they were crying.