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Italian history on the Richmond River captured in food


Jane Munro
5 April 2011
The recipes and reminiscences of descendants of Italian migrants living in the Richmond River are being collected for a cookbook designed to identify and celebrate the influence of Italy on food production and consumption in the region.

Project leaders Dr Adele Wessell, senior lecturer in history at Southern Cross University and Associate Fellow at the National Museum of Australia, and Jo Kijas, Consultant Historian and Community Development Worker at New Italy Museum Complex, are inviting descendants of Italian people to share recipes and the memories they have about them.

Dr Wessell said the connection between food and history was a powerful one in this context because the historical circumstance around Italian migration to the Richmond River was fascinating and because the migrants who arrived in the region came from a culture where food and the family were very important and deeply intertwined.

“By collecting these recipes we can build an understanding of food traditions and how they communicate cultural heritage. Italians brought their foods and cooking with them to Australia and adapted them to local conditions and there is a lot of history captured in those changes,” Dr Wessell said.

“Food has been recognised in recently published literature as a form of communication, which makes the study of food production, food making and consumption a fruitful line of enquiry for a range of issues. This project takes a historical dimension to that work, placing the food memories in the context of the times, the history of place, individual life stories and archival records. The project is underpinned by the conviction that food is a means by which we create cultures.”

The New Italy cookbook project will collect recipes from descendants of those who came in the 1880s, when Italian migrants first arrived in New Italy having been rescued from barren land east of Papua New Guinea by the New South Wales Government following the failed Marquis de Rays sham immigration scheme, through the successive waves of migration in the 1920s to the 1950s post-war period.

Dr Jo Kijas said the New Italy Museum already had a sizeable collection of recipes and that museum volunteers were currently digitising those while they collected further recipes and stories.

“For example one of the recipes in our collection has come from Americo Melchior who learned this recipe from his Grandmother Fulvia when he was six-years-old. He moved to the Richmond River from Italy in the 1950s with his mother and father and began cooking for the family before he started school. People love his spaghetti sauce and say it’s the best they’ve had. He says his grandmother can take all the credit for the good taste of the sauce and the secret is to cook it for a long time,” Dr Kijas said.

The aim of the ‘Food Stories from Italy to the Richmond River – a legacy of local recipes from Italy’ project is to create a cookbook; collect stories; develop an exhibition at the New Italy Museum; develop educational materials for schools; facilitate cooking demonstrations; and to collect food momentos.

The project will be officially launched on Anniversary Day at the New Italy Museum Complex this Sunday, April 10 from 10am. Americo Melchior will be cooking his Italian Spaghetti Sauce for hundreds of people as part of the launch and Anniversary Day celebrations.

Anniversary Day commemorates the Sydney landing of the survivors of the Marquis de Rays sham immigration scheme on April 7, 1881. The scheme saw more than 300 men, women and children leave the poverty of the Veneto region in northern Italy to make a new life in a ‘tropical paradise’ east of Papua New Guinea, only to find a barren environment. Many of the survivors ultimately settled on land near Woodburn, calling their community New Italy.

To contribute a recipe or to share your stories (who cooked it, when would it be eaten, what memories do you have of eating it) email Adele Wessell at [email protected] or Jo Kijas at [email protected]

Photo: Americo Melchior (centre) will be cooking his ‘famous’ spaghetti sauce at the launch of the New Italy cookbook project being held at the New Italy Museum Complex on Anniversary Day, Sunday, April 10. Also pictured (left) Dr Jo Kijas, Consultant Historian and Community Development Worker at New Italy Museum Complex and (right) Dr Adele Wessell, senior lecturer in history at Southern Cross University.