Food, Culture and Community

Words by
Patrick Honan
| June 7, 2016

For people who have left their home country, food often serves as an important link to culture and a source of comfort in unfamiliar lands. As a nation based on immigration, Australia is a particularly interesting example of this. Perhaps no one is better placed to witness this than Raffela Muscatello.

Raffaela came to Australia from Italy in 1957, at the tender age of 24. Like so many others, she was seeking a better future, one far away from the ruin of post-war Europe. Once here, she married and settled in Melbourne’s deeply working-class western suburbs. Her husband Guiseppi worked in a factory and she sewed piecework. They skipped a honeymoon to work and save.

With her husband she eventually opened a fruit and vegetable shop, because as she puts it, she “likes work”. The painted sign above the threshold of the shop proudly proclaimed the family name to the neighbourhood. The sign proved difficult to pronounce at a time when the national anthem was still “God Save the Queen”. Raffela was on the other side of the world, in a strange young country, as far away from where she grew up as you could possibly be. To add to her plate, there were children to clothe and feed, and these children had active appetites.

In a country where she didn’t even speak the language, Raffela set to selling fruits and vegetables. Serving customers day in day out, she soon learnt three important words in English: “What you like?”. Her vocabulary eventually expanded with the names of different fruits and vegetables as she comes to know them in the foreign tongue.

She also learnt that the largely Anglo-celtic population of Melbourne (as it was at the time) had a strong preference for two things; potatoes and pumpkins. “All the time, pumpkin and patate, pumpkini and patate,” she exclaims in a voice still heavy with an old-world accent. Her personal tastes are a little broader, and as the cook for her growing family she transformed her suburban backyard into a productive garden, growing things like chilies, eggplants and tomatoes. If there was a surplus of something, it was traded for something else with the neighbours, or given away to relatives and friends.

The tomatoes were bottled, so there were never too many of those.

As for many other new arrivals, part of the money she earned back then was spent on bringing her relatives over to share in the new life. All over Melbourne (and indeed Australia) cousins, great aunties and brother-in-laws arrived on huge sagging boats to be greeted at the ports with tight hugs and tears. As they arrived, the ethnic make-up of the cities they settled into began to shift. Some of the new arrivals became farmers, growing the plants they were most familiar with.

Their relatives returned from trips to their home countries with valuable seeds stashed in their pant cuffs, away from the eyes of customs agents. New varieties of fruit and vegetables literally started to pop up. Men in vans roved the suburbs with dense Mediterranean populations, plying goods like cured meats, cheeses, herbs and pasta.

Raffaela in the fruit and vegetable shop she owned with her husband in Melbourne's inner western suburbs.
Raffaela in the fruit and vegetable shop she owned with her husband in Melbourne's inner western suburbs.
Raffaela with one of her 30 chickens!
Raffaela with one of her 30 chickens!

Raffela watched all these changes and recognised a market she could cater to. To other Italians, she mentioned her store stocking more than just pumpkins. Basil, zucchini, pomegranate, tomatoes and eggplant were now on offer. Eventually olives, Italian cheeses and olive oil found their place on the shelves, too. Word spread amongst the growing community. During harder times, the cash register was stuffed with handwritten “I.O.U” notes. Credit was given out generously to members of the community.

These foods, and the plants they come from, are now unquestionably part of mainstream Australian food culture. But as immigration continues, so does this story. What foods do new arrivals to Australia grow because they can’t find them in the shops? And what role does the cultivation of these plants play in their communities?

Sharelle Pollack is the Community Gardens Team Leader at Cultivating Community, the organisation responsible for managing community gardens as part of public housing estates in Melbourne. Much of this housing is subsidised for new arrivals to Australia. The gardens that are dotted around the buildings’ footprints exist to “allow people to come down out of the towers and have an experience with others”. With people from over 30 language groups involved, the gardens have become a way of growing plants that are “part of their culture and their innate experience”.

A visit to one of the gardens managed by Cultivating Community in Richmond is a humbling experience. In the shadow of brutalist pebble-mix concrete tower blocks, raspberry canes raise their berries in defiance. Taro (Colocasia esculenta) lopes its long stems, and barrels of kang kong (Ipomoea aquatica) threaten to spill over. Celtuce (Lactuca sativa var. asparagina) flaps lazily in the breeze while a woman steadily, rhythmically pulls Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) seedlings out of the ground. “Here they’re given a garden and left to put in it what they want,” says Sharelle. “It really does give them the capacity to say ‘this is what I want to grow because this means something to me’ or ‘this is what I love eating’.

The Highett Street Community Garden in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond.
The Highett Street Community Garden in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond.

Everywhere you look someone is growing a strange new plant. Here is multiculturalism manifest in its purest form, with people proudly displaying their culture and community though plant choice. Every time Sharelle comes into the gardens is surprised by new plantings. ‘Every week I’ll ask: ‘What’s that?!’ There are a lot of plants here that people would not be familiar with”. To Sharelle, this is what’s special about Cultivating Community; the range of plantings and produce is “so different to what you would see in other community gardens, because it’s reflecting the diversity of the people who are here”.

Particularly for new arrivals, but for anyone really, food is something we can reflect memories with, and share with children and families what we know and love”.

With such a diverse community, language is often a barrier. Yet here a love of gardening crosses cultures. Sharelle suggests it’s because plants are something you can see and experience together, meaning people can share “regardless” of language and cultural nuances. She’s noticed that inevitably the many people using the gardens “start sharing amongst each other and experiencing new food”.

The shifting sands of food growing, culture, community and identity can seem a little abstract. Trying to imagine what will – and won’t – be on grocery shelves and plates in the years to come can feel like trying to separate individual ingredients in an enormous soup. It helps to look back to Raffela, as a concrete example of where this change has already happened. She still lives in Melbourne’s west, and her sprawling, ramshackle backyard is a testament to her uncompromising commitment to what she wants to grow and eat.

There, in the shade of a monstrous fig tree, a persimmon is shedding its leaves for autumn. Raffela still makes her own cheese and anchovies, and has a henhouse with a flock of at least 30 good layers. She sells the excess eggs for $5.50 a dozen. Old customers that know her from those years ago at the shop make the pilgrimage to her house. They buy her extra eggs and, on occasion, a box of home grown vegetables. Some things they take home are now familiar favourites, like eggplant and parsley. Others, like endive (Cichorium intybus) and verdura (Cichorium endivia) are still hard to find in the shops. The customer base is now a select few, but there is still variety. She doesn’t necessarily need the money, but some instincts don’t fade with age.

“My customers trust me” Raffela says firmly. “We help each other, together”.

Patrick has also made a video about the Cultivating Community garden programs. Check it out below:


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