Food traditions are vital in binding us together as families and as communities. From our very first mouthful, food deeply connects us to other humans. It connects us to our parents and grandparents, connects us to our friends, and can connect us to our children in how we share our food knowledge, habits and values with them.
Food expresses our cultural identity and helps define us. In some cultures eating is always a social activity. Sit down at an Arab or Chinese dining table and you will not eat from a single plated dish per person, you will eat from shared, communal platters. Immigrants take their food traditions with them to new countries and cook the food they know as a way to preserve their culture. If you grew up with the smell of Nonna’s slow-cooked sugo wafting through the house, it will have created a bond with your family that will be there for life.
For many of us, food traditions are not part of our social fabric anymore. They have been lost amongst a busy life of full-time work, running a household and trying to navigate a healthy diet. But it’s not too late to resurrect or create a food tradition in your family, household or community, whether it’s a regular Sunday meal with extended family, creating a family cookbook, or one of the more involved food traditions outlined below.
It’s about taking the time to harvest or seek out quality ingredients, slowing down to prepare and cook quality meals, then really stopping and sitting down to eat with others. It gives us a better appreciation for food, and better relationships with food and those around us.
Food Preparation Day
For Rennie Tumino in Korumburra, Victoria, growing up making passata was a family tradition that he will definitely be passing on to his children. ‘We’ve always had Passata Day,’ he says. ‘Mum and Dad couldn’t buy passata in Australia when they first arrived in 1952 so they had to make their own.’
Even when he left home, Rennie got roped into returning to help his family uphold this food tradition. Now he has been holding his own Passata Day for many years to celebrate the tomato harvest and preserve tomatoes to use for the rest of the year. ‘My wife said to me once, ‘you know, you can buy passata now’, but that’s not the point. Whether it tastes different or not, it’s really about spending the day with friends and family.’
‘Every summer it’s Passata Day, every winter it’s Salami Day. Then there’s Lamb Day, and we also have a day where we harvest all our peas from the garden, then all sit down together and shell the peas and prepare them for the freezer. We have a bit of a laugh when we’re together and we talk,’ he says.
Passatta Day involves about 15 to 20 people coming together at Rennie’s family home, using the equipment to squeeze tomatoes and bottle them for everyone to take home. ‘My sister- in-law, nieces, nephews, cousins, everyone comes along and pitches in,’ says Rennie. ‘We used to grow the tomatoes but now we just buy them. For Salami Day we used to raise the pigs but it’s a lot of work, so now we just buy the pork.’
Food, friends and family are the real winners. ‘These food preparations days really promote family time, they promote talking,’ he says. ‘And we really appreciate where our food comes from because we’ve spent so much time preparing it.’
‘It’s an unstoppable beast now—I think we could be away and it would still go on,’ says Jenene Oates, who began opening her home on Bruny Island in Tasmania for a monthly community dinner three years ago.
‘There can be ten people, there can be 50, it doesn’t matter because everyone brings a dish. And it’s amazing how it works out every time, where there is an even spread of dishes—some meat, some vegetarian dishes, some desserts, some bread and dips. Except one time in the middle of winter where there were ten trays of roast pumpkin!’
‘The oyster farmer brings oysters, someone who dives brings crayfish, and the goat grower brings a goat dish,’ says Jenene. ‘If there isn’t enough salad we just go into the garden and gather some. One lovely reclusive Swiss farmer always turns up with these delicate handmade pastries and a strong homemade alcoholic cider. People really make an effort. If they don’t particularly like cooking, it doesn’t matter. I just say bring some biscuits for the dip, or it’s okay to turn up with nothing.’
The community dinner started for Jenene after she read Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton (Vintage Books 2013). ‘He talks about all the things religion provides that atheists miss out on, and how people can start their own traditions to gain those things. One of them is sharing food.’
To kick off her community dinner, Jenene originally handed out an open invitation flyer to some friends and asked them to pass it on. Her diners are made up of a slightly different group of people than her usual friendship group, and this dynamic creates something wonderful. ‘They are all people who believe in food, who believe in sharing food. Everyone brings something from the heart, something fresh and seasonal,’ she says.
100 forks, knives and plates came from the op shop, and trestle tables are set up either inside or outside Jenene’s home, depending on the weather. A fire is always going and this keeps people socialising.
‘There is an element of risk to holding a community dinner,’ says Jenene. She finds people from all backgrounds, religions and political angles end up sharing food together. ‘That’s community. It’s not a monoculture. And out of that risk comes wonderful things. I love that my kids see that. It’s always different, it’s always enjoyable. And everyone cleans up.’
Clockwise from top: Passata Day with Rennie’s family; Olives taste better when you pick them yourself.
Harvest Day Celebration
Alan Watt has been opening his olive grove on the NSW Far South Coast to community picking days during the harvest period for 15 years. He has a few different formats for picking days, which are organised when there are sufficient olives to harvest and sent as an invitation to those who have picked before.
‘We have a Pick and Pizza Day, which is more of a social picking get together,’ says Alan. The olive picking goes from 9.30 am till 1 pm, with a morning tea break in between. ‘After picking we settle in for a leisurely lunch of pizzas, which we provide and that people make up and cook themselves in our wood fired ovens.’
‘During and after lunch, the morning’s harvest will be passing through the olive press so you can see it in action and be able to take home a souvenir bottle of fresh extra virgin olive oil,’ says Alan. ‘We have up to 35–40 people on these days which run over a number of weekends in the picking season.’
Alan uses another format called the Pick Your Own, or Pick and Picnic Days, where groups of pickers with at least 14 adults arrange to meet at the property and pick olives for whatever length of time they decide. Alan found this type of event suited large families with children and those people who wanted to gain a maximum return of olive oil in return for their picking efforts.
‘This is a common and traditional method of exchange throughout the Mediterranean olive growing region,’ he says. ‘The olives are pressed the day following the harvest and people come and collect their olive oil. Pickers bring their own lunch and drinks but we provide a barbeque.’
What’s Your Food Tradition?
‘My family food traditions revolve around roast dinners and creamy rice pudding. All seems right in the world when you can smell it cooking. But that’s just half of it—setting the table beautifully with napkins and candles turns sharing a meal together into something special.’
– ANNA MASLEN
‘Something we are trying to resurrect in our family is grace, not in the religious term but to thank the farmer (who we are so disconnected with today) for keeping us healthy and alive.’
– BRIAN WEHLBURG
‘My Nanna from Port Lincoln would visit us in Ceduna with a Mazda full of apricots. When she arrived we’d sit around the table for the afternoon stewing apricots, making jam and eating apricots. Definitely handing on the preserving fruit tradition.’
– ROBYN MARTIN