Saturday, February 25, 2012


There is a report, and only God Almighty knows the truth of these sorts of things, that the biography of Alexander the Great that Oliver Stone used as the main source for his epic story of that world conqueror, Alexander, was the work of the distinguished Oxford University historian Robin Lane Fox.The same reports further add, and who but the Great Creator of us all can tell truth from falsehood, that Professor Fox did not get any on-screen credit for his scholarly services and all he wanted from Oliver Stone in exchange was actually to act as a cavalry general and fulfil his longtime dream of fighting, as it were, in Alexander’s army. From an Oxford Don in 2004 to a Macedonian general in 333BC – all in the blink of an eye. Magic.I do not need Professor Fox’s cultivated imagination to psych myself up into leading a legion of an army of my own hero – Apicius, the Roman gourmet and lover of luxury who has left us the first ever cookbook, into the vast unchartered expanse of a megakitchen. To read Apicius is to let loose of that hidden treasure and spend it entirely unwisely, lavishly in fact, with complete largesse, fondly and freely, like there is no tomorrow, for in culinary literature, there truly is no tomorrow.

It was as an Apicius then, that I ventured forth some weeks ago, at the head of my imaginary legions, in search of a new stove. Traversing the Roman roads of Melbourne efficiently and expeditiously, with great determination of purpose, I found myself captivated by a bright, multi-knobbed model, shining like the armour of a legionnaire, whose glare was almost as blinding as the salesperson’s repartee was entrancing.I admit to being enthralled by diverse salesperson’s banter, especially if it is skilled, for the art of sale is basically that of seduction. Using word, gesture and deed, the salesperson is charged with the weighty task of divesting himself of whatever it is his responsibility to foist upon you, by convincing you that it is the constant object of your ardent desire. In this particular case, the salesperson was describing in painstaking detail to my centurion and spouse, the one thousand and one separate ways in which one could make gingerbread men, strudel and bizarrely named peanut butter twists in a manner unparalleled in the annals of mankind, simply by making use of the appliance in question. The motivation behind such an Apician approach to sales is genius in its simplicity: if the customer can picture itself cooking with the stove, then its acquisition is but a heartbeat away.

What the hapless salesperson could not have foretold, was that it was to Apicius and not to his centurion that the full fusillade of the pitch should have been directed.Smarting under the insult of being thus ignored, I focused my attention on the salesperson’s countenance. He was approaching sixty, with freckled, reddish skin, grey blue watery eyes and grey hair, harbouring a few hints that it was once blonde. In a manner akin to Professor Higgins in Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion,’ who famously remarked that he could place a person within two miles in London by his accent, I surmised that he was of Anglo-Celtic extraction. Surprisingly though, his accent betrayed otherwise.For this singular salesperson’s speech was infused with the light sing song cadences and hardening of voiced dental fricatives that usually denote a person of Italic origin. Add to this, the palatization of L, a whistling s and a liberal use of epiphonemes that identify an English speaker of Greek origin and you have a linguistic melting pot, all in one mysterious man.

“What nationality are you?” the salesperson interrupted my musings.

“I’m Greek,” I informed him, somewhat surprised that when I did so, he took my hand and shook it, as if gladdened by this revelation.

“I was about to ask you the same question.” I continued.

“My wife is Italian and I’m Australian,” he responded.

“Well, it appears that they’ve gotten to you mate. You sound exactly like an Italian. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

“Actually, I’d say that my accent is more Greek than Italian,” he replied, “and I’ll tell you why.”

The salesperson proceeded to relate his life story, growing up in Carlton. His next door neighbours were Greek and as their sons were his best friends, he spent almost all of his free time in their home, eating at their table, talking to their relatives and friends and even helping their mother with the gardening. So attached was he in fact, to his Greek friends that seeing at the state of his despondency on Saturday mornings when the boys would be sent to Greek school and thus were not accessible for the purposes of play, his neighbour decided to pay for him to attend Greek school as well.Unlike most of his Greek classmates, he was enthralled to be there.

“I would listen to the Greek being spoken around me in that house and I loved the sound of it. I was dying to learn what it all means. Soon the sounds turned into ideas and not long after, I was able to put those ideas down on paper. I’ll never forget the first time I said «Ἁχ Παναγία μου.» Even today, these words come to my lips whenever I’m stressed.”

Contrast this enthusiasm and viewing of the Greek school experience as a unique opportunity, especially now as Greek schools have recently re-opened for the year with the lackadaisical, ambivalent or rather negative attitude largely shared these days by students and parents alike.The family connection with his Greek neighbours did not end there.

As he relates: “My parents both died when I was young and I was an orphan in my late teens. Without a second thought, my neighbours took me in and looked after me. They treated me even better than their real sons. My θεία, as I called her gave me advice that I’ve always kept with me and helped through some of the harder times in my life. Now, on Mother’s Day, I take my children first to my mother’s grave, and then to θεία’s house. After all she is my second mother.”He looked at me taking in his amazing story and shrugged his shoulders. “Not bad for an Aussie eh? Τι να κάνουμε μωρέ αδερφέ.”

My response was to tell him that what he felt had nothing to do with ethnicity. To comfort and protect someone in their time of need and to feel gratitude for such acts of kindness and love, all of these are acts that bind us together as humans and have nothing to do with ethnicity. The fact that he now spoke Greek and felt drawn to Greek culture, exemplifies Australian multiculturalism at its very best.

If there ever was a sales pitch to end sales pitches, this would undoubtedly have had to have been it. I walked away, still considering myself to be an Apicius, playing my heart out for the whole of the culinary world and why not? If we did not have such aspirations to ease gently and generously the languorous passage of time, our minds would be searching idly for something else, less significant, in the dark. It is these moments that overlap into the lives of others, the emanations of generosity, freedom of spirit and hospitality that supposedly characterize the Greek people and yet surprise us when we see them practised, that grant our lives inordinate richness. Many Australians of diverse backgrounds have been the recipients of such freely given largesse from sensitive and kind-hearted members of our community (such as my grandmother, whose backyard supplied half the homes in Essendon with vegetables), and it is worthwhile, from a social and historical perspective, to seek them out and document their contact. It is an ethos from which, in this day of materialism and social alienation, we can all draw lessons. And in case you are wondering, Apicius truly did conquer the stove and haul it back in triumph for the victory feast. Now the sole question that remains is how to get the blessed thing to work.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 February 2012