Dr Elizabeth Tomažič, author of the book From Hands and Hearts: Slovenian Recipes in Australia

An interview with Dr Elizabeth Tomažič, the author of the book From Hands and Hearts: Slovenian Recipes in Australia (Melbourne, 2011).

You have collected more than 90 recipes from 40 different Slovenian Australians. The recipes and personal stories are now published in the book From Hands and Hearts: Slovenian Recipes in Australia. How everything started?
We were at a winery in Victoria, an Italian winery, and the lady there had written a cookbook. Her husband’s mother was Italian and she influenced a lot of the recipes that this woman cooked. She decided that, “I’ll put together a recipe book and then we could capture some of the traditional recipes.” I bought one because it was so lovely. I liked the idea, and I said to Joe [husband] as we were driving home, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had something Slovenian like this. Italians and other cultures are always doing things like this. Why don’t Slovenians do something? We’ve got just as good a heritage.” So I had this lovely little book and my ideas. One day I was talking to Draga [Gelt]. I said to her, “It’d be great if we could put together a Slovenian cookbook in Australia.”

The other thing too that inspired me was, having been over to Slovenia a few times, the desire to bring back a Slovenian cookbook with the recipes written in English. I already had a beautiful Kuharska Enciklopedija and it’s a really big thick book. It is all in Slovenian. I can read it and understand it, but it’s harder than if I pick up an English one. I wanted to bring home something in English so that I could cook Slovenian recipes more easily. We couldn’t find anything. I did find one published in America, but it was written from the American perspective. I said to Joe, “Oh, we need an Australian cookbook.” Then as I discussed this with Draga over a period of time, we thought, “Well, why not? Let’s try,” and there was the opportunity to apply for a grant and I did. I was lucky to get it and that’s how it all started.

You also wanted to make sure that you captured all these recipes from the ladies before they pass away?
Yes, Joe’s mother’s got a lot of friends who all cook beautifully. Every time he’d go to see his mum, this one would be sick or this one’s died. Then the next time, the one who’d been sick had died. One that really got to me was a friend called Danica. Joe and his mum had known Danica for a long time. We used to have fruit trees where we lived before and Joe would often take buckets of fruit to Danica. She made beautiful jam and the little biscuits with the jam inside them. Every time she received the fruit, she’d send this big tin of biscuits home for us in gratitude to Joe. We’d known Danica for a long time, and then when she died, it just really got to me, I was really upset. I thought, “We’re not going to have Danica’s presence in the world anymore. Her recipes, her biscuits – who is going to continue these?” She was always very generous; she was always cooking for other people. She was a real Slovenian mama.

What was the process of collecting all the recipes and personal stories?
The whole process was really satisfying. Draga had the names of some people who might be interested. For ages, we talked about what the book would look and how it should be set out. We had brainstorming sessions and we had pen and paper and we’d draw and write things. At the end we decided that really the best way to do it would be to have it in the different regions rather than by cuisine. We wouldn’t have entrée, main, dessert, etc.

We decided that if we did it in the different regions, then the foods could be arranged according to the regions they came from. We had to work out which people Draga knew from the different regions and ask them if they might be interested in contributing. I had a list of names and phone numbers. It was a matter of ringing the ladies and explaining what we wanted to do, and trying to persuade them to get involved. A lot of them are very modest and shy, “Oh, but what I cook, you wouldn’t want to put in a cookbook. It’s just simple food.” That lack of confidence I suppose is partly due to the Slovenian personality – because Slovenians have been put down for so long throughout history. They’ve often been the ‘underdog’, so that it was almost automatic for many of them to say, “My cuisine’s no good. It’s just everyday food. It’s nothing special.”

Most of the time, I was able to persuade them that their recipes, their ways of cooking, were exactly what I was looking for. They’d say, “Oh, alright then.” I’d make an appointment time with them and they would cook for me while I was there so I could take photos of them cooking. They would talk to me about what they were doing. They didn’t measure anything so you had to try and work out quantities. You’d say to them, “How much of that do you put in?” “Oh, well as much as it needs.” I’d say, “How do you know?” They’d go, “I just know. I can tell.” Since then I’ve become a lot more like that, too. I hardly measure anything now and I think, “If they could do it and they’re cooking’s so good, well then I can do it too.” Now I do learn to trust my judgement a bit more.

How much time did the whole process take?
The news about the grant came through in the March, but the application had been submitted in the previous November. The grant required that the project was completed within 12 months, no more. When I applied for the grant, I hadn’t heard anything by March and thought my application had been unsuccessful. As we’d wanted to go to Vietnam, we booked a trip and were to be away for five weeks. Just before we left on the holiday, I found out I got the grant. As soon as I came back, I started interviewing the ladies. Luckily I was only working part-time then. I used to spend two or three days a week interviewing and transcribing. It was very enjoyable because I didn’t only learn about the recipes, I learnt about so much history.

We’d talk about “zaseka” [minced lard]. I had never heard of that. My background is very different from Joe’s. My father was a refugee and mum’s family was very poor. My father was here first and my mother came out well after him. They got married. They rarely talked of specific cultural practices or traditions. Mum wasn’t a confident cook and didn’t make many traditional recipes. For example, she’d never made “potica” [potica cake], and so I had a very limited knowledge of cultural background. Therefore, all of this was a real eye-opener for me. I could speak the language and this helped form a relationship with the ladies who shared their recipes and stories. The stuff that they’d tell me, it was incredible. I felt like I gained more than just the recipes. I gained a lot of history and knowledge.

The process was really enriching. All the recipes, I’d come home with them and I’d type them out. Then Draga found all the images to go with them. I talked to the printer about how we were going to set it out. It was a bit of a rush at that stage because I only had such a compressed time in which to get everything done. You’ve got a deadline and you have to meet it.

You divided the recipes into different regions. Are they from the ladies in Victoria, Melbourne, or did you also go to Canberra, to Sydney?
One lady from Canberra had hoped to take part in the project, but in the end she couldn’t because she was sick. Some people sent me their recipes. Most of the contributions were from Victoria – people I could actually go and see. There were two ladies in Mildura and we travelled up to see them. I went also to Geelong but that was as far as we went. The problem was not having enough time to encourage lots of people to be prepared to take part. If I’d had two years it would have been different. I did promote the project to the Slovene parishes interstate, but there was limited response in such a short time.

In the book there are many personal stories. Was it your idea to include the stories among the recipes?
I was really interested in the stories. I used to say to Draga, “All the stories we have about Slovenian migrants, they’re always the men’s stories. We know about what the Slovenian men did; they went and worked in places like the Snowy River Scheme. They built hydroelectric stations, they were carpenters, they were presidents of Slovenian associations, and they did all the ‘important’ stuff. But where were the women?” The women were at home, raising kids, cooking meals, washing clothes. They were the hub of the family, keeping everyone well-fed, clean and happy so that they could go about achieving the things they had to. These women often worked outside of the home, too. Yet no one ever told the women’s stories.

I’d done a bit of feminist theory at university, so I was quite interested in all of that. The women told me stories but I couldn’t do them justice in the book. There’s also the issue of permission. Would they allow you to use it? Would they be uncomfortable? I was conscious of not betraying any confidence. The focus of my book was, after all, to present recipes and maybe tell some stories about food and assimilation in Australia. Veronica [Ferfolja] will compliment these stories about women. These need to be told. They are there waiting to be told, but until recently no one’s ever been interested enough in hearing or telling the women’s stories which is a shame. They are part of our cultural history.

How many prints of the book have been done until now?
Altogether, I had about 200 printed in two separate print runs. Initially, I estimated a conservative amount as I didn’t want to be stuck with unsold books. In the end, they almost sold themselves! I had them reprinted once and also put the PDF onto discs. Some people were happy to buy the PDF and they didn’t have to have the paper one. I know myself at home, if I’m looking for a recipe I’ll often just look up the PDF, even though I’ve got the book lying around. I’ll look on the PDF first because it’s more convenient; I’ll have the computer on the bench. There are many times that I look up a particular recipe or compare the way similar foods are prepared across the different regions. Sometimes I just like to look at the recipes and plan what to cook on the weekend when I have more time to experiment or play.

The books and DVDs are sold out. Do you plan to publish a second edition?
If there was funding available and if I had the time, I would. If there was the possibility of doing something like a Part 2, definitely, because I felt that From Hands and Hearts was just the beginning; there’s more that could be done. It’s a bit of a dream at the moment. I’m really excited to see Kaja’s online project, the Slovenian Australian Cookhub, and believe that it is vital to provide as broad an opportunity as possible for people to engage in finding out about the most basic of all cultural items – food. Who knows, maybe in the future there’ll be an extension on the portal to include the Part 2 I’m still dreaming about!

You can also establish a digital community for those who want to discuss about different recipes.
It’s possible, as I said in the previous response. For example, in the book there are two recipes for “jota” [bean and sauerkraut/turnips hotpot], and they’re very different. I have my favourite; I have the one that I make all the time. Just those two differences. When Joe’s mum makes it, or his cousin in Slovenia, they’re from two different villages too, but in the same region, the “jota” they each make is very different too. If you were able to have the social medium where you had that interaction, I dare say you would get that sort of input for the majority of the recipes. I’ve observed similar things happening in some of the Australian food sites I visit.

In that way you could connect Australians from other ethnic groups as well. Maybe someone would love to try something Slovenian even if he or she is not Slovenian?
Yes, of course. Especially if they have partners that are Slovenian. I also know some people who don’t have a Slovenian partner, or they do have a Slovenian partner but they’re not Slovenian themselves, and they’re very interested in the recipes and exploring the culture a bit further. Nowadays we are much more aware of different cuisines and how they reflect people’s ways of life, we’re more adventurous with trying different ingredients, and of how to learn to cook these things at home. I hope that Slovenian food and culture will enrich an ever-widening number of people, so perhaps social media is the way that this will happen.

June 2015

Read more about the book:
Dr Elizabeth Tomažič, From Hands and Hearts: Slovenian Recipes in Australia (Melbourne, 2011)

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See also:
– Nevenka Golc-Clarke, Hon. Consul for Slovenia in Queensland. Read more.
– Father Darko Žnidaršič OFM, Head of the Slovenian Catholic Mission and Church of St. Raphael in Merrylands – Sydney. Read more.
– Ludvik Štefko, a Slovenian chef and artist with a passion for herbs and spices. Read more.
– Draga Gelt OAM, the HASA Archives and the Slovenians in Australia websites. Read more.
– Jana Jereb, Sarah Robinson, Frank Pristov and Kate Pristov, participants of the Slovenian language course with a cooking lesson. Read more.
– Sasha Kos and Alenka Caserman, the Facebook groups Slovenci v Avstraliji and Novi Avstralci. Read more.

This is a website of a research project exploring digital technologies for communicating the culinary heritage of Slovenian Australians in collaboration with the University of Canberra under the 2015 Endeavour Fellowship Programme (PDR).