by Karren Vergara
American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. used to fly into Sydney just to eat in some of the best Italian restaurants in the world, according to Professor Paul Ashton, Co-Director of Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology, Sydney. But the Italian community has contributed more than just delicious cuisine to Australia’s cultural landscape.
The exhibition Sydney’s Italian Fruit Shop – The Original Green Grocer,a collaboration between the Italian Association of Assistance and the Australian Centre for Public History at the Hurstville City Museum & Gallery, explores the way Italians settled into Australian life. The project collected over 40 oral histories and memorabilia from Sydney residents of their local Italian-owned fruit shops.
“It is important to look at the critical role migrant communities play in creating modern Australia,” Professor Ashton says. Aside from the food and cuisine, which made a significant contribution, the early Italian immigrants also “enriched our architecture giving it a Mediterranean-type feel and contributed economically to the development of our country”, he says.
Professor Ashton says the presence of an Italian fruit shop in a suburban village “forged ways of changing dietary habits”, although this came with resistance from the community at first. But through word of mouth, community interaction and sharing different styles of cooking, Australia began to adopt Italian cuisine and now produces some of the best Italian foods in the world. Professor Ashton says Italian fruiterers made a “major contribution” in growing the tomato industry, which started in Victoria in the 1920s, and popularising tomatoes in the Australian diet.
Steve McMahon, the Mayor of Hurstville, and Emeritus Mayor Philip Sansom agree that the exhibition is not just important to Italians and preserving their story, but symbolic for all immigrants wanting a better life.
Mr McMahon says post-war Hurstville was predominantly populated by a large mix of European migrants from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. Now, it is has the largest number of Chinese-born residents in Australia. “The Chinese, like the Italians, are renowned for being hard workers and many have set
up small businesses helping boost our local economy. Both have enriched the Hurstville community and shaped the way it is today.”
Mr Sansom says the qualities of hard work, determination and good business ethics were present in the Chinese and Italian communities as “both groups share the same story”. But assimilating to a new country was not always easy for either group as they faced language, cultural and economic challenges.
“A lot of migrant groups look at this exhibition and imagine their contribution to Australian society, diversity and cultural base,” Professor Ashton says. “When the migrant success story is put out in the public arena, we can see migrants’ contribution and acknowledge their cultural presence for future generations.”