Published: 06-Jun-2022

Loves and Miracles of Pistola

Coming-of-age tale is also an ode to all things Italian.

Socio-political commentary and historical anecdote in SA combine in Hilary Prendini Toffoli's novel "Loves & Miracles of Pitola" . 

Read the book review by David Gorin in the BusinessDay.

In the ragingly racist South Africa of the fifties it was unthinkable for the train stewards who served early-morning coffee to white female passengers in the sleeping cars to be black. The country’s vast railway network extended into the neighbouring countries, and there was a shortage of stewards. Whites considered the job beneath them. So the Minister of Transport, Ben Schoeman, decided the place to get them was Italy where waitering was a profession. He had had Italian prisoners of war on his farm and knew they were good workers. 

Encouraged by the Italian Government which was keen to find work for post-war Italy’s numerous young unemployed men, he launched a major recruitment mission. In Milan alone more than a thousand applied. Few could speak English. But they were all desperate to leave. Eventually 110 young Italians arrived in South Africa.

It was a project that had unexpectedly favourable consequences for South Africa. When their contracts ended, many left the Railways to open restaurants that introduced Italian cuisine to people who had never heard of lasagne and ravioli, whose main experience of pasta was tinned spaghetti often eaten on toast or leathery macaroni cheese baked by their servants, and whose dining options were limited to hotels and colonial-style clubs that served depressingly predictable British food.

Buzzy little trattorias full of glorious aromas of garlic and tomato popped up all over South Africa. Whether the recruits came from cities or country villages they had all grown up in a home where the cook had an instinct for getting the best flavour out of the raw ingredients that go into a meal. They would familiarize South Africans with a variety of new foods that would become part of the national diet. 

Yet for these young men, mostly in their teens and often village boys, adjusting to a land whose increasingly racist laws were alien to everything they knew would prove to be a  challenge.  

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