Sofia (Laskaris) Argyropoulos was born in a small village outside of Kalamata called Katsarou, in Messinia, Greece. Like most girls in Greece at that time, she was not given the opportunity to further her education beyond primary school. At age 12, she left school and went on to learn how to sew, working long hours as a seamstress for many years.
Her parents and three siblings moved to Kalamata for a better life when she was 13 years old. As well as her seamstress work, Sofia took on various seasonal jobs to help support her family; these included processing figs for drying; wrapping oranges in tissue and packing them in boxes; and later on, working in a cigarette factory. Whilst she enjoyed eating dried figs as a child, she would come to dislike them after spending so much time preparing them in her work. Fortunately, she never took up the habit of smoking, maybe for the same reason.
Sofia immigrated to Australia on her own in late 1960, due to the lack of opportunities for young people in Greece at that time. She remembers her mother saying as she was leaving, ‘Που πας παιδί μου,’ (Where are you going my child?) with tears streaming down her face. ‘Daughter, don’t be like the Greeks who migrated to America and didn’t return.’ To which Sofia replied, ‘No mother, I am going to take a shovel, gather all the money and bring it to you when I return.’ Immigrants would often write back to their families in Greece that work and wages were plentiful in Australia and so those in Greece felt that money was so easy to earn in Australia, that you could almost shovel it in spades. For many arriving with this expectation, it was often a difficult realisation that they had to work long and hard to create their wealth.
Sadly, when Sofia farewelled her mother in Greece, she did not know that would be the last time she would see her; Sofia’s mother died 10 years later. Again, like most Greek migrants, Sofia was not able to visit her family in Greece during her early migration years, as overseas aeroplane travel was too costly and she was deeply committed to her own young family and the family business.
When Sofia disembarked the Patris in Port Melbourne, her first impressions of her new homeland were disheartening – rusted tin roofs on tiny run-down houses, derelict factories and dilapidated warehouses. She remembers saying, ‘Που ήρθαμε;’ (Where have we come to?) as it looked far worse than what she had left behind. Sofia stayed with her aunt and began work in a clothing factory only a few days after arriving in Melbourne. Not long after, she was introduced by arrangement to her future husband George, and they were soon married.
George and Sofia purchased a modest property in Cremorne, near Richmond Station, and raised their two children, Arthur and Joanna there. They converted the front of their property into a takeaway shop and lived in the back. Sofia had no experience with shops and a poor command of English, but through trial and error she worked out what her customers favoured and how to price the food to earn a living. Her customers had a strong preference for the regular Australian fare of meat pies and sandwiches, and Sofia felt that Greek food would not be well known or accepted amongst them at that time.
Interestingly, as a sign of increasing curiosity in different cultures and cuisines in Australia, the present owners have transformed the takeaway shop, that once provided for Sofia’s family, into a hip takeaway business that now sells out of spanakopita by lunch time!
To this day, Sofia loves to learn things, especially anything to do with cooking. She is always intrigued by the ingredients people have in their dishes, and has been known to modify a recipe, as was the case with the Vasilopita (she added the glacé cherries to make it more festive) or to even completely make up a recipe using her creativity and intuition. Above all, she loves to share her recipes.
Sofia sincerely hopes that you will make her Vasilopita, enjoy it and remember her in years to come.