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Italian-American

04/25/07 | by JAdP | Categories: Personal

A friend from way-back in high school, and also an American of Italian heritage, whose mother and mine grew up on the same block, forwarded the following email to me. Some of this resonates, some doesn't.

Italians:

"I am sure for most second generation Italian American children who grew up in the 40's and 50's there was a definite distinction between us and them. We were Italians, everybody else, the Irish, the Germans, the Poles, they were Americans.

"I was well into adulthood before I realized I was an American. I had been born American and lived here all my life, but Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on mushy white bread. I had no animosity towards them, it's just I thought ours was the better way with our bread man, egg man, vegetable man, the chicken man, to name a few of the peddlers who came to our neighborhoods. We knew them, they knew us.

"Americans went to the A&P. It amazed me that some friends and classmates on Thanksgiving and Christmas ate only turkey with stuffing, potatoes, and cranberry sauce. We had turkey, but after antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs and salad. In case someone came in who didn't like turkey, we also had a roast of beef. Soon after we were eating fruits, nuts, pastries and homemade cookies sprinkled with little colored things.

"This is where you learned to eat a seven course meal between noon and four PM, how to handle hot chestnuts, and put peaches in wine. Italians live a romance with food.

"Sunday s we would wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. We always had macaroni and sauce. Sunday would not be Sunday without going to mass. Of course you couldn't eat before mass because you had to fast before receiving communion. We knew when we got home we'd find meatballs frying, and nothing tasted better than newly fried meatballs with crisp bread dipped into a pot of sauce.and some hot peppers on the side.

"Another difference between them and us was we had gardens. Not just with flowers, but tomatoes, peppers, basil, lettuce and "cucuzza".

"Everybody had a grapevine and fig tree. In the fall we drank homemade wine arguing over who made the best. Those gardens thrived because we had something our American friends didn't seem to have. We had Grandparents.

"It's not that they didn't have grandparents. It's just they didn't live in the same house or on the same street. We ate with our grandparents, and God forbid we didn't visit them 3 times a week I can still remember my grandfather telling us how he came to America when he was young, on the "boat".

"I'll never forget the holidays when the relatives would gather at my grandparent's house, the women in the kitchen, the men in the living room, the kids everywhere. I must have fifty cousins. My grandfather sat in the middle of it all drinking his wine he was so proud of his family and how well they had done.

"When my grandparents died, things began to change. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing. Although we did get together usually at my mother's house, I always had the feeling grandma and grandpa were there.

"It's understandable things change. We all have families of our own and grandchildren of our own. Today we visit once in a while or meet at wakes or weddings. Other things have also changed. The old house my grandparents bought is now covered with aluminum siding. A green lawn covers the soil that grew the tomatoes.

"THERE WAS NO ONE TO COVER THE FIG TREE..SO IT DIED.

"The holidays have changed. We still make family "rounds" but somehow things have become more formal. The great quantities of food we consumed, without any ill effects, is not good for us anymore Too much starch, too much cholesterol, too may calories in the pastries.

"The difference between "us" and "them" isn't so easily defined anymore, and I guess that's good. My grandparents were Italian-Italians, my parents were Italian-Americans. I'm an American and proud of it, just as my grandparents would want me to be. We are all Americans now...the Irish, Germans, Poles, all U.S. Citizens.

"But somehow I still feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture...call it roots...I'm not sure what it is. All I do know is that my children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of our heritage.

"PASS ON TO YOUR ITALIAN FRIENDS"end quotation
-- From an email Forwarded On 2007 Apr 25, at 16:30

I never considered others American and Italians not. I never thought of anyone as an American, except, perhaps, some hypothetical WASP type depicted on TV. Going to a R.C. parochial school, I had never met any. &#59;) Poles, Germans, Spaniards, etc. were just that. The only problems were Irish, some were friends, some were enemies. One family in particular would have their youngest brother "call me out" in the school yard. Luckily it didn't prejudice me against the clan.

My parents shopped at A&P. Thanksgiving was Turkey, filling, cranberry sauce from a can [shudder], etc. My grandparents and parents jumped on convenience food. This did lead to some odd hybrids, like gnocchi made from instant mashed potatoes and ricotta. Very strange, really. Christmas Eve, Christmas and Easter were more Italian food holidays, with many courses spanning several hours. There were no peddlers coming to our neighborhood, and the old Italian neighborhoods of my grandparents' generation were mostly turning to other heritages and mixing, and my various family members were scattered around southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware - other than my father's youngest sister and her family who lived next door to us. I've discovered that the dish with lots of ricotta, few layers of pasta that I grew up with as lasagna is an American bastardization. Mom did make spaghetti and meatballs most weekends, though a roast chicken with potatoes and lima beans cooked in the roasting was more likely on Sunday. Dad always made one supper each week of a thin steak or liver, with sautéed onions and mushrooms, mashed potatoes and [canned] creamed corn. I still think of these four meals as comfort food [though I tend to use fresh fava beans and add fennel to that chicken dish, and my lasagna is not my parents']. :p

Actually it struck me as weird when I lived in areas near and around Boston, Chicago and Wilkes-Barre, to discover people who lived at most two blocks from where they grew up, had the same friends as adults that they had made in grade school, and had never lived any further away.

Sunday meant Mass less and less, and stopped altogether by my junior year at the Prep.

Holiday gatherings at both grandparents did gradually die down by the time I hit college. Too many grandkids begetting great-grandkids and doing their own thing with their new extended families or becoming insular with their nuclear families.

My grandfathers and father had gardens. Dad still does. When his father fed me peas right out of the pod still on the vine, out in the garden when I was about six... wow - I haven't eaten a pea any other way since; canned, frozen or still in the pod from a produce stand. The sugar just starts oxidizing as soon as you pluck that pod and by the time you get them to the kitchen, peas are bland starch balls. Forget about any further separation from the vine.

Grapevines yes, fig trees no. No mention of dandelion wine or home made red, which were favorites of Uncle Nanu. [Yes, really... a nickname though.]

My paternal grandparents house did get covered with aluminum siding, but that was well before Grandmom died at 96. BTW, that Grandmother ate peanut butter on toast or biscotti nearly every breakfast of her life, as do I - though I go with organic, unsalted, unsweetened, 100% valencia peanuts.

Actually, I'm much more into trying to rediscover my Italian heritage than my parents; or my grandparents, who wanted to "blend in". That's why I collect Italian cookbooks with regional stories and history, research old recipes, and reach out to bloggers like Gianugo Rabellino, who not only blogs about open source software, as do I, but about his Sunday cooking and the importance of food to his Genovese lifestyle.

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1 comment

Comment from: Carol
Carol

This brought back a lot of memories and made me sad that my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and some cousins are gone. No one gets together any more except for their immediate families and maybe the families of their siblings. How can I obtain a copy of what you wrote so that I can share it with my sister? Carol

04/30/07 @ 10:06
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I'm Joseph A. di Paolantonio and this blog has two main foci: my interest in food, and my interest in the future. This provides a look into my personal life, and is separate from my consulting work…though there will be overlap. I am an independent researcher, working as a strategic consultant and I'm an executive with over 20 years of commercial experience with a technical interest in the intersection of Internet of Things, with advanced data management and analysis methods. I view data science as a team activity, and I feel that the IoT must be viewed as a system. I am leveraging my past activities to understand the adoption and impact of the IoT; first, as a system engineer in aerospace, where I developed Bayesian risk assessment methods for systems within the Space Transportation System (including the Space Shuttle), Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer, Gravity Probe B, and many more, and second, as a enterprise data warehousing, business intelligence and analytics professional. Between my aerospace and IT careers, I indulged my hobby of cooking by starting a food company, Montara Magic, centered around my chocolate sauces. My education combined chemistry, mathematics and philosophy. I performed research into molten salt fuel cells in graduate school, and in photovoltaic materials for a short time in industry. The lure of bringing the human race into space was strong, and when I was offered the chance to combine my chemistry and mathematics skills to develop new risk assessment and system engineering methods for space launch and propulsion systems – I couldn't resist. I perform independent research and strategic consulting to bring value from the Internet of Things, Sensor Analytics Ecosystems and data science teams.I am a caregiver, a lover of science fiction and speculative fantasy, and my passion to learn has led me to a pilot's license, an assistant instructor in SCUBA, nordic and alpine skiing, sea kayaking, and reading everything I can, in as many topics as I can.

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