If you have not read A Carrion Death, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, or Death of the Mantis, get them. They are delightful. Death of the Mantis has been nominated for an Edgar for best original paperback, bringing Stan to town for the banquet next Thursday. So what has this got to do with Italian food? Well, when I gave Stan, a South African, a couple of choices about where to eat, he chose Italian. “Of course,” he added. Are you surprised?
The playwright Neil Simon famously observed that there are only two laws in the universe: the Law of Gravity and Everyone Loves Italian Food. American supermarket shelves have more Italian food items than any other kind—far more than those of any other ethnic group. The average American eats Italian food of some sort at least once a week. It has not always been this way.
Each of the 2.7 million Italians who poured into the US between 1890 and 1910 brought with him an average of $12.67. They came from a starving country. When they got here (90% through Ellis Island) what they wanted to eat was their traditional food, a Mediterranean cuisine of vegetables, grains, and fruits. They longed for olive oil, fresh figs, pasta, good bread—none of
these easy to find at first.
The United states officially expected them to become American. An important measure of their success at Americanization was what they ate. Despite the difficulties of finding the ingredients they wanted for their own dishes, they could not be convinced to accept what America wanted them to feed them. One Federal social researcher lamented about a family in her study: “Not assimilated, yet. Still eating Italian food.” What recalcitrance! A 1907 report on Wage Earners’ Budgets in New York complained about the Italian immigrants’ stubbornness in this regard: “The Italian believes that the commercial method of canning removes all the goodness from food and that a minimum of processes should intervene between harvest and consumption.” Insisting food should be fresh? What a concept!
But the Italians persisted, often with a vengeance. My grandfather Gennaro, for instance, had a
fig tree. One cannot grow figs in the climate of New Jersey without a lot of trouble. Each fall, before the first frost, my father and my Uncle Joe, supervised by Gennaro, dug up the tree by
the roots, lay it down in a trench, covered it with soil, then with straw, and a khaki tarpaulin. When spring came, they dug it up, stood it upright, and the whole family waited for the first green shoots to prove it had survived its winter slumber.
In addition to their recipes and a taste for peaches picked ripe from the tree, the Italians carried a family-centric culture with them when they crossed the ocean. Food was (and in the enduring values learned by their descendents, still is) love. Cooking well to give pleasure in addition to nourishment is a deep expression of the maternal instinct. Those newly arrived women fed their children really good food not only to help them grow up healthy and strong but to spoil them with affection. Family meals were rituals, not only on holidays, but even on an ordinary Tuesday. People didn’t eat out; they gathered around the family table. Here is where children learned manners, family lore and values, their sense of belonging to something bigger and stronger than they. When they visited family and friends, meals were always the central activity. I never ate in a restaurant other than a pizzeria before I went away to college. When I became a wife and mother, I never gave it second thought: I cooked. My daughter’s classmates at Swarthmore were astonished to find out that she ate a proper sit-down dinner with her parents every evening. And stunned and delighted to find she could make a delicious home cooked meal from scratch in the dorm kitchen. Nowadays, though she has been working all day, she and her four children cooperate cook their dinner, and the family sits down together. Her husband has become a gifted cook, too. I have a thousand reasons to be proud of them, but nothing soothes my Sicilian soul more than knowing the love they exchange in the process.
Family members all pitching in to create a meal they can enjoy sitting together, trading jokes and tales of their day’s triumphs and tribulations--that’s the Italian way with food. That’s amore.