Friends like Carlo on the east coast and Roberto on the west coast could probably attest to their version of this experience. When I talk to Italians who have newly come to America, they have a different idea of what it is to be Italian and also what it means to become American. As well, when I talk to 3rd generation Italian-Americans, they have some very different ideas about their roots and their current place in the sun.
One size doesn’t fit all.
When you add the focus of my interest, wine and food, there can be a multitude of expressions. I’ve said that about three times now, so everyone who has gotten this far probably gets it now. But, what if we were all right? And all wrong?
How do we perceive our place in our culture? In my case, it’s like this. I was born in California and spent half my life there. So I am definitely a Californian, in fact there are few native Californians around anymore. I've lived in New York and go back there often. Half a lifetime ago I moved to Texas, and I consider myself also a Texan. And yes both set of grandparents came from Italy and both of my parents are of Italian origin, so I am also an Italian. Not like Italians in Italy. But Italian, according to the way I see it.
Where does my authenticity come from? It comes from anywhere and everywhere, and most likely from the stronger parts of my personality. There is this triumvirate of the Italian-Californian-Texan which directs the movie of Alfonso. These three versions of me running around in my head also have on the bus the ancient Roman, The New Yorker, the Native American, the Egyptian, the Arab, the priest, the gunslinger and the Boy Scout.
We all have some things directing our inner movie. What are yours?
Food: Let’s take this slow. My mom, when I was growing up, made all kinds of food. We had lentils, we had meatballs. We had fish, we had lasagna. We had eggplant Parmigiano, we had burgers. If my dad was in the mood, we’d have tripe in tomato sauce. Or she’d bread up some meat cutlets and fry or bake them off. On Friday’s she’d bake these flat loaves, slice them open, put fresh ricotta and olive oil, salt and pepper, and nobody in our neighborhood ate better that night. We had broccoli, we had the most amazing manicotti that my mom would make. She was good with pasta. And her cannoli were to die for. She still makes a fruit cake (at 93) that she sends to me. I drizzle it with brandy and it can last for years.
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My sister Tina has a canister of noodles our grandmother made before she died in 1976. She calls them Nonna’s noodles and they are in her kitchen, her good luck totem that protects the ancient recipes she has learned. She picked up all the great recipes from the grandmothers, the aunts, the mothers and mother-in-law and she rocks the kitchen. Is it Italian? She makes dolmas to die for. Now my mom does too. No, it isn’t indigenous, but it is delicious. They’re not overdone with technique, just what was handed down. Maybe a short cut here or there. But this has become part of the experience of being an immigrant in an America where everyone wins.
Wine: The old guys used to slip me a glass of wine, not mixed with water. When I hear that or read it in someone’s memoirs, I want to raise my hand and ask a question. I do not remember it ever happening to me. My grandfather never did it when he gave me a little sip of brandy before I went to sleep. At the table, there was wine. And later on in the 1970’s, somehow, carbonated beverages showed up in the kitchen. But they went with sandwiches, with lunch, as a snack, and rarely. Not for dinner. Coke with my grandma’s roasted lamb? Never. 7-Up with my mom’s spaghetti and meat ball? 7-Up was for when you were sick. It went with her healing chicken soup with acine di pepe. Wine just didn’t taste good when one was puny.
My dad started buying jugs of California wine and putting them in decanters. He was a trickster, liked to impress his business partners. I still remember those wines, mountain red. They remind me of Montepulciano or Cotes du Rhone. White wine? I drink it now and love it. Back then, it wasn’t around. Too bad, my mom’s manicotti would have been pretty good with a Soave or a Gravina. But it was not to be.
Did the wines taste spoofed up? Not at the time. And I think, even though they were probably made in a 1960-ish semi-industrial manner, the wines weren’t doctored with wood dust or deep purple. For sure, they weren't "thermostyled". I can still remember how those wines taste and they tasted, to me, more like country wines from Central and Southern Italy. Big surprise, most of the wines were made by children of Italian immigrants, or the immigrants themselves.
I remember asking my mom’s mom once, how she compensated for the loss of her motherland. She left Italy when she was 30, so she had time to get into being an Italian, even if she was dirt poor (They ate well even then). She had been transplanted and re-grafted onto a new country. That was it in her eyes. She never looked back. She became a Native American.
Now, when I hear the chatter and debate of indigenous vs. international, of natural vs. technology driven, of fruity and alcoholic vs. acidic and restrained, I step off the trolley for a minute. And I take a deep breath. And then get back into the battle zone. My shield has a coat of arms on it that explains to friends and foe alike, what I believe in. And this isn’t the first time I’ve said it on this blog.
Authentic? I want the best you can give me. I want truth and I want beauty. I want meaning and it needs to be deep. And if, for some reason you cannot bring that to my table, flirt with me, compliment me, do your magic. Do your best. Just make sure it is delicious.
Images courtesy of the great photographers from the past