Sunday, May 18, 2008

In Search of Authentic

In the last few weeks I have been mulling over the idea of what it means to be authentic. It seems that, along with terroir and technology, authenticity has a place on the bus. With regards to things Italian, and in my case, being a child of immigrants from Italy in search of the modern American experience, this is a multi-layered area.

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.

260-268 Elizabeth St, NY

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


  1. you have the gift. someone once asked bill evans where his music was headed. he replied "down and in". authentico, amico

  2. You may be surprised to learn that authenticity was the topic for an entire Oxford Symposium a few years back. It's a slippery booger. Is bolognese authentic? To where? Why? The tomatoes certainly aren't authentic. Except, now they are. Oh, and you forgot one on your description of yourself: fixer. You gotta fix whatever breaks. By thing, I guess.

  3. Oh My Gosh...

    Reading your article was like a breath of fresh air.. or maybe homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs...LOL

    I noticed your article ( your blog ) * On the Wine Trail in Italy * on the home page and clicked on it....

    I loved the article and the pictures ... a true Italian at his finest !

    My grandfather immigrated to the USA from near Naples, Italy when he was 15.

    Thanks for sharing your story !


  4. nice pictures! this is authentic!

  5. @ MArco - Grazie

    @ Ann - thanks for the info yip yip

    @ Linda - Thanks for commenting

    @ Ted - appreciate your stopping by and commenting

  6. You are an amazing writer..great to know Italy like this.Specially the food and wine.

  7. As a third generation Italian-Californian, with English actually being my second language, I've always felt that I walk in two worlds. Compound this by being married to someone with roots in Texas, I sometime refer to myself as Texan by injection.
    Those of us with similar experiences may truly never feel at home in either place, but on the other hand, I believe we are richer for it.

  8. Try being an "authentic" Canadian. Even I'm not sure what that means. :)

    We have had Japanese kids live with us off and on for the past 5 or so years. Many of them asked to try "Canadian food". I'm not even sure what that is--other than maybe maple syrup and back bacon...oh and real beer. :)

    I'm in search of authentic too.

    A great blog post!

    All the best in success,
    Cheryl Kaye Tardif, author of Divine Intervention and Whale Song (2007, )

  9. My grandparents immigrated from Calabria in 1910. They found the rolling hills of Walla Walla, Wa. And settled there. I mention some more here.

    I never met them, but I have been immersed in their stories, from the family that did.

    It is hard to be grasping at ghosts of people, when you feel so akin to them, and their spirits stay with you - even though they never physically entered your life.

    Food does wonders to shape people too. I think that peoples hearts can often be likened to a lump of good dough - the more it worked, rested,fermented and warmed, the better the out come.

    I don't think the food is the authentic we are craving - it is the memories, the emotions, the physical motions - that are set in motion because of it.

    - Amber, author of
    Renaissance Culinaire

  10. I too am a 3rd-generation Italian-Californian. I stumbled upon your blog by accident, but couldn't stop reading until the end! Great stories. Although my kids will never understand the Italian culture as I knew it growing up, I hope to be able to pass on some of our stories as well as you relay yours.
    Ciao, Tina

  11. Hi Alfonso (is it ok if i called you that?). Happenstance I came across your blog and read this article of yours.

    I am not Italian nor American but I feel deeply moved to make better use of my blog, and write about my roots and 'authenticity,' too, in general.

    I am a Filipino, born and raised in the Philippines, but for some reason (reckless youth perhaps) I do not feel too attached to my country until after I had read your article. It is only now, also, that I realize that I have to start doing something to change how the world looks at a Filipino-- even in my most infinitesimal act of blogging. Can i just say thank you for inspiring me to start writing something worthwhile.

    Thanks & Enjoy life! :-)


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