I Am What I Ate
Former Slow Food Northeast Regional Governor Rosemary Melli shares her childhood food heritage as an Italian American growing up in New Jersey.
I Am What I Ate
By Rosemary Melli
In the 1950s it was all about being American if you were 10 years old and desperately wanted to fit in with your peer group. All my friends, especially my next-door neighbor Karen Lupson, ate American cheese sandwiches for lunch and always had their mothers' homemade pies and cakes for dessert. We in our second-generation Italian-American family ate gorgonzola and provolone. My grandfather would bitterly complain if the provolone wasn't sharp enough, stating that it tasted like "potatoes" and not cheese.
We lived in rural New Jersey, which was very pastoral in those days, with an abundance of chicken and dairy farms. During our first six months of life, my sister and I were fed on my mother's milk, unlike our peers and even some cousins, who were mostly bottle- and pabulum-fed, that being the new modern way to nourish a baby. As we were growing up, we ate pasta every Sunday and Wednesday and NEVER drank milk with supper. My grandfather, who we lived with, was outraged at the thought of tomato sauce and milk entering the stomach at the same time. Sunday dinners were always elaborate and filled with visiting relatives, goumpattas and goumattas, bearing Italian pastries and candies from across the river in NY.
When on occasion we traveled to Great-Uncle Vincent's house in south Jersey, the aromas of fresh basil and tomato sauce coming from Great-Aunt Mary's kitchen were enough to awaken our appetites for the Sunday bowl of macaroni, followed by braciole, meatballs, and sausage. The concepts of hors d'oeuvres, aperitivo, and antipasto were well known to us, but completely foreign to our more 'Americanized' friends. We weren't crazy about those sharp and smelly cheeses, but you can bet we scarfed down the lasagne, ravioli, eggplant parmigiana, veal cutlets, spaghetti, and rigatoni.
Christmas time was, of course, the height of Italian-American gastronomic indulgence. The days leading up to December 25 were filled with making stuffed pastas and a pastry made only by those who came from my grandparent's province. Called crispadella this was an intensely sweet and rich dolce, made with egg-laden dough that was fried in Crisco (an American substitute for the traditional lard used in Atena Lucana) then covered with honey and dusted with confectioner's sugar. Christmas Eve was the Seven Fishes Feast: baccala (salt cod), fried smelts, and various crustaceans, spaghetti aglio olio (which, in later years, morphed into olio, aglio, and alici (anchovies) with the addition of a Sicilian uncle), and – always the main event of our now prosperous Italian grandparents – lobster tails fra diavola. Christmas day dinner started with antipasti of cheeses, cured meats, and olives and vegetables jarred in olive oil and vinegar from the summer. The primo was always tortellini in brodo, which our grandmother, mother, and Aunt Clara had made with fresh eggs for the pasta, ground pork, fresh ricotta, and imported proscuitto. Those tortellini of my memory were yellow, not pasty white. No turkey graced the Italian-American holiday table. That was only for Thanksgiving, only after the first course of ravioli, and stuffed with Italian sausage and rice stuffing, certainly not chestnuts or oysters. In the '50s it was roast capon, the '60s stuffed, rolled veal or filet mignon with stuffed mushroom caps. As the southern-Italian-Americans prospered, so did their dinner table, and their culinary landscapes broadened.
As young children we were encouraged to try every vegetable they presented, but never forced. I think intuitively they knew that the latter would prove a gastronomic handicap later on in life, and besides, we got our vitamins from so many other sources in the Italian immigrant diet. However broccoli di rape, bitter cipollini, and radicchio were the three things we wouldn't touch back then. Of course, now I can't get enough. My dear mother was big on protein and made sure we had plenty of meat.
Every week's menus included loin lamb chops (eat the marrow, it's good for you), fried veal cutlets (my brother's favorite, he could eat three or four at a single meal), and sirloin steak on Saturday – grilled by my father in the backyard during the summer. We hardly ever had soda, although I envied my NJ cousins their actual soda delivery man who brought them cases of Coke and orange soda every week. My grandfather would always insist that we have either water or water mixed with a little wine at dinner. As we grew older the water gradually became less and the wine more, until we arrived at age 16 or 17 and were allowed a full glass of Chianti or Soave and of course Asti spumanti on birthdays and holidays.
No one was more surprised than I when, in the 1970s and beyond, these foods became not only more popular, but positively the height of great cuisine in America. Thank God those immigrants paid no attention to hot dogs and Velveeta and persistently but gently pushed the arugula.