“We are much more than what we eat, but what we eat can help us be more than what we are.” ADELLE DAVIS
It was not common practice for Italian parents in the 1960s to allow their daughters to go away from home to attend college. I accepted with dismay the fact that I would have to go to school locally where I was accepted until my sister Rose gave me an opportunity I could not refuse. Because her husband as first violinist with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was often called to travel for months on tour, she suggested that I live with her and keep her company while he was traveling. I had been accepted at Connecticut College for Women but the idea of moving to Minnesota was too tempting and I soon found myself enrolled at Macalester College which later led to a transfer to the University of Minnesota. Rose took great care of me and she cooked as well as my mother. But my busy life at school and working every day after school left me weekends only to eat with her family. Taking three buses to school early in the morning, often in below zero degree temperatures, I would take my breakfast with me for the long bus ride. Now I was becoming a true American, eating on the go, as my parents would say. It was my college days that took me away from my Italian-Italian food and conviviality of the table. I was introduced to my first salad topped with strange, sweet, colorful, thick dressings. I had never eaten at a restaurant with my parents or friends and therefore, never experienced anything other than a dressing of good olive oil and vinegar. Initially I did not eat anything unfamiliar but eventually began to eat and drink whatever was available. At home, the only beverages on our dinner table were water and homemade wine. Now I had a choice of sodas, Coke, Pepsi, milk (yikes with dinner), and something called Dr. Pepper that I thought might be healthier. For me, they just didn’t go with dinner but unfortunately, I would soon adopt them into my diet.
Lunch at the cafeteria introduced me to a new world of foods. Everything seemed covered with heavy sauces. I remember Dad saying if the food is good, you don’t need sauce unless used lightly to complement the dish or to hide something. Not curious to see what they were hiding, I just avoided those dishes completely. My choice often turned to bratwurst, which was a treat I had never had before and enjoyed even though when biting into it, I would sometimes recall Mom’s advice to never eat stuffed food prepared out of the house. I figured there must be government regulations so it could not be that bad. I became a sausage eater.
Monday night, a required weekly dinner with my sorority sisters, I would often sleep at the sorority house so as not to take a late bus home. For me, at the age of 18, it was my first experience eating away from home. I did manage to eat what was served but it all seemed strange to me. A small lamb chop covered with some sweet green wiggly sauce. I was told it was mint. One night I noted that the posted menu was pork chops, my favorite meat, and I looked forward to it. But when the dish was served, I wondered where was the meat. Apparently, a small piece of meat was floured, breaded, re-floured, breaded again, deep fried, and then highly seasoned with some starchy synthetic juice and sugar mixture accompanied by a mound of sweet brownish looking sauce. I was told it was apple sauce but I couldn’t taste the apple. I didn’t consider myself spoiled or fussy just Italian, now eating all’Americana. I felt different and to fit in I just wanted to eat like them but it was very hard initially.
Sleeping at my sorority house was fun. All the girls had cluttered rooms filled with books, papers, and clothing scattered about, which did not seem unusual. What I found to be strange was seeing snacks everywhere. Chocolates, potato chips, crackers, peanut butter jars, and many Coke cans and bottles to consume while studying could be seen everywhere. Their trash baskets were overflowing with empty soda cans and candy wrappers. I soon learned that students really snacked all day long. It did not take long for me to adopt this habit of the “Americanas.”
When transferred to the University in my sophomore year, some classes took place in the auditorium that seated hundreds. I found myself in a different seat every day due to the large number of students. But one thing was for sure, wherever I sat, I could see students eating in class. He or she would be munching on a sandwich, a chocolate bar or bag of chips, which often had me salivating since my bus ride and quick breakfast were not that satisfying. After class I would head straight to that snack machine down the hall. This resulted in poor food choices being made due to what was available and what looked good. I really had no idea what I was eating. Eating and snacking so randomly was an eye-opener for me, especially having experienced the caring ways of a mother who always determined what was best for me nutritiously. I longed for Mom’s cooking, and even more, I missed the ritual of our daily table. My diet had fallen into the hands of marketing companies who put fancy packaging on products to make them attractive and appealing in the vending machine, yet the actual ingredients remained a mystery. I just wanted to be “Americana” so happily continued to feed the machine my quarters.
A habit I did adopt and found most difficult to change was eating while studying. Now on the way home, I would buy snacks for the bus ride, cookies for my evening snack and of course that drink I thought doctors might recommend, Dr. Pepper. Coca Cola and coffee I started to drink any time of day, something that was unheard of at home. I never saw a soda bottle on the dinner table. We did have cases of one-liter bottles of ginger ale in our basement to serve guests. Living in my warm-ups and winter clothes, I did not notice how much weight I had put on since arriving in Minnesota until the day I could not zip up my trousers and decided that I should weigh myself. I have never seen my parents weighing themselves and I recall being weighed only at the doctor’s office. Wow, imagine my surprise when I saw that my five foot four body that when last weighed was 105 pounds, showed a gain of 20 pounds in my first year away from home. I did not understand since I was eating less, skipping meals, and often went to bed hungry.
I began a roller-coaster ride of bad eating habits which was hard to control. I missed those long meals with my family when small portions, many dishes of healthy simple foods and happy times together never had me gain a pound. The breaking down of the family-structured meal and time together was, I soon ascertained, the cause of my weight gain. Although busy with school work and working after school, I was still lonely. It seems silly and few may never understand but the lack of daily communication around the dinner table made me lose a daily ritual, one of life’s greatest pleasures. For my Italian family eating was fundamentally important, essential to life itself, and the most intimate act of our existence.
The desire to travel but lacking the necessary funds left me little opportunity until a notice of a scholarship to Italy presented itself. I applied and was happy to be accepted in my junior year to go to Italy. My scholarship study was the Catholic Communist Crisis. At that time, Italy had the largest communist party outside of the Iron Curtain, and there were fears that it would soon become a communist state. My research would have me going to communist villages from the north to the south. My father would not approve of his twenty-year-old daughter traveling alone in a foreign country. After months of pleading, my father finally gave his permission only with the persistence of my older sisters, and my cousin Rocky, who offered to be available to travel with me when needed. With Rocky, I managed to make a u-turn back to Italian food and life at the table.
On my way to attend a reunion with other classmates on the scholars program my luggage was stolen. I bought a change of clothes and tried to reconstruct some of my notes which was difficult to do but I had no choice. At the reunion, our professor, Mitchell Charnley, became aware of my situation and suggested I go somewhere by myself and try to recollect all before returning back to the States. I chose San Marino, the oldest sovereign state and small republic, independent of Italy, a place I wanted to see and felt might be safe and secure for a twenty-year-old female traveling alone in Italy.
In my little hotel room overlooking a piazza, I worked away. I was distracted every night by the music, singing and dancing of tourists and Italians enjoying eating al fresco below my window until the church bells chimed at midnight. I wanted so very much to join them but kept to my studies and did not go down to the Tavern. I learned to eat my main meal at lunch time so that at dinner time I could eat a small snack in my room. I became so attracted to life in Italy at the table. I saw guests being seated at eight and while studying noted the same guests were there when the church bells chimed midnight, laughing, singing and dancing. No, I could not join them and went back to eat the piadina (flat thin bread) that I would take from the lunch basket that day, helping me stay within my budget.
Following graduation my experience with the hospitality of the Italians made me look for employment in the land of my ancestors. I was thrilled at having been accepted for an employment in Rome that would begin the following fall. I decided that summer to make my parents happy and find temporary work near home. I accepted a three month position at a hospital in Connecticut. Shortly after I began my employment I met a physician in the hospital cafeteria when discussing a patient. I did not know at the time if we would ever meet again. But we did.
It was this physician that joined me for coffee many days, soon was to steer my life back to the traditions and food culture that I treasured which he had experienced in his upbringing in Argentina. Happily I returned to my American /Italian table to raise children and manage a household.
Next month watch for 1970 – My American- Italian Table—New York, New York
Raising children (neophyte vs neophile)