The 50s:  My Italian-American Table—Hartford, Connecticut (First Half)

“Let thy medicine be thy food and thy food thy medicine.”

—Hippocrates

 

“Mangia Mangia, non dare al dottore.” I think after learning to say mama and papa, the third word in my vocabulary was “mangia,” meaning “eat” in English. A popular phrase often heard in my youth was “non dare al dottore,” “don’t give it to the doctors.” They believed, as the saying goes, God heals and the doctor gets the fee. This was often emphasized by Italian immigrants years ago, who taught their children it was better to eat well than to pay the doctor later. Today statistics show that the portion of our income spent on food in America has declined by 10 percent, but at the same time, spending on health care is soaring. Maybe Italian mamas knew best.

My parents, hardworking, humble, Catholic Italian immigrants from the Abruzzo region of Italy migrated to Connecticut in 1933 with my sister Rose, then nine months old. At that time, there were no organic food markets. My sisters and I were fed the diet of the immigrants of the early 20th centurey who sought the natural and organic foods of quality that they were accustomed to in the old country. They were familiar only with organic farming which in Italy was a way of life not a specialty. Accustomed to foods that were fresh, local, in their purest state, unadulterated by artificial additives, sweeteners, coloring, and preservatives caused them to maintain high standards of quality.

They searched local products or imported from family members in Italy. Having no knowledge of dietary studies, medical research, or the advice of nutritionists, they understood quality of a product in terms of nutrition, freshness, appearance, taste, and source, only by following the habits of their elders who seem to follow the teachings of a man they most likely never heard of,Hippocrates.

A particular experience carved in my memory as a ten-year-old was a visit to a doctor’s office with my mother, who was not feeling well, apparently tired from overwork. She was given a prescription. On her follow-up visit a few months later, she was informed that there was no need to continue the medication due to the correction of the deficiency. Impressed with the results of the medication, I commented on its positive effect. “Ma che pillola?” (What medicine?) was her response, indicating she never bought or swallowed a pill. She explained that she had decided to eat more fresh greens from the garden. “Why should I feed the doctor’s kids when I have my own to feed?” Never have I forgotten that day which was an  influence on how I nourished my own family following her example and making an effort to let our food be the medicine and  medicine the genuine food.

The cuisine of my childhood in America seems to be what is known today as the Mediterranean Diet, but had no title in those early years. Vegetables and fruits had to come from one’s garden, or if one did not have a garden, there was always a neighbor or friend happy to share from theirs. Meat needed to come from a reliable source. If it was not from a friend’s farm, a recognized breeder, or a butcher of confidence, my parents were reluctant to purchase any meat. Ground meat had to be ground in the presence of my parents, who would approve of the meat selection before it entered the grinding machine.

Sometimes my mother would purchase meat and grind at home. Chickens were purchased at the hatchery with knowledge of how they were raised and what was their diet. Fish would be purchased by the sea, always fresh and often alive, as was the practice in Italy. If not available fresh, they would settle for one of the few canned items in their pantry, either sardines or anchovies. Surrounded by the sea, Italians are great consumers of seafood. If inclement weather or distances prohibited fresh purchases, a common practice was to buy smelly, salty, hard-as-rock baccalà, which could be purchased and preserved until ready to consume.

Salted cod known as baccalà was often served in our home being the most versatile of all fish. It is fresh cod that is beheaded, split whole, salted, and hung to dry for future use. It was inexpensive, could be stored for months, and after a good desalting soak could enrich various delicious dishes as the main ingredient.  Through the centuries it provided protein in time of war, famine, and when detrimental weather conditions prevented one from obtaining fresh fish. As a child I hated the smell of the kitchen when Dad would bring home the best of all, white and thick baccalà. Yet it was easy to tolerate knowing that after three days of soaking in cold water it would become one of my favorite dishes, commonly served on Friday, our meatless day of the week.

A must for Christmas Eve dinner were various kinds of fish, totally at least seven. Possibly due to the availability traditionally one variety had to be  eel. One unpleasant Christmas memory, often called to mind, is about Mom preparing eel. After killing the snake-like fish, Mom packaged the uneatable remains in newspaper and handed it to me to dump in the outside trash.  I was shocked when  I noticed as I was about to close the lid on the trash receptacle that the newspaper was hiccupping rapidly as if its contents were attempting to escape a fishermen’s net. I ran into the kitchen to tell my mother what I experienced. She wasn’t at all surprised and explained that the fish was dead but the movement was actually the quivering of the heart, no longer being fed blood. That explanation was enough for a ten-year-old. As an adult, when seeing live eel in our Italian markets, I was curious enough to ask my fish merchant and learned that my mom was somewhat right. Apparently, it is due to the peptide that isolated from the intestines of the eel, affects the atrial beat. Today I may maintain the tradition of eel at Christmas but thanks to that incident I leave the killing and cleaning to the fish merchant.

In Italy pork and lamb were also popular menu items along with fish since there was little land for grazing large beasts. They became common meats sought out by the immigrants as well. They were accustomed to raising small animals on their land for meat to be consumed by the family, and it reassured them of quality of meat. They knew and always wanted to know, what the animal ate. When coming to the new world, this requirement continued. My parents, like other immigrants, wanted to know the source, living arrangements of the animal, its diet, being it was for their family’s consumption. Purchases from unknown sources were not the norm, and this still is commonly practiced by many in Italy today. I remember a Thanksgiving turkey that Dad bought live, weeks before the holiday, so that he could feed it, observe it, and be sure it was of good quality. A few years ago, this memory came to mind in Italy as I watched our neighbor’s kids sneak out to open the trunk of their dad’s car to free a baby lamb that their father brought home before Easter. The cries of two young kids begging me to help them find and hide the frightened lamb that escaped into the fields was a déjà vu experience of my youth in America.

The custom of eating fresh products meant eating what was seasonally available. I recall that there was always excitement with the coming of every season, bringing about a change in our diet. Psychologically, there was the pleasure of anticipating seasonal products that would soon be available. The garden’s crop of fava beans in early spring would bring excitement with the first dish of the fava season: fava bruschette, fava pasta sauce, fava as our vegetable dish, fava in an evening frittata. I remember Dad putting bunches of fresh fava beans onto the center of the table after clearing the dinner table. We would all sit around shelling them and eating them as a dessert. It allowed more pleasurable conversation and family time at the table. When the sun-ripened tomato season began, Mom would incorporate them into every meal, from appetizer to main course, knowing the season would be short-lived. Never bored, our menu changes led to enjoy each gastronomical treasure. The pleasure of anticipating change is a joy in itself, knowing it would be short-lived, and a year would pass before enjoying a particular gastronomical treat again.

With seasonal eating, there is no room for boredom or routine. One cultivates a respect for various flavors which begins in childhood while gratifying one’s appetite. Children’s menus did not exist for children ate what was served and were given no options.

As hardworking immigrants my parents did not live in luxury but certainly made sure that we ate well. They worked hard for twelve years before they were able to purchase a home in a nice neighborhood. With both parents working, having three young daughters, they selected a home next door to an elementary school. Needless to say, it had to have a large backyard for Grandpa to convert into his vegetable garden, a must for every Italian family. It had a kitchen attached to the dining room, just as it was in Italy so that we could cook, talk and eat together. Our middle-class neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut, was populated mainly by financially comfortable middle-class Jewish families. Knowing that my parents were different and could not keep up with the lifestyle of neighbors left me with a longtime inferiority complex of wanting to be Jewish.

When summer vacation came, the neighborhood kids would vanish off to camp, while I would pass each day around a bath-sized tub of boiling water, packed with ripe tomatoes from our garden. With burning fingers, my sisters, aunts, cousins, and mother would peal bushels of our garden tomatoes. We would fill hundreds of canning jars of all sizes, to supply us for the year until the next tomato season. Today we are assisted by our tomato peeling and juicing machine. As a kid, I could not understand why we could not do as our neighbors did and just buy cans of tomatoes. Mom would always provide the same answer, year after year: “What you don’t see, you don’t put in your stomach,” adding “What kind of tomatoes, do you think they put into the cans, when nobody can see the quality?”

Tomato season would be followed by the canning of our peaches, pears, vegetables, and mother’s fantastic giardiniero, vegetables in vinaigrette, of course, all from the garden. Even the green tomatoes, unripened and the last of the season left on the vines were picked, pickled, and added to other pickled vegetables in the canning jars. Mom’s pickled vegetables complemented our wonderful cold weather dish of bollito misto, a delicious meal of various vegetables cooked along with different types of meat in a great broth. Years later, when experiencing the end of summer and the first days of cooler weather, memories of my childhood winters would call to mind Mom’s three-liter jar of pickled giardinero at the center of the table to complement the selection of meat in its fragrant broth filling the room with its comforting aromas.

Halfway through the summer, some of our neighborhood friends would return. I remember being happy to see them only to ascertain that they would be off the next week for another camp or family vacation somewhere in the world. Oh, to be Jewish! Now the figs would be ripe so it was time to pick them to eat, dry, or make sweet jam. As the garden lost its colorful rainbow of ripe vegetables, and the remaining dried dead branches that once held fruit of nourishment bent over with fatigue, a truckload of muscatel grapes would arrive. The time to begin the process of making our homemade wine had come. Not growing his own grapes was no excuse for an Italian immigrant not to make his own wine. There was always an immigrant who grew grapes for all those that did not have the land to do so. The day the wine grapes arrived would always see our dinner hour complemented by a bowl of wine grapes to enjoy after dinner, separated from the others waiting to be pressed. Along with giving us a treat, Dad wanted to be sure they were good before pressing them into wine. Thus began another extended family project, involving many relatives and friends, which made each activity anticipated with joy and never looked upon as work. Needless to say, everyone would also get to share in the finished product.

As a child, I knew little of the process, other than the fun we had watching the men pouring crates of grapes into the top receptacle of Grandpa’s grape press. Then my sisters and I would watch as Dad and my uncles would turn the cicular medal handle that would lower a thick flat wooden piece attached to a vertical pole at the center. Our offer to help was always rejected, as it was too difficult to do the turning. That piece of olive wood would press the juice out of the grapes and into the bucket below the press. With a great deal of attention, patience, and care, the juice was later poured into oak barrels, where it would undergo the fermentation process. This would eventually lead to the house wine sitting on our table every night for dinner. No additives, no chemicals no added sulfites ever touched our homemade wines.

In the United States, a percentage of sulfites are required for preserving wine sold to the public. That’s possibly the reason I don’t recall my relatives ever complaining of morning headaches, usually experienced by indulging wine drinkers. Also wine consumption in Italy as in our home was always accompanied by food. Wine was consumed moderately and enjoyed as a food item as well as a beverage. Mom continued to make our own wine even after Dad died until my husband, who she admired and adored, explained to her that a popular inexpensive commercially sold burgundy was just as good as her labor intense homemade wine. Following his advice wine making in our family ended, at least, until I moved to Italy, twenty-five years later.

As children, we were always given a little wine that more or less colored our drinking water at dinner. Dad convinced us it was good for us. To this day, my sisters, cousins, and all relatives known to me are great consumers of wine. They always drink accompanied by food as we were taught and have never experienced negative results. My sisters and I, like most of the children of the immigrants, were introduced to alcoholic beverages by our parents in our home. Directed by our parents, we were taught to respect the beverage, its taste, and its complement to many delicious dishes. It certainly is better than learning from one’s peers or others outside of the home.

My children may never understand the memories Grandpa’s grape press, at the entrance of our home in Tuscany, brings to mind. My mother wondered why it was the only thing I requested of her possessions, when moving from Connecticut in the sixties. It traveled with me from our home in Connecticut to two different locations in California, then back to Italy when we moved overseas. Visitors coming to our front door see it as another artifact of yesterday, having no understanding of its significance to me. Seeing the old wooden level, reminds me of the years mom and dad’s hands worked hard pulling it back and forth to release the juice from the grapes knowing it would soon occupy the center of our evening dinner table, in the form of our drinking wine and the pride of our family’s labor.

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As the grape pulp fermented on its way to becoming a fine ruby wine, no time was wasted. My aunts and uncles would gather for another group activity, the making of our homemade Italian sausages. Pounds of pork shoulder would be cut by the men into small chunks, ready to meet the blades of our sausage machine, a must in every immigrant’s household. Dad would say, as many believed, “never buy anything stuffed since you don’t know with what.”  My mom and aunts would spice up the chunks of pork, but before they put it into the grinding machine, put samples in a frying pan to cook and taste to check for seasoning. As kids, we loved testing the spiced pork in the frying pan. Not that we understood spicing, but Mom would always leave some for us to enjoy. If the flavor met her approval, the raw pork would now start its journey into the machine’s funnel, circled with animal intestines, which my mother had cleaned and salted days before.

Being the youngest it was my job to needle every few inches as the spiced meat wiggled its way out of the funnel into the intestine casing. This would allow air to escape so that the raw meat could be dried in our cold cellar and become sausage. My mom and aunts would then tie it into links and form rows and rows of fifty plus links which would decorate the ceiling of our cellar as they hung to dry for our winter meals.

After school, our friends would come by and I would take them down to the cellar, breaking off links from the hanging rows to eat without using a knife. Never did I take into consideration, as we enjoyed the aged sausage, the hard labor of my parents and the cost of our after-school snacks. My Jewish friends and neighbors were jealous of my cellar as I was of their summer life. I always wondered if it was living through the depression that had led my parents to become self-sufficient, creating their private extensive supermarket in our cellar. It was in my teens that I learned it was because of distrust for American food in those days. Many immigrants experienced a lack of quality and availability that they had back home.  My mother also reminded me that in the old country they always knew what they were eating, how it was made, and where it came from. Early immigrants refused to purchase from unknown sources.

With our canning done, wine made, and sausage hung decoratively in our cellar, we were ready for winter. As cold weather appeared it was time for polenta, that thick cornmeal mush eaten throughout Europe in various forms. The cornmeal that  was cooked in simmering water until it became as firm as mashed potatoes saved many lives in time of famine and war. Today’s commercially sold fine grain and instant polenta cornmeal were unfamiliar to my mother. She used only the freshly stone-ground cornmeal that she might have received from her sister in Italy or from an Italian immigrant who had a source for the rustic, unrefined stone-ground corn. My aunt in Italy would send Mom packages of our favorite Italian products regularly and Mom in return would send her sister American cigarettes  and chocolates. Mom would pack her American products in an old white doubled-over-many-times bed sheet that she would sew to close over the products. My sisters and I would often be called to write out the address. Boxes were expensive, the white sheet more flexible, and our American penmanship more legible. Later in life, I realized it was also a means of making it difficult for customs officials to remove stitches and re-sew the package.

Polenta, a popular staple in Europe was served in Abruzzo in a very unique way.  As kids we would get excited when we saw Mom take out the long polenta board she had crafted only for serving polenta. It was a little smaller than our kitchen table. On polenta day there was no table to set since we would be eating off the board. The more people the more fun it would be.  Making polenta in our family was a family project, all taking part in the production and serving. My mother would start the process of slowly adding handfuls of the cornmeal to the polenta pot full of hot simmering water, letting it slide gently between the fingers of her left hand and making sure that the water continued to  simmer. If added in haste or into boiling water the result could be a solid mass of polenta, unable to absorb the water.

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With her right hand she would begin stirring in one direction so as not to create lumps of polenta. After a few minutes she would allow my sisters and me to take turns stirring the stone-ground coarse cornmeal into the big copper polenta pot of hot water, always using a wooden paddle with a long handle so as not to be burned with splattering polenta. Mom reminded us to always turn the paddle in the same direction as she supervised the thirty-five to forty-five minutes of constant stirring required for the granular stone-ground corn. She always kept an eye on the pot as she was the one who could determine when the polenta peeled away from the pot and  was ready to be served. Dad would then pour the hot polenta all over the board as we youngsters would help spread it out to the edges. Mom would ladle the hot freshly made tomato sauce made from our summer garden tomatoes over the polenta.  Topping the hot polenta would be a variety of meats which always included our homemade sausage and meat on bones. Mom allowed us to use our hands to devour every last piece of meat off the bone, giggling at each other’s tomato-sauce-painted faces. Needless to say this was only with family members present!

Continue… May 14th

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Grandsons Luca and Dante now playing 80 years later with my grandfather’s grape press.