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Missing Italy Part 1: A Little Background


I grew up in an "Italian village"...in California.

Let me explain. My mom was the youngest girl of ten siblings, five sisters, and five brothers. The older siblings were all born in Italy. Mom was born in New York. All five sisters moved to California in the 1940s. They came out to visit a friend for a vacation, and one by one settled in Fresno, California. This is in the middle of the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, where much of the nations' fresh produce, especially fruit and nuts come from. It looks A LOT like Puglia, where my grandparents were from. I can see why they felt at home. The sisters bought houses very close together. My mom, dad and I lived a few miles away. There was a twenty year age difference between she and her oldest sister, Aunt Antoinette. So when I was born, my mom's first (and only) child, when she was almost 45, it was quite a novalty to have a baby in the family. All these aunts and uncles were grandparent age. My first cousins were grown and married. Some of them had children my age. For the next 20 years, I was called, "the baby".

Food was SO important. Every Sunday, we went to Aunt Annie and Uncle Natale's house for pranzo. Her back yard was across the alley from Aunt Antoinette and Uncle Leo's. Across the street was Aunt Mary. Close by was Aunt Jenny (Giovanna) and Uncle Alberto (my Godfather). We lived the farthest away (10 minutes by car). The neighbors were often part of the "extended family" and also sources of food. Next door was the baker/pastry chef from Naples who kept us all in cannoli and sfogliatella. Martha and Nick across the alley had a garden full of tomatoes and zucchini. The aunts had the fruit trees divided up. When Aunt Annie's apricots and peaches were ripe, they canned jars for the winter. When the plums were ready, we all made jam. When Aunt Jenny's almonds were ready, we all went there to pick and shell nuts, and eat dinner.
Mom grew basil, lemons and asparagas.

Uncle Albert had close friends who owned a pasta factory. They kept us in dry pasta.
10-pound boxes of various size and shape noodles and macaroni would show up, and be divided. Uncle Nat was Godfather to a local winery owner. He brought cases for all. I could go on and on. Someone grew melons, someone else oranges, figs were plentyful during the summer months, first green, then black Mission.

The sisters were all great cooks, but each had their specialty. Mom was the baker of delicious pastry and coffeecakes. Aunt Annie made cavatelli (like orchetti) by hand (by the hundreds) with a quick flick of her arthritic fingers. Aunt Jenny had a sweet tooth and made desserts. Aunt Mary was lasagna queen. Each of them thought they made the best sauce. Every Sunday, Aunt Annie would ask, "Isn't this the BEST sauce I ever made?" We were afraid to disagree! I liked Mom's meatballs best, and her rich pork and beef ragu. She made the best cutlets, and fried calamari, and carbonara.

Mom (the only one who married a non-Italian) introduced the concepts of more "American" food, so they came to our house for prime rib and mashed potatoes, or stuffed pork roasts. Everyone talked about food ALL the TIME. They were either cooking, eating, planning the next meal, or talking about what they had just eaten or were going to eat. Every morning that they weren't planning a family meal together, they would call and ask,"What are you making today?" The inevitable next line would be, "That sounds good, and I'll bring some______".

"The aunts", as I called them were kind of poor. They had small houses, older appliences, and had to really watch their money. None of them, (including Mom) had more than an 8th grade education. They worked in the garment district of NYC making assembly line clothing until they married. Aunt Mary hand-beaded wedding gowns for Dior before coming to California. None of them drove, or were ever on an airplane. But they had everything they needed. They were content, and spoiled me with love, attention, and beautiful baby clothes! They looked just like the ladies I see in their windows in Italy, with their housedress and apron, or in their Sunday best in a church pew with their rosary beads.

I remember summer nights the best. Since I was out of school, and both my parents, and ALL the aunts and uncles were retired, we could get together more frequently.
ALL the aunts and we had a "summer kitchen". This was either a separate building, or a remodel of part of the garage. It was used for canning, frying, anything messy, cooking the Thanksgiving turkey to free up the oven in the house for other things, and summer eating. It had air conditioning, all appliances, and a huge table for parties and regular meals.

After dinner, the women usually sat together outside, and the men went to the vine covered terrace to play cards ("Scopa", or "Sweep" in English). I would translate or signal my dad when my uncles started cheating in Italian. Then I'd go back to the women to see if it was time for fruit or cookies. There were ALWAYS taralle with anise seeds. There were ALWAYS biscotti. We hung out. Friends and neighbors walked over. We never watched TV on those nights. It was neighborhood passagiata! Sometimes the "party" moved to another yard of a friend or neighbor. More food!

My family referred to US as "the Italians". EVERYONE ELSE (regardless of ethnicity) were called "the Americans". (This included my father.) I was adamant about being one of the Italians. They would tease me about my Germanic coloring. I would scream, "I'm Italian!" They would laugh, encourage me, and then say, "Yes, you are 100% Italian". My father would roll his eyes and go listen to the Giants play baseball on the radio.

At school I had prosciutto or soprassata and cheese sandwiches. I had fritattas. I had zucchini and eggs, or pizza rustica. I saw bologna for the first time in college, and asked what was wrong with the mortatella?

We celebrated birthdays, feast days (Palm Sunday was mine), and holidays. Of course everyone cooked extra, in case someone stopped by. People stopped by all the time. Having "company" was the norm. I learned from my mother to always have "a few quarts of sauce with meat, a dessert or two, and enough other side dishes that you could throw together a dinner or two on a moment's notice if someone drops in".
My mom spoke Italian (or at least their Barese dialect) when speaking to her sisters.
They spoke English when my dad was at the table, so he would not be left out. They even switched to a Naples dialect when the neighbor was there to make her feel at home. They switched to "proper Italian" when another northern Italian friend was present (I don't think they ever mastered Piemontese).

My point of all this rambling is that THIS was my experience growing up in California.
Every time I arrive in Italy, I feel like I have come home.

Comments (5)


You know - Chris's grandma had a summer kitchen, in the basement. When we remodeled our kitchen, I tried to convince Chris to move the old stove down there so I could have one too (and days like today I wish he'd listened).

A lot of what you experienced though crosses ethnic lines (my Jewish family, different foods, similar stories). My parents were the first generation to move to the burbs from Brooklyn, but we all still got together regularly, so that my cousins and I (11 of us total), we all keep in touch and had a great reunion on Sunday here - 48 adults and kids from all over the country; lots of fun.

Anyway - reading this entry and your more recent one, I feel sad that you haven't been able to recreate that "drop-in" feeling. It's something I love, even if it doesn't occur as often as I would like, it still occurs here at least once a month or so.

Palma - this is beautiful. I wish that I were a child in your family!

It is funny really - my family, though not Italian, revolved around food. I think that that is why I am the way I am about good food and hospitality. You have lots on hand, you give someone your supper before admiting you weren't prepared for guests . . . our family loved food. So many of my memories of my grandparents involve eating or cooking.



Thank you for sharing with us your family history. All of that togetherness and good food sounds wonderful!

It is no wonder you are now the "hostess with the mostest" and reigning "foodie" on ST. How could you not be, with your Italian family upbringing.

Barb Cabot:

Palma, my husband Mike is from a big italian family in Cleveland. I'm from a big Japanese American family. When we started dating one of the first things he asked me was, "Does your family like to have big parties with lots of food?" When I answered, "Of course!" I knew we had a future. One of the first Christmas vacations that I spent with his family I was bowled over by the way his mom seemed to cook and bake from morning to night. Their back room which was like an enclosed patio with floor to ceiling louvered windows was like a big refrigerator in the winter. His mom filled it with trays and tupperwares full of cookies, pizzelles, cannolis and candies that she had made for drop in company. It looked like a bakery! When people arrived I'd always volunteer to go to the "Florida Room" as they called it and fill the trays full of goodies to serve to the guests. I'd open each container one after another and swoon and then take one for the tray and eat one for myself. I gained 10 lbs. that xmas vacation. That was my introduction into the "Italian way" of hosting drop in company.

What a great blog entry Palma! I agree, Italy feels like my home as well. Family and friends are the most important part of life! Sharing meals is a way of connecting to people.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 8, 2007 1:39 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Eggplant Parm: I Did It MY WAY.

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