As soon as we’d published Volume I of Almost Italian (Bosphorus Books, 2012) we knew that we’d left a lot unexplored.
But first, because today is Orthodox Easter, we wish to lift a chilled tumbler of ouzo to all our Greek, Graeco-Italian, and otherwise Hellenized friends who don’t follow the Vatican calendar. We hope that, right now, many of you are carefully tending spits of roasting lambs and kokoretsi in your back yards… Despite the fact that ouzo itself clouds when iced or mixed with soda or water, its consumption has been known to bring clarity to certain issues. Maybe as you and your families gather round the mezedes (antipasti spread) of olives, stuffed vine leaves, and taramasalata someone will ponder how Greeks hailing from islands like Mykonos and Chios assumed ownership of American roadside diners and took on “Italian” pizza production. If any of you have Easter “eureka moments,” please write to us!
Sicilian Nostalgia on a Vintage Postcard
Much as we like to think our readers can barely wait until the next report from Father Guido Sarducci, our undercover correspondent at St. Peter’s, we know that most of you are not reading this page right now. Instead, you’re more likely to be worrying about whether you have enough blue corn chips and guacamole for the Cinco de Mayo party that somehow began this morning, before you’d even slept off Saturday night. Here in Sarasota,Florida, the very trucks that had pumped green beer a mere six weeks ago had already switched logos by yesterday afternoon. Gone were the shamrocks, replaced by sombreros, maracas, and blue Coronas.
Really, though, this posting was prompted by something else. Aside from enjoying good food, we also love to tell the stories behind it. So, as we were discussing what Italian slant we could give to our celebration of Cinco de Mayo, we remembered that in Volume I of Almost Italian, we’d written about Caesar Salad, which was first crafted in Tijuana. Then, we began to list the New World’s many post-Columbus culinary contributions to Italy. Most notable are several plants, all native to Mexico. These range from the hardy Opuntia ficus indica, an edible cactus that become a symbol of both Mexico and Sicily, to zucchini, new varieties of beans, and all species of peppers and TOMATOES.
Latin American Produce and Embroidered Cotton Appliqué
Copyright © 2013, Skip Lombardi
But, last week as we were watching a pair of skilled, flour-coated hands produce a sublime pizza that we devoured a few minutes later, it hit us like the contents of a just-whacked piñata:*
The not-so-secret Mexican contribution to Italian food has been PEOPLE.
In belated recognition of yet another holiday, May Day (International Workers’ Day), let everyone who eats in America take a moment to acknowledge the Mexican men, women and children who work as field hands—along with the truck drivers, rancheros, and conveyor-belt produce sorters—all of whom handle the bounty of America’s farmlands.
While many a market survey indicates that “Italian” is America’s favorite “ethnic” cuisine, those surveys rarely talk about who hustles that food onto plates. Almost every restaurant that claims to serve Italian dishes—from Domino’s Pizza and Olive Garden to Chez Panisse and Babbo—depends upon Mexican staff.
Supporting more celebrity chefs than Dansko clogs and orange Crocs, Mexican dishwashers, bus-boys, cleaners, line-cooks, chefs, and waiters are essential members of virtually every food service team in America.
We shouldn’t need chef-provocateur Anthony Bourdain** to remind us.
Gracias y Viva Mexico!
Among the topics that we’ll surely revisit several times in the course of writing Volume II of Almost Italian are the parallel food cultures of Italians who emigrated to places other than the United States. You can be sure that we’ll be heading south of the border soon…
Tourists in Tijuana, circa 1950
*From the Italian pignatta, originally a Lenten tradition, these forms filled with treats and sweets, may have originated in Asia, but were introduced, via Italy, to the New World.
** June 2012 quote from Anthony Bourdain