May 5th, 2013
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!
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.
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…
*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.
September 3rd, 2012
Benvenuti to all—whether this is your first or 100th visit to our blog.
We’ve just published expanded versions of our scores of blog posts from 2007 to 2012, and now most of those recipes, illustrations, and food lore are available in our new eBook, Almost Italian: A Cookbook & History of Italian Food in America.
As many of our loyal readers know, we wrote the first volume online, as a cookbook-in-progress. During five years of illustrated blog posts with recipes, readers saw us rolling our fettucine and cavatelli, cleaning scungilli, and stuffing scacciatta. They wrote to us to share their own kitchen memories and questions. Our readers were essential to the blog and helped us confirm or reshape our historical hunches and hypotheses.
Now that Volume 1 of Almost Italian has been published, it’s time to get back to feeding ourselves and our readers.
Thus, we’ve been thinking about how we might inaugurate Volume II of Almost Italian. We already have ideas about some of the ingredients, recipes, and trends we’d like to cover in subsequent blog posts as we continue our exploration of the evolution of Italian food in the 21st century. But where to start?
While it’s too soon to promise that we’ll stick to an alphabetical format, a lovely if rather obscure, Italian green recently caught our attention-and because it begins with A, we though we’d use it to kick of Volume II.
June 16th, 2012
Since the earliest waves of Italian immigration in the late 19th century, Sundays have been particularly important to Italian-Americans. Most of the first immigrants were male and left families and sweethearts behind while they came to the New World to earn funds for those families to join them later. Because most men arrived without their female family members, many of the first practitioners of what we can legitimately call Italian-American cooking were men who lacked women to cook and keep house for them.
…from our new book
Almost Italian: A Cookbook & History of Italian Food in America
In the early days of immigration, no matter what a man did for a living during the week, it was likely to have been grueling physical labor. So Sunday was literally a day of rest.
Prior to World War I, a male Italian immigrant who may have landed at Ellis Island with no more than the clothes on his back, could earn the munificent sum of ten dollars a week as a stone-mason, gardener, or railway worker. This presented opportunities beyond anything that had been available to him back in Italy. Here, he could earn a wage that could not only house a family, but feed them—and feed them well.
After they eventually joined their menfolk, the Italian grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and brides were quick to adapt their cooking styles to the ingredients they found in America. The majority of the immigrants had come from rural areas where local commerce had been based on barter, not cash. Here is America, the availability of cash as well as an abundance of meat and commercially manufactured pasta inspired immigrant cooks to create of “new traditions.” It was not long before Italian families had settled into the observance of certain Sunday rituals whose origins lay, not back in the Old World, but here in the Little Italy communities of North America.
Regardless of whether or not they went to church, Sundays were sacred, if only because the preparation of elaborate Sunday meals ensured that families nearly always gathered around their home tables in celebration of the abundance they had found in America.
After the typical red sauce feast, as women convened in the kitchen, the men in a family might gather for a hand or two of cards. Almost Italians of a certain age do not need television’s Mad Men to remind them that one version or another of the picture below hung in Dad’s den or the “rec room” of many a home.
In our new book and on this blog, we usually extol the virtues of Nonna or Mamma. However, on Father’s Day, it’s only right that we honor Papà, an essential part of the family equation. So today, because this depiction of cagey canines (sometimes printed on velvet) reminds us of our own grandfathers, uncles, and fathers, we wanted to share it with you.
Happy Father’s Day! La famiglia prima di tutto!
December 24th, 2011
Although the best-known observance of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is among American-Italians with roots in the Mezzogiorno, the tradition of consuming at least one dish of frutti di mare or pesci on Christmas Eve, for la Cena della Vigilia, is common throughout Italy and, indeed, in any place where Italians reside.
Centuries before the Renaissance made Italy a cultural mecca, colonies of Genoese, Venetians, and Amalfitani were established around the eastern Mediterranean and even along the shores of the Black Sea.
While Italian emigration to the Americas and Antipodes was driven most forcibly by poverty, most Italian emigration to other parts of the Mediterranean was propelled by politics, the arts, and commerce. By the early years of the 20th century, before the First World War, over 40,000 Italians inhabited Constantinople. Numerous painters, architects, and the activists Mazzini and Garibaldi all lived in that fabled metropolis that spans Asia and Europe. Many of Italian descent still live today in the city now known as Istanbul.
Each year this cosmopolis, which has developed a taste for pizza and all things Italian—from Amarone to Zinfandel, from anchovies to zeppole—is attracting more Italians and Italian-Americans. Those fortunate enough to live there can do their holiday provisioning at a stall like this, where the daily catch from the Black Sea, Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara, and northern Aegean is on offer.
In the belief that peace and goodwill around the world begin at the table,
Buon Natale & buon appetito or, as the Turks would say, Iyi Noeller ve afiyet olsun.