Marilyn Monroe: Almost Italian?

Marilyn Monroe at Stove
Photo: Source Unknown

If you’ve been reading AlmostItalian.com for any length of time, you know our penchant for analyzing dishes—deconstructing their names, techniques, and ingredients while tracing their geographic origins. But we’re not the only cookery writers doing this…

Last week Matt Lee & Ted Lee, better known as the Lee Brothers to fans of fare from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, reminded us that Italian culinary influences in America are sometimes more subtle than we suspect.

We were delighted to read their New York Times article, an exhaustive but light-hearted examination and remake of a complex poultry stuffing recipe once jotted down by Marilyn Monroe. The Lee boys managed to trace the probable origins of the recipe back to the thrice-wed starlet’s second set of in-laws—the Sicilian family of first-generation American and baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio. Joe and Marilyn were married in 1954, a union that lasted less than a year but whose culinary effects seem to have persisted.

Among the ingredients that gave the Lees some clues were oregano (not too common an American ingredient in the 1950’s unless you had an Italian connection) along with the combination of pine nuts, chestnuts, and raisins—very Sicilian (as well as very eastern Mediterranean: Greek and Arab influence lives on in Sicilian kitchens).

The casual addition of a “1 handful” of “Parmisan” [sic] cheese reminds us how our grandmothers measured and that U.S. food manufacturers were catering to Italians with ready-to-use products. What better way to enrich a holiday stuffing than to toss in grated cheese? Most Siciliani would never have tasted Parmigiano; southern Italian grating cheeses (such as pecorino) were almost always made from sheep’s milk. But Progresso and Kraft gave cooks with roots in the impoverished southern provinces opportunities to express their pan-Italian soul with one of America’s most abundant agricultural commodities.

What reinforces the Sicilian link for us is the use of bread as the main ingredient in the stuffing. This wouldn’t seem unusual, except that sourdough bread (in this case, from San Francisco) is specified. Of all the Italians who landed on American shores, none revered bread more deeply than the Sicilians—many of whom left Sicily too destitute to have ever considered pasta a staple.

In 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement *, a book we’ll discuss in more depth within a future post, author Jane Ziegelman highlights this point in her profile of Sicilian New Yorkers who would have been contemporaries of the immigrant DiMaggios:

“When Sicilians described America as the land of bread and work, they imagined a country without hunger, which, in their experience, was just as miraculous as a city paved in gold.”

Finally the Lee Brothers clinch their argument in favor of Italian influence by pointing out that Marilyn’s recipe begins with the scrawl: “No Garlic”—an omission that stands as a poignant testimony to how immigrants might forgo a favorite flavor as they struggled to assimilate into mainstream America.

While we think Marylin Monroe’s stuffing recipe sounds pretty good, in our heart of hearts, we know that we (along with the DiMaggios) would have preferred to add some garlic and peperoncini sautéed in a little olive oil. But don’t take our word for it—read the recipe and decide for yourself.

We think you’ll agree that it’s almost—but not quite—Italian.

* 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman

* Publisher: Harper Collins; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 0061288500
* ISBN-13: 978-0061288500b

Super Sunday

We’re putting together our menu and shopping list for our big Super Bowl party this coming weekend, but we wanted to give you a sneak preview.

Stromboli
Copyright © 2009, Skip Lombardi

Above are two versions of Stromboli: Genoa, Pepperoni & Provolone, and Spinach & Mozarella. We cooked these for our big Inaugural Party last week, but they will undoubtedly make an encore appearance on Sunday.

As we think about it, though, ‘Super Bowl Party’ may be a bit of a stretch. We don’t own a television, and neither of us are 100% certain who’s playing. But we will have some company, and we will prepare a festive meal, then perhaps walk to a nearby sports bar to watch the commercials.

Stay tuned.

My Grandmother’s Marinara Sauce

Here is my grandmother’s basic tomato sauce. This is the one she always seemed to have on hand “just to color” slices of sautéed zucchini, mix into a pot of beans, or spoon over pasta.

During the summer, she and my grandfather would put up gallons of tomatoes, but when her larder ran out, she wasn’t at all averse to using commercially canned tomatoes. However, with those, she claimed that adding a grated carrot sweetened the sauce and took away the metalic, “canned” taste.

We recently got some affirmation of my grandmother’s practice from a surprising source, the former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. In his book, Politics and Pasta, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci talked about his own marinara sauce, devoloped to raise money for local scholarships.

“I created the Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce in the early 1990’s as something to sell at a fund-raiser. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. I made it with the owners of the West Valley Inn. We put in a little of this, some of that, added a pinch of whatever; we just kept experimenting. I wanted it to taste just like the sauce my aunts would make on Sunday afternoons so many years earlier. Their sauce would simmer on the stove for hours as they occasionally added their own ingredients until it was slightly better than perfect. But whatever I added, we couldn’t get it exactly right—until the Old Canteen’s Joe Marzilli suggested we had to add carrots to take away the acidity. Once we did that, hmmmmm, it was perfect.”

My Grandmother’s Marinara Sauce

Ingredients:

Olive oil
4 Cloves garlic, peeled, and thinly sliced
2 28 Oz. Cans peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1 Small carrot, grated
1/2 tsp. Peperoncino (hot red pepper flakes)
4 Tbs. Fresh basil leaves, torn
2 Tbs. Fresh oregano, finely chopped
1/4 Cup flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:

Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the garlic. With a wooden spoon, stir for about one minute, until the garlic begins to give up its aroma.

Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the tomatoes and their liquid. Return the pan to the heat and begin to break up the tomatoes with either the back of a fork or the wooden spoon. Simmer the tomatoes to evaporate some of their liquid, then add the carrot, the red pepper flakes, basil, and oregano, .

Simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the clear liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated. Add the parsley and the remaining 2 Tbs. of basil. Cool a spoonful of the sauce and taste for salt and pepper.

Makes approximately 6 Cups (1 1/2 Quarts).

Bailout, Italian-Style

Wheels of Parmigiano

Writing about the evolution of Italian food in America, it strikes us that there is one truly Italian ingredient whose iconic status has survived an onslaught of imitations. Parmigiano has remained constant and integral to Italian-American cuisine. And now, the artisanal producers of what Mario Battali has dubbed [sic] “the indisputed king of cheeses” are in trouble.

Bravo to the Italian government for their plan to subsidize Parmigiano-makers. We also promise to do our part…this is our kind of bailout.

Wall Street Journal Article

Story on NPR