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The joy of growing up as an Italian

Jun 17, 2003 7:12 AM

(One of the treasures in my files is this well-written story that pays tribute to Italian Americans ”” their strong family ties, their customs and traditions and, more importantly, the way things used to be. The warmth of the story (I wish I had written or knew who did so I could give him credit) glows. It could apply to any ethnic group. I hope you agree.)

I WAS WELL INTO ADULTHOOD before I realized I was an American. Of course, I had been born in America and had lived here all my life, but somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant I was an American. Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of plastic packages. Me, I ate peppers and egg sandwiches on an Italian roll. I was Italian.

For me ”” as I am sure for most second-generation Italian American children who grew up in the ’40s and ’50s ”” there was a definite distinction between us and them. Everybody else ”” the Irish, German, Polish, Jewish ”” they were the "Med-e-gones." There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard feelings, just ”” well, ours was the better way.

For instance, we had a bread man, a milkman, a coal and iceman, a fruit and vegetable man, a watermelon man, egg and cheese man, and a fish man. We even had a man who sharpened knives and scissors who came right to our homes ”” or at least right outside our homes. They were the many peddlers who plied the Italian individual sound. We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual sound. We knew them all, and they knew us. Americans went to the stores for most of their foods. What a waste!

TRULY, I PITIED THEIR LOSS. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every morning to find a hot crisp loaf of Italian bread waiting behind the screen door. And, instead of being able to climb up the back of the peddler’s truck a couple of times a week just to hitch a ride, most of my "Med-e-gone" friends had to be satisfied going to the A&P.

When it came to food, it always amazed me that my American friends or classmates only ate turkey on Thanksgiving. Or rather, that they only ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Now we Italians ”” we also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. But only after we had finished the antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever else Momma thought might be appropriate for that particular holiday. This turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of some kind (just in case somebody walked in who didn’t like turkey), followed by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and, of course, homemade cookies. No holiday was complete without some home baking. None of that store-bought stuff for us. This is where you learned to eat a seven-course meal between noon and 4 p.m., how to handle hot chestnuts and put tangerine wedges in red wine. I truly believe Italians live a romance with food.

SPEAKING OF FOOD ”” Sunday was truly the big day of the week! That was the day you’d wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. As you lay in bed, you’d hear the hiss as tomatoes were dropped into a pan. Sunday we always had gravy ("Med-e-gones" called it sauce) and macaroni (they called it pasta).

Sunday wouldn’t be Sunday without going to Mass. Of course, you couldn’t eat before going to Mass. You had to fast before receiving Communion. But the good part was, we knew when we got home we’d find hot meatballs frying. And nothing tasted better than newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of gravy.

There was another difference between us and them. We had gardens. Not just flower gardens, but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them and jarred them. Of course, we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. And everybody made homemade wine. Lots of it.

Of course, those gardens thrived so because we also had something else our American friends didn’t seem to have. We had a grandfather! It’s not that they didn’t have grandfathers; it’s just that they didn’t live in the same house or on the same block. They visited their grandfathers. We ate with ours, and God forbid we didn’t see him once a day.

I can still remember my grandfather telling me about how he came to America as a young man "on the boat." How the family lived in rented apartments or small houses and took in boarders to help make ends meet. How he decided he didn’t want his children ”” five sons and two daughters ”” to grow up in that environment. All of this, of course, in his own words.

So when he saved enough (and I could never figure how), he bought a house.

That house served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. I remember how he hated to leave, would rather sit on the back porch and watch his garden grow and, when he did leave for some special occasion, had to return as quickly as possible. After all, "nobody’s watching the house."

I ALSO REMEMBER THE HOLIDAYS when all the relatives would gather at my grandfather’s house and there’d be tables full of food and homemade wine and music. Women in the kitchen, men in the living room and kids everywhere. I must have a half million cousins, first and second and some who aren’t even related, but what did it matter? And, my grandfather, his cigar in his mouth, would sit in the middle of it all, grinning his mischievous smile, his eyes twinkling, surveying his domain, proud of his family and how well his children had done. One was a barber, one had his father’s trade, one was a policeman and, of course, there was always a rogue. And the girls ”” they had all married well and had fine husbands and healthy children and everyone knew respect.

He had achieved his goal in coming to America, and now his children were achieving the same goals that were available to them in this great country because they were Americans.

When my grandfather died years ago at the age of 76, things began to change. Slowly at first, but then aunts and uncles began to cut down on their visits. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing, although when we did get together, usually at my mother’s house now, I always had the feeling he was there somehow. It was understandable, of course. Everyone had their own families now and their own grandchildren. Today they visit once or twice a year. Today we meet at weddings and wakes.

LOTS OF OTHER things have changed, too. The great quantity of food we once consumed without any ill effects isn’t good for us any more. Too much starch, too much cholesterol, too many calories and nobody bothers to bake any more. Too busy, and it’s easier to buy it now, and too much is no good for you. We meet at my house now ”” at least my family does. But it’s not the same.

The differences between us and them aren’t so easily defined any more. I guess that’s good. My grandparents were Italian Italians, my parents were Italian Americans. I am an American Italian and my children are American Americans. Oh, I’m an American, all right, and proud of it, just as my grandfather would want me to be. We are all Americans now ”” Irish, Germans, Poles and Jews. U.S. citizens all ”” but somehow I feel Italian. Call it culture, call it tradition, call it roots. I’m really not sure how it is. All I do know is that my children have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of heritage. They never knew my grandfather.