Cultural Evolution

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The food set on the tables was all very familiar. It should have
been, as I had been eating it in one form or another all my life. Meat
in the gravy (Italian sausage, bracciole, and meatballs), macaroni,
stuffed mushrooms, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, sharp provolone, sausage
bread, shrimp cocktail and pork tenderloin all filled the serving areas
to overflowing. The better part of my immediate family including my
siblings, my wife, one of my sons and nieces and nephews were present
as were a few family friends. We were gathered at the home of my
brother and his wife to celebrate the birthdays of another brother and
a niece.

The food was familiar and delicious, all dishes that we
had grown up with. The bracciole was melt-in-your-mouth, the sausages
appropriately spiced, the meatballs firm and tasty. The shrimp cocktail
I already discussed in another post.  Everything satisfied, even though my brother made the tenderloin untraditionally spicy.

The
food that was typical Sunday dinner fare while growing up. Our parents,
as first generation Italian-Americans, raised us with many of the
culinary traditions brought over by their grandparents and parents from
Italy. Some modifications of tradition were made necessary by what was
available in Brooklyn rather than in Palermo or Naples, but for the
most part, the food adhered closely to what they had been used to.

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My parents were older when I was born and their extended families were
already quite large. My father was third oldest in a family of fourteen
children and my mother in the middle of eight. Getting together with
their families for major holidays and celebrations was always a
priority and a major undertaking, especially when my grandparents were
alive. These gatherings always centered around food, especially
traditional celebratory dishes. Christmas Eve at my paternal
grandparents' home featured the Sicilian specialty Pasta con le Sarde 
(pasta with sardines and fennel) amongst other dishes.This was never a
favorite at the time of the younger second generation children and
simpler dishes were made for us. The adults reveled in the pasta along
with other dishes that seemed exotic to us then. At other times, lasagna was the special meal and my mother's was second to none.

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In my home we ate a lot of Italian-American food, at least three or
four nights per week, which was less than the seven nights per week
that my parents and their siblings ate it while they were growing up.
Sundays were days for meat in the gravy or Fusilli with chopped meat sauce , roast chicken, stuffed artichokes and mushrooms and perhaps even some cannoli or other Italian pastries for dessert. During the week, we would eat traditional foods such as chevrilade,
a skinny sausage wound into a coil and held together by skewers, cooked
either on the grill or in a pan depending on the season; pastas such as
mafalde with ricotta, cavatelli with broccoli or peas and pastine.
Interspersed with these Italian-American dishes were more typically
American items like hamburgers, fried chicken, pork chops or grilled
steaks. Fridays were generally reserved for simpler vegetarian or
seafood dishes such as spaghetti with a marinara sauce or linguine with
white clam sauce and perhaps a piece of simply prepared fish.
Celebrations such as birthdays, were usually more involved than either
weekdays or typical Sundays. For my birthday, my mother would prepare
my favorite dish, the labor intensive perciatelli (or buccatini) with crab sauce. She would spend hours stuffing the freshly killed crabs with a mixture of herbs, breadcrumbs and yes, grated pecorino,
before tying the crabs back together with butcher's twine and letting
them slowly simmer in the tomato sauce for hours on end. Most of these
dishes were taken for granted as we were growing up and why not? All of
the special ingredients or preparations such as ravioli, Italian bread,
fresh mozzarella, a variety of seafood, sausages, cheeses, vegetables,
pastries, cakes and cookies were all readily available in the numerous
Italian-American markets and specialty shops present in our part of
Brooklyn.

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As we got older, we  became acclimated to other cuisines and cultures beyond what we grew up as we all fanned out from our native Brooklyn.  As a result of our diaspora, we have been slowly losing touch with a number of our culinary traditions. As the generation of my parents taste for the food of their parents began to include a taste for the food of their own homeland, the tastes of their children expanded even more, further diluting the memories of the cooking of earlier generations. This dilution was abetted by increasing difficulty in locating and finding quality traditional products. Though a number fortunately still remain, many of the specialty purveyors also left the original neighborhoods, some closing up
shop entirely while others spread out throughout the suburbs and sometimes beyond.

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At the celebration dinner at my brother's house in southwestern New Jersey, most of the specialty items were brought via special trips to the Italian specialty shops that remained in Brooklyn and Staten Island. On the all too rare occasions I find myself in Brooklyn or in the Bronx at Arthur Avenue, I make a point of loading up on the items I just can't seem to find anywhere else (at least not with the same qualities). In Brooklyn a stop on Court Street to visit Esposito's Pork Store, Court Pastry and Ferdinando's Foccacceria are mandatory. I come out loaded up with meats, pastas and cheeses as well as cookies, breads and pastries.

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Now with the internet and the knowledge of sources where I live, I can
do reasonably well finding many specialty items while some others I can
make myself. Still, product availability is nothing like it was when I was growing up. For example, I can't get live blue crabs where I live (at least not  reliably and affordably). I can get Italian pastries and fresh mozzarella, but not as good as from Court Street.

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A curious thing has happened over the generations. Instead of the more elaborate and exotic (to us) dishes that festooned the celebrations of our parents and grandparents, the comfort food of Sundays and even some weekday fare has come to serve as  celebration food amongst my generation, especially when we gather together. That doesn't always hold when we celebrate apart or amongst our individual families. Those celebrations, though they often contain dishes from our youth, just as frequently offer other, newer dishes without traditional underpinnings (at least not traditional to my family). I expect (hope) that my own children will retain some of the Italian-American culinary heritage to which they have been exposed, though I also expect that those traditions will become further diluted for their children and so on.

Copyright 2009 by Docsconz - All Rights Reserved 1 - 2009-03-15 at 16-25-38


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2 Responses to Cultural Evolution

  1. I feel you.
    On one hand, the evolution is certainly affected by the ingredients, but as you say, there is also a dilution in the ‘purity’ of those gathered. No longer are the kids at the table ignorant of other cultures, and although you may lose something, I think there is an ultimate gain.
    As long as people still gather together around a table, its all good.
    Just curious, does your mother ‘cheat’? I mean is she slipping in some pre-made ingredients that she used to hand make? I know my mother does.

  2. John Sconzo says:

    Judith, not only are the kids not ignorant of other cultures, they are also of other cultures. My wife is not of Italian descent and her family has very different traditions than mine. But even at my baby-boomer generation, due to a number of factors, external influences are much more prominent than they were in my parents’ generation. I think that is what the melting pot does. This post is not so much a lament as it is an observation. While I still love the traditional dishes of my youth and nothing will ever replace that crab sauce in my gastronomic heart, I feel that I and my family are much better off for the wider culinary palette with which we paint today.
    I wish my mother was still making her dishes. She passed away back in 1992. Even so, she had use some shortcuts depending upon what she was making and what she was making it for. but on the whole the integrity of her cooking was strong up until the end.

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