This is a post I’ve been mulling over in my mind for some time, keeping it in my back pocket for a while now. But this week’s Fatted Calf newsletter spurred me into action. In it, I found, like Marcia, yet another culinary compatriot exulting his Italian-American heritage. Some highlights:
I was raised on pasta, weaned from mothers’ milk and plunked down in front of a bowl of buttery pastina. My family ate macaroni three or four times a week…I pitied the people around me who purged pasta from their diet and when that carbohydrate fearing freak of a doctor dropped dead I smiled inside. And then I made myself a bowl of spaghetti aglio olio.
Words plucked from my own heart and head.
My mother is full-blooded Italian, though it’s not as linear as all that. Her father’s parents came from Reggio di Calabria, the very tippiest toe of the boot (read: practically Sicily); her mother’s mother’s parents came from Benevento, in Campania, about an hour from Napoli; and her mother’s father came from the diminutive mountain town of Salle in Abruzzi, which today has a population of just 400.
Long story short, a patchwork quilt of Southern Italian paesani. These and thousands of other emigrant meridionali settled in my hometown of Schenectady, NY. It’s important to understand that, at that time, in the early 20th Century, Italy itself was still barely unified, and so these emigrants, while ostensibly (and to the untrained American eye) generically "Italian," each had a completely distinct and discrete culture. Schenectady became a micro-melting pot of these Southern Italian cultures and dialects. These were by and large poor, uneducated people, and their vernacular was coarse. The combination of multiple dialects resulted in something even more gritty.
I did not learn Italian growing up; even my mother, only a generation or two separated from the Old Country, only learned how to count and swear. (The grandparents would slip into Italian when they didn’t want the kids to hear what they were saying.) But what I was not aware of was how much dialectic had seeped into my everyday speech, how much was woven so deeply into my family’s linguistic patterns that I simply took them for granted. And it wasn’t until I studied Italian in the classroom that I understood how modified these words were from modern, standard Italian.
My mother tells me that, when she went away to college, she struggled in the grocery store in Syracuse, because she couldn’t find scharole. That’s because it was called escarole. Language is food is culture; all three things are irrevocably tied to our sense of self.
So, I thought I would include a little glossary of terms, so you know what the hell I am talking about should we meet face-to-face. For, though I may write escarole, I will almost surely say scharole.