We are not simply the users of creation; we are, all of us, called to be its offerers. The world will be lifted, as it was always meant to be, by our priestly love. We can, you see, take it with us. It will be precisely because we loved this Old Jerusalem of a world enough to bear it in our bones that its textures will ascend when we rise; it will be because our eyes have relished the earth that the colors of its countries will compel our hearts forever. The bread and pastry, the cheeses, the wines, and the songs go into the Supper of the Lamb, because we do: it is our love that brings the City home. ~Robert Farrar Capon, Preface to the Second and Third Editions, The Supper of the Lamb
I have felt out of place for much of my life. I was adopted as an infant to parents who divorced when I was five years old. I knew little about where I came from for most of my life. What I did know, what I needed to know, was that I was Italian. I looked Italian enough. My adopted family — on my mother’s side, which is the only side I’ve ever really known — was Italian. What I could rely on throughout my childhood was Sunday dinner, the urgent joy with which my grandmother would feed us and watch us eat. Growing up, the food melded with the religion melded with the family melded with “being Italian,” so that it was difficult to know where one ended and the other began. The limited medical information I had about my birth parents also indicated I was Italian. Italian enough, at least. It was something to hold onto.
I held on tighter after my grandfather, my dearest friend, died, and I moved away for college. In a new place, with new people, my upbringing as an Italian-American became more obvious and distinctive to me. I was no longer with my Italian-American family every day, and so it was mooring to more strongly embrace my Italian identity. I married at 23-years old, and my wife, German by ethnic background, was amenable to my being Italian and to our claiming that as a family. There’s a long history of happy Italian-German marriages, the romanticism of the Italian grounded by the steady realism of the German. We have had the opportunity to travel to Italy several times as a couple, bringing my eldest daughter with us on one of our most recent trips. These trips are meaningful to me. As soon as I return from a trip to Italy, I am thinking about how I might get back.
Yet, the tighter my grip, the more elusive it all feels. I don’t speak Italian, with the exception of a few dozen phrases and whatever sticks from my intermittent Duolingo sprees. My last name isn’t Italian, which opens me to inquisitive, bemused questions from acquaintances about just how Italian I am.
What am I chasing? The traditions of my adopted family, which was fairly Americanized by the time I was born? Some connection to my birth family? The Italian-American life that is portrayed and available to me through commercial presentations and media? Or am I pursuing the Old Country, Italy proper?
The family folklore is that my Grandfather’s legal name, “Ciro,” was actually meant to be “Giro,” but his mother’s handwriting was so poor and the hospital staff so unfamiliar with Italian names that it was “Ciro” that went on the birth certificate. My grandfather would seem uncomfortable and uncertain to me when this was raised, despite the familial conjectures of others in the family. He rarely went by Ciro. Like many Italians and other immigrants, he went by an “Americanized” first name to avoid what discrimination he could.
I came to learn that Ciro is actually a common Italian name. There’s the footballer, Ciro Immobile. Several years ago, my wife and I read a story in the newspaper about a boy, Ciro, who was rescued from the rubble of an earthquake that hit Ischia, where we spent part of our honeymoon. We gave my second daughter the middle name “Ciro” to honor my grandfather, and also, I suppose, to extend his influence in my life and the attachment of my life to his… Still, I have wondered: What if my Great-Grandmother did intend to name my grandfather “Giro?” Was I reclaiming my Italian heritage by giving my child the middle name “Ciro,” or reifying the distortion of my great-grandmother’s intentions?
There is a real and serious history of discrimination and prejudice against Italians in American history, but it feels foolish and trivial to talk about any bias against Italians today. The idea of discrimination against Italians is itself a common joke. Italians complaining about discrimination against Italians was a dominant theme and source of comedy throughout the show The Sopranos. In the conclusion of one episode of the show, which focused on debates over Columbus Day, Tony Soprano issued one of the more strident moral judgments the show ever made as Tony rejected appeals to Italian identity as a source of embattled aggrievement and constant offense.
I find very little to be offended about as an Italian. I’ve wondered, in my life, if comments about my hair or my temperament, for instance, were less personal and more based in prejudicial stereotypes, but my Italian heritage — my Italianness, or lack thereof — is more a source of joy and melancholy, than pride and antagonism. Still, I feel a strange pull when I think about the fact that my grandfather only got in one fistfight in his life, that I know of, and it was because someone called him a “dago.” I remember hearing this story as a boy and thinking, I don’t know what that word means, but if it was enough to upset my grandfather, it should be enough to upset me. I wondered as a boy what I would do if someone ever called me that, and imagined myself defending, not my honor really, but my grandfather’s — an honor that was, it seems, vulnerable to the disparagement of his ethnicity. Is this readiness to defend — or is it a readiness to take offense? — a gift or a burden? Is it virtue or is it sin?
“Italy is made, now let us make Italians,” proclaimed statesman Massimo d’Azeglio following Italy’s reunification in 1861. About fifty years later, my great-grandfather would come to the United States as a teenager, and he would become an Italian-American. Yet, it is likely that he did not consider himself primarily as an “Italian” when he made the journey as an adolescent, but rather as a “Sicilian.” The Italian migration to the United States of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was one not of Italians, so much as a migration of Calabrians, Neapolitans, Sicilians. It was in America, to a great extent, that they became Italian.
Central to this creative enterprise was food. According to Simone Cinotto, Professor of History at the University of Gastronomic Studies in Pollenzo and author of The Italian American Table: Food, Family and Community in New York City, this can be attributed to three reasons: “the power of food to create and support family and community in a world of cultural and material stress,” “the importance of the food trade in the Italian immigrant economy,” and “the symbolic value of food…that helped Italians understand who they were and whom they aspired to be.” Food shaped Italian identity and made possible a “diasporic Italian nation.”
Virginia Yans-McLaughlin’s study of Italians in Buffalo, my hometown, found that while it had been assumed that industrial work patterns were associated with “Old World family ways…the evidence that we have on the Italians in Buffalo seriously challenges this conventional model.” For these families, “the nuclear family pattern proved remarkably resilient.” This resilience persevered through significant hardship, the very kind in which many scholars identified as causes of family disorganization. In addition to the inherent difficulties involved in migration, which often resulted in at least temporary family separation, “until the prosperous 1920s…(Italian families in Buffalo) experienced the hardships of urban poverty,” including: “segregated…substandard housing” where they were constantly exposed to infectious disease; high infant mortality rates; and high rates of unemployment and underemployment, due in part to employment discrimination. Italian families faced a number of other formal and informal pressures. Cinotto, citing the work of Leonard Covello, a scholar who studied Italian American children and families in New York City in the first half of the twentieth-century, explains that “too many forces encouraged an individualism that threatened the family: public institutions, popular culture, and the mass media. The children’s scorn for immigrant culture, which public schools instilled and fostered, had weakened and disoriented their parents’ authority.”
According to Cinotto, it was in this pressure-cooker of economic hardship and cultural pressures to “Americanize,” that the Italian American dining table emerged by the 1930s as an intergenerational compromise. “Through these intrafamilial negotiations,” Cinotto writes, “domestic rituals centered on food created private spaces for the building of group ideology and the cultural transmission of values.” Concessions would be made to a certain level of Americanization so that their children could thrive in the broader public world, but “in return for recognizing these changes, first-generation Italian immigrants asked their children to declare their commitment and devotion to a private ethnic sphere through ritual and symbolic actions.” Food was central to this approach: regular dinner with the family (especially on Sundays), extravagant (relative to their economic station) feasts for religious holidays, and a developing cuisine which was inspired by the food of their hometowns in Italy, but made to accommodate the ingredients that were available to them in America.
In his book, Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of Italian-Americans, Richard Gambino writes, “To the Italian-American, food is symbolic both of life and of life’s chief medium for human beings, the family. I remember the attitude conveyed to me as a child by the adults in my family, immigrants and second generation, that the waste or abuse of food was a sin. I was made to feel that food was the host of life, and not in any remote or abstract sense. It was the product of my father’s (or grandfather’s or uncle’s, etc.) labor, prepared for us with care by my mother or grandmother, or aunt, etc.). It was, in a very emotional sense, a connection with my father and my mother, an outreach by them toward me. In a very poignant way, meals were a ‘communion’ of the family, and food was ‘sacred’ because it was the tangible medium of that communion.”
This is how I experienced life growing up, the way in which food seemed to express and implicate everything else. If anything was left on someone’s plate, my grandmother would half-tease, half-plead with them that they had “left the best part.” The morsel of meat stuck to the end of a rib that had spent the day in a simmering pot of sauce? The best part. The starchy broth leftover from a bowl of macaroni and peas? The best part. This sentiment conveyed the importance of not wasting food, as well as the care with which it was made. It also expressed the care you were subject to when you were eating. My mother worked two and sometimes three jobs for much of my childhood, and I spent much of my childhood without supervision. Food, though, was when we gathered. It was the occasion for care.
The most comforting things my mother would cook for me as a child were the simplest. I loved my mother’s ditalini with the egg (the “the” in the name of the dish is mandatory), especially when I was sick. She would tell me it was a “Great Depression” dish, what the Italians would call piatto povere, and she would say this with awe: an awe that her parents, and her parents’ parents, could do so much with so little. How could a dish made with six ingredients, including water, salt and pepper, be so delicious, comforting and edifying? Her parents and grandparents built a life in America through sacrifice and creativity, and with very little they were able to make a good life for themselves and their family. These meals, this food, represented that history. What an inheritance!
Food, family, and religion are all entangled for Italian-Americans. So much of the food we ate was directly tied to various Catholic holidays. Were we gathering for church? For a meal? For family? It’s impossible to locate any one source, any singular motivation. Sometimes it was, “the family was together so we might as well eat,” other times, it was “we have to eat so we might as well get together.” The presence of religion seemed to sacralize all of it.
There is the sense-making that goes into the construction of identity and the making of the “diasporic nation” of Italians, and then there is the sense-making that comes after. One might have hoped that when a wave of Puerto Rican and Black residents arrived in Harlem in the 1930s and 40s, second-generation Italian American immigrants in Harlem would have found reason for solidarity with these newcomers within their own history in America. Instead, these Italians, whose grandparents were subject to prejudice by Northern Italians and whose parents faced significant discrimination in America, reacted with a “preoccupation with color…born out of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy.” Cinotto’s book recounts how the Italian American identity that was built in conditions of ostracism, poverty and racism against Italians (who were not deemed white in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth-century in America), could be leveraged for commercial and status gain and prop up feelings of superiority and disdain toward others. Prior to the first World War, Cinotto notes, social workers, public school officials and others denounced the Italian diet, and Italian immigrant culture generally was disparaged by those in authority. But less than a couple of decades later, Italian Americans in East Harlem would look to other communities and make similar judgments.
It is difficult, it seems, to form a group identity that is and remains positive. Instead, any point of pride easily turns into a point of superiority. I like the stories of Tony Bennett (His real name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto, but he was told to Americanize his name to appeal more broadly) singing in Selma during the marches at the request of Harry Belafonte, or Frank Sinatra singing “Ol Man River” at an NAACP gala and bringing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to tears. These stories suggest to me the ability to find solidarity and empathy in our identities. Instead, too often, one group’s identification with their “work ethic,” quickly leads to the belief other groups are “lazy.” One group’s “family values” leads to the belief others must not really care for their families. A narrative of perseverance through discrimination and hardship can harden hearts toward the struggles others face.
Just as food can be the subject of group pride and inter-group disparagement and prejudice, the intersection of food and identity is attractive in the political realm. While Italian immigrants were making a nation for themselves, the nation they left still sought their affections and loyalty. The Italian government, particularly its fascist iteration after 1922, appealed explicitly to Italian-Americans to purchase imported Italian goods as a way of expressing pride and providing tangible support to the nation they left behind.
Food is still a salient subject in politics. In Italy, right-wing populists have made the preservation of food traditions central to their appeal to voters. In 2019, the Pope was criticized by a prominent conservative Catholic writer, Antonio Socci, for serving pork-free lasagna to the poor, as was Bologna’s Archbishop Matteo Zuppi for leaving the meat out of tortellini. For Socci, pork is as central to “Italian civilization” as “wine and parmesan.” Matteo Salvini, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and former leader of the far-right League Party, has frequently turned to food for his political appeals, including an announcement that he was boycotting Nutella once he learned the hazelnuts in Nutella come from Turkey, not Italy. The slogan of the League in the late 1990s was “Yes to polenta, no to couscous.” The anti-Muslim sentiment of these appeals is always implicit, and often explicit.
It is easy to dismiss the power of these kinds of appeals as xenophobic trivialities that should be easily rejected by any moral, decent person, but to do so is to fail to appreciate how profoundly food makes up the lives (economic, familial, cultural) and identities of voters. In the case of Italy, and any economy in which tourism looms large, the prospect of the loss of national identity brings with it the threat of the loss of a critical good: an image and expectation of what the nation is that can be valued more highly by those outside of the nation than within it. Any successful tour guide will tell you that many travelers wish not to experience Italy as it is, but what they imagine it to be. When a culture is commodified, what is authentic becomes difficult to parse out.
It should not be difficult to understand why political appeals to identity – through issues related to food or any other–can be so powerful and effective. A politics of unmediated self-expression, which is not only the kind of politics we’ve built, but the kind of political engagement which is often held up as the very model of citizenship, will inevitably be a politics of identity. An effort to build a healthy identity politics through the construction of positively-framed identities is doomed. As noted earlier, once positively-framed identities regularly and quickly fuel the degradation of those who are not willing or able to take up that identity.
Issues related to identity will never be absent from our politics, of course. In fact, it is hard to conceive of what would make up such a politics. Still, we can recognize the ways in which identity is implicated in and by our politics, without totally giving ourselves over to that facet of our politics. We need, instead, a buffered politics, which does not so casually utilize identity as a political weapon. We need buffered people, who do not so easily and eagerly hand over the power of identity to politics. In diverse societies like ours, we need a politics of self-consciously pluralistic self-governance.
I recently visited the Italian Dolomites, and was surprised to find that the further north I went — from Trento to Bolzano to Merano — though I stayed in Italy, it was no longer “Italian.” That is, though governed by Italy, this was a different Italy than I had known before. On signage, including traffic signage, German language came first, with Italian second. The menus featured not pasta, but canederli, a kind of dumpling. There was an identification not just with Italy or the European Union, but with a distinctive South Tyrolean culture. Where was I? Who was I to say that the Italy of Trento or Merano was any less Italian than that of Bologna or Puglia? If a nation is to be a nation it must make room for all its cities, and really, for all its people.
“Identity…is not inscribed in the genes of a people or in the ancient history of their origins,” writes Massimo Montanari, in his book Italian Identity in the Kitchen, Or Food and the Nation, “but is constructed historically through the day-to-day dynamic of exchanges between individuals, experiences and different cultures. The Italianness of pasta, or the tomato, or the chili pepper (or pasta with tomato sauce seasoned with chili pepper) is indisputable. But it is also indisputable that pasta, tomato and chili pepper belong in origin to other cultures and it is necessary to dig in space as well as in time to recapture the fragments of the various histories that in the end interlock and give rise to new histories and identities.”
Last year, my family moved to Baltimore. My second daughter was born here, and it feels like home to us. Which is to say, it reminds us of Buffalo. I like walking with my daughters around Little Italy, past the Catholic Church that stood as the center of social and communal life for the community for so long, past the Bocce court that is maintained by the Sons of Italy, past the plaques honoring Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., whose daughter, Nancy Pelosi, would go on to be the highest ranking Italian American to ever serve in elected office. On one walk, I met a woman who was sitting on a bench outside of her home, a house that her family had owned for over a hundred years. She told me about the neighborhood, and kept commenting on my hair, and my daughter’s hair, and my daughter’s blue eyes which would not be Italian except for the fact that my daughter is mine and I have claimed her, eyes included, as such.
I learned something that took my breath away in a casual conversation with my mother recently. A century ago, when my great-grandfather arrived in America, it was Baltimore’s port that first welcomed him. I have spent so much time, so much money, so much emotion in pursuit of something true about myself, and it has led me unwittingly to the very city that welcomed my great-grandfather at the beginning of his journey to build a new future, a future that was there for me. Perhaps this was it, the story that is robust enough to end my chasing, my searching, after something I know doesn’t exist.
I live in a house with a three-year-old who is in preschool, which is another way of saying that we have a cold constantly cycling through our little family. I was working one day, when my eldest daughter came up to me, sniffling, asking for something to eat. I knew just the thing to make her.
I pulled a chair up close to the counter so that she could help. I put some salted water on the stove to boil, while she cracked a couple eggs into a bowl. She is an excellent egg-cracker. When the water boiled, I poured in ditalini and we waited for the pasta to get just right. Reserving a cup of pasta water, I drained the pasta and returned it to the pot, along with some of the reserved pasta water. My daughter tossed in the eggs she had prepared. I stirred quickly, and you must stir quickly, and added in some more of the reserved water. I added a healthy pinch of black pepper. I grabbed a couple of bowls from our cabinet, and spooned the ditalini into the bowls, covering the pasta with grated parmesan.
Six ingredients, including water, put together with attention and care. A meal created to satisfy even in a time of serious constraints; a meal that filled my mother with awe for what her parents sacrificed, that was passed on to her son who was grafted into that promise; a son who found his way back to Baltimore, where he didn’t know he came from, serving the meal that had sustained generations with nourishment and love and care. I looked at my daughter, enjoying what we had made together. I thought of my grandparents, who would watch over me as I ate. What an incredible life I have been given, I thought. It is too much for me to care for myself. I must entrust it to God, just as I have entrusted her to God. She looked up at me, smiling, wild-eyed, almost done with her bowl of ditalini.
“Oh, my dear,” I said. “You must finish. This is the best part.”
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.
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[…] “Food and the Life of the Nations.” Michael Wear pens a moving essay about Italian-American identity and the role of food in shaping immigrant culture. He begins by reflecting on the meaning of his Italian identity: “The tighter my grip, the more elusive it all feels. I don’t speak Italian, with the exception of a few dozen phrases and whatever sticks from my intermittent Duolingo sprees. My last name isn’t Italian, which opens me to inquisitive, bemused questions from acquaintances about just how Italian I am. What am I chasing? The traditions of my adopted family, which was fairly Americanized by the time I was born? Some connection to my birth family? The Italian-American life that is portrayed and available to me through commercial presentations and media? Or am I pursuing the Old Country, Italy proper?” […]