Disclaimer... I don't speak Italian, and I haven't always felt Italian.
About 2 years ago, when I was working as a traveling SLP, one of my patients and I somehow started talking about my heritage. She learned through our conversation that though I am "mostly Italian", I do not speak the language, as it wasn't passed down through my family's generations. She told me that my not speaking Italian made her very sad, "an erasure of culture," she called it while shaking her head. She looked devastated actually, and I became sad too. Until then, I didn't realize that part of my heritage, the language part, had indeed been erased.
It's hard to believe, I know, that there was a time when this country shunned immigrants and viewed them as threats to society, practically forcing them to stop speaking their native languages. After coming to America, many Italian immigrants only spoke Italian in private and were strategic in keeping it from their kids. They knew that passing down the language could be detrimental to their children's success in this country. They might be called names and slurs, treated differently at school, or told to "go back to where you came from."
On one hand is my lack of ability to speak the Italian language, and on the other hand is an identity crisis of sorts when it comes to Italian food. In college I began to doubt my knowledge of Italian food, even though I grew up eating it and had just started to take interest in cooking it, particularly when I was missing home. I would buy cold cuts to make Italian subs like the ones perfected by Jersey Italian delis, and I would call my Grandma for a quick summary on how to make stuffed peppers, which is still one of my favorite meals she makes.
However, friends who studied abroad in Florence and Rome loved to report back on how different real Italian food was, nothing like what we have here. They'd talk about the food being lighter and fresher and sounded surprised, enlightened even, by this realization. It made me feel like my Italian culinary practices weren't the real thing, like I didn't know what I was doing or why.
I turned to local restaurants in Boston's North End and other neighborhoods to figure it out. Many of these restaurants, after all, are family owned businesses that have been in the same family for generations. Even some of the more unique meals they served shared similarities with my family's cooking. I'd eat delicious handmade pastas and sauces, tender braised meats, and luscious desserts, but I'd leave feeling confused. "Was that real Italian food?"
It took me all 5 years away from home to realize that every Italian American chef cooking Italian food, however authentic, whatever that means, is still participating in the evolution of a cuisine. It should never have come as a surprise to me or my college peers that the Italian cuisine in Italy and America are vastly different; they would surely have to be. Italian food in America has evolved over more than 100 years, starting with the immigrant himself modifying his own family's recipes to suit his new needs here, using what he had, substituting when necessary, all while making sure he didn't smell like garlic, God forbid!
Unlike me, many of my relatives have always related deeply to their Italian heritage despite not speaking the language or having been to Italy, and they've done so mostly through food, or more accurately, family gatherings surrounding food.
There's this interesting intersection of Italian food and language that my family makes no effort to hide. We quite loudly approximate Italian words, particularly Italian food words, such as antipast, hot supersad, manigot, and galamad. These are celebration foods, and their Italian-ish names are accompanied by memories of big holiday meals, back when missed loved ones were still alive, back when the now-teens were toddlers, and Sunday dinners drew a much larger crowd. When we say salut instead of cheers, we're flaunting our roots rather than hiding them, lucky that our great great grandparents at least left us with some Italian lingo, mostly food-related, for us to celebrate.
I've come to understand that these traditions surrounding food, family, and yes, even language, have always been the basis of our culture. I guess I am really Italian, afterall!
I also have my name, Gianna Nebbia. It was literally made for me, as if my parents could see future adult me and choose the perfect name for their newborn daughter. Nebbia is an actaul word in Italian. It means fog, which is admittedly a boring word semantically, but it is a word. It reminds me, noncoincidentally, of Nebbiolo wine, which I always order if I see it on a wine list at a restaurant. "Ah yes, Nebbiolo, the foggy grape. I'll have that."
Nebbiolo is a good place to start talking about this recipe, which is a ragù by definition: a sauce made of meat and tomatoes. This ragù, however, flaunts a generous addition of red wine. I should note, my family doesn't call it ragù, maybe because there's a jarred sauce of the same name, and jarred sauces are a big no-no in my family. We simply call it meat sauce or gravy.
My Grandma usually serves her meat sauce over fusilli and with a side of ricotta, which is a delicious way to enjoy it. Ricotta is a mild, creamy, and slightly sweet cheese, which is perfect for enhancing both the flavor and texture of her meat sauce. As much as I love it, I don't typically keep ricotta in my fridge, so I go a different route- alcohol.
Alcohol also adds a layer of sweetness and complexity to food, and complexity is something I tend to enjoy. Using wine in my ragù does not replace ricotta, but it serves a similar purpose of adding sweet richness to the dish.
Originally, I would only add small amounts of red wine to my meat sauce, but in recent years, the quantity has certainly increased. In fact, it has increased so much that the dish really requires a new name, hence "Ragù Molto Vinoso" or "Extra Winey Meat Sauce" was born with a little help from Google Translate and my friend Amanda who does speak Italian. As of right now, I'm set on 1 cup of red wine being the perfect amount for this recipe, but who knows how the recipe will evolve over time? Its name can accommodate, for a while at least.
Food for Thought...
- What traditions or traits make your culture what it is?
- How do you learn more about your culture or heritage even if some aspects of it have been erased?
- Can you bring back an aspect of culture that has been erased? For example, if I were to learn to speak Italian as an adult, would it become part of my Italian culture even though it was not taught to me by my parents?
Let me know what you think by commenting below, or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org