Here’s another excerpt from The Making of an Italian Cook, an essay book I’m working on.
Am I Italian?
I always sensed something off about my family. Almost all the Italian-Americans I knew had a pride of heritage. We didn’t. Once my cousin Leslie asked me if I thought our family was German. That was peculiar. I believe she asked because despite all the obviously Italian food served by my father’s parents, my grandfather Nick had a passion for German cuisine, probably thinking it more refined or at least less immigrant than all the ‘oily’ vegetables that were brought to his table by his wife, my grandmother, Gertrude (and what Italian family would name a baby Gertrude? Sounds Germanic to me). In the winters when our extended family all shared a house in Hollywood Florida, the Hofbrauhaus was Nick’s favorite place to dine, and he’d order pigs knuckles there. In winter months, back in New York, he ate lunch at Luchow’s at least once a week, favoring the Wiener Schnitzel, which any real Italian will tell you is basically veal scallopine. We do have a lot of blond hair and blue eyes in the family, so I actually started to wonder myself when Leslie proposed this question. We were both teenagers at the time, so it was also perplexing that this matter hadn’t gotten straightened out earlier.
My grandmother insisted, when asked (which wasn’t often, since most of the cousins were put off by her surliness and migraine headaches), that she was born in Darien, Connecticut. Now, I knew Darien to be a WASP stronghold, so something was wrong here. No Italian was spoken at home, though I later learned that Nick spoke fluent Italian, but only to his help, the greenskeepers, and the caddies at the country clubs where he worked as a pro, the same profession my father took on. Nick changed our surname from Di Menna to De Mane, wore clothing out of Thin Man movies, and spoke with an exaggerated, almost Katharine Hepburn-style Yankee accent. It was strange. There was no “O Sole Mio”-ing, hand biting, or Malocchio threats in our family. And my uncle, my father’s brother, Jack, was a birdwatcher. What self respecting guinea would be caught doing that?
When the Italian cooking bug came over me in high school I thought about this odd situation often. I also wondered why most of my classmates assumed I was Jewish. When I told them I was Italian, they thought I was pulling some kind of downwardly mobile joke. I believe they figured that since I took Martha Graham dance classes and didn’t snap gum and wiggle my ass all over the school hallways, Italian I couldn’t be. Such stereotypes existed in Nassau County in the 1970s, perpetuated in part by me, because I felt them.
I let several years go by before I finally asked my aunt Judy about our hazy heritage. She was the only one left I hadn’t approached, figuring since she had married into the family, she’d really have no clue. She told me that nobody really talked about it. This I had already determined for myself. I was about to just accept that weird is weird and sometimes you have to move on, when she added that there were two aunts of my father’s, Filomena and Lucy Riccio, who actually kept in touch with relatives from the “old country” and even visited the “town” every few years. Wow. Was this ever news. A town, a real town? When I asked my father about this alleged town, and I could tell he was being perfectly honest, he said he had no idea. But Judy mentioned that it would be okay to discretely contact the two spinster great aunts, both in their 90s and living together in Port Chester, both retired make-up ladies who had worked in fancy drugstores, and both, I would soon discover, still keeping the trim but curvy figures they had had as young gals.
I was now living in the city and had several years of bar-hopping behind me, and I decided it was time I cooked again, a preoccupation that had consumed me for much of my teenagehood. And most important, this time around I knew I had to focus exclusively on Southern Italian food, the flavors I had grown up with, the palate I loved. To follow this path still thinking my father’s family might be German seemed perverse. So I set out to give the two old dames a call.
Coincidently, and sadly, my grandfather died just around the time I learned this liberating information from Judy, and the two Riccio “girls” happened to be present at his funeral. We were introduced there, so a phone call proved unnecessary. These ladies, with their neat chignons (was our family actually French?), both as elegant as can be in high heels and pencil skirts, had heard I was planning to get in touch and couldn’t have been more thrilled to meet me face-to-face. After the funeral everyone went back to my uncle Jack’s house for the big lunch, salami, provolone, heroes with sausage and peppers, veal and peppers, baked rigatoni with sausage and peppers. But the Riccio girls had their plates stacked high with pignoli cookies, ricotta cheese cake, lemon puffs, cannolis, sugar-glazed taralli, and drank big tumblers of red wine. “We only eat dessert,” Filomena told me. So that’s the secret to their youthful figures, I thought, but also possibly to their somewhat batty dispositions. They were both oddly giggly, possibly a tad inappropriate at a funeral, but nobody reprimanded them, so I guess they got a pass (probably the family felt sorry for them, since neither ever married, or ignored them, jealous of their legs). But boy, did they want to talk about Castelfranco in Miscano, the little hilltown on the boarder of Puglia and Campania where my grandmother was born. In fact, that turned out to be where Nick came from too, where everyone in my father’s family came from. How is it nobody except these two old make-up queens from Port Chester took immense pride in their family background? It’s one of those mysteries of life, sort of. I say sort of because I’ve since come to understand that I hail from a family of snobs, and a dusty little chicken scratch hell hole in the middle of nowhere just wouldn’t do as an ancestral home. This town should be stuffed way in the back of the closet and suffocated to death, never to embarrass anyone again. It was as simple and as unfortunate as that. Lucy and Filomena gave me a list of names and addresses of relatives to contact in Castelfranco. Now I could finally get to work.
I started researching food from around Castelfranco’s landlocked area and what did I come up with? My grandmother’s cooking is what, down to the details—taralli with raw fennel and celery brought out after dinner, almost as a dessert; vinegar peppers stuffed with anchovies; peppers stuffed with sausage; dandelion soup; baby meatballs with diced potatoes held in suspension by cooked-down tomato paste; ciambotta loaded with every vegetable and herb from the summer garden; stubby pasta and ceci beans in an oniony broth; braised pork cooked in red wine, tomatoes, and dried oregano; flat fuzzy string beans stewed in tomato sauce; escarole cooked to death with hot pepper flakes and a bucket of olive oil.
Now I had a plan. I would visit Castelfranco. And was old Gert ever mad when she got wind of this. But Filomena and Lucy found the prospect of my making this trip titillating. However, they strongly urged me to attend the Castelfranco in Miscano reunion festival held every August in Stratford, Connecticut, before I set out on my Italian journey. Evidently many Castelfrancese had settled in Bridgeport and Stratford, and others, like most of my father’s relatives, wound up not far away in Port Chester and Rye, New York.
So off I went to Connecticut, along with my sister, Liti, and my newish boyfriend, Fred, to what turned out to be a rather sinister geriatric picnic where we were viewed as interlopers and maybe worse.
I hadn’t been told it was a potluck affair, and I arrived without a pot, so we started out on the wrong foot. Clusters of people sat and ate or played cards outside at picnic tables, and a bunch more gathered inside at a kind of community rec room. We were at least three decades younger than most of them. I introduced myself around. Some of these oldsters knew my grandparents, most had heard of them, saying they were the rich Castelfrancese, because Gert’s family owned a large construction business (although it seemed they all owned construction businesses). I was introduced to three women named Gertrude, but pronounced ger-TRU-day, the Italian way. At least that cleared up one mystery. Evidently Gertrude had once been a popular name for women in old Castelfranco, probably after a foreign saint they happened to fancy.
I hooked on to a guy named Riccio, since that was Filomena and Lucy’s last name and I assumed we were related. He said he didn’t think so, but then added that everyone was related, since there were only about ten surnames in Castelfranco (I had heard rumors that my grandparents were first cousins). I told Mr. Riccio I was interested in learning to cook Italian food. At first he got all excited and brought over a sampling of a baked eggplant thing that one of the Gertrudes had put together. It tasted exactly like the one my grandmother always made, with hard-boiled eggs worked into the layers, and provolone. He spoke about the Castelfranco cookbook the group had self-published and how excellent it was. But then I made the mistake of saying I was considering a career in cooking, which I actually wasn’t at the time, but it was interesting that I told him that, since about a year later it turned out to be true. I asked him if I could get a copy of the cookbook, my family heritage cookbook, and with that his attitude all of a sudden changed. He became suspicious and haughty, saying I was too young to have a copy (did I look too young to read?) and that Nick and Gertrude came from the snooty side of the clan (okay, he got that right).
I went on in my most charming (I thought) manner about how I’d been wanting to learn more about my background and how it all meant so much to me and how cooking seemed so much a part of it all (in the case of my family, the only part), but I got the feeling Mr. Riccio had decided I was a meddling journalist whose game was to get a hold of those coveted recipes and sell them to Gourmet or The New York Times, taking credit for the whole thing. I actually don’t know what the hell he was thinking, but he sure gave me a song and dance about that cookbook. He told me not to ask any of the Gertrudes about it, because it was so dear to them. So I changed the subject, sort of, and starting telling him about some of the dishes my family made, ones I really loved like braised mini-meatballs with string beans and tomatoes. Was this a typical Castelfranco preparation, I asked Mr. Riccio? And then he got this strange look in his eyes, almost as if he were dreaming (he may have been drunk by now) and started describing to me one “very special” recipe that was in this amazing, secret book.
He told me that in Castelfranco a distinguished and time-honored preparation was begun by hacking off a big hunk of raw pork (a pork shoulder, I asked? He didn’t answer me) and hanging it from a tree with thick rope, elevating it high—so any wild boars wouldn’t get at it, I assumed. Then you took a huge loaf of bread, ripped it open, and placed it on the ground directly beneath the pork. The pork, over a period of two weeks (no salting here?), would drip blood and fat on the bread, soaking it through completely (I suppose by now even a wild animal would leave this rancid soaked bread alone). As a result, he explained, you’d have a complete meal, air-dried pork and blood-soaked bread. Hey, a few tumblers of Strega and you have the perfect Castelfranco meal. Was he trying to make fun of me or scare me away? I concluded it was a bit of both. This was truly baffling. Why were these people so suspicious and hostile and willing to go to such extremes to deter some curious kid who was obviously a member of the greater New York extended Castelfranco family? All I can say for sure is that he really didn’t want me to get my hands on that cookbook. And I didn’t.