Those Very Italian Traditions: Guest Post by Laura’s Dad

by Laura on 12/05/2009 · 7 comments

Laura’s note: I’m so excited to share a guest post from my Dad (Ron) on TJCC. His first blog debut was a stellar book review on Laura Reviews.  He’s a writer too, working on a few books as we speak.

In the TJCC spirit of culture and stories, I asked him to share some anecdotes about his childhood and family traditions. And when I read this and talked to him, I learned a ton about my Dad that I never knew – about the rich history of my family’s Italian traditions, my Italian heritage and that my grandmother was a bootlegger.

Even though I never had the chance to meet her, I’m glad she was groovy.

Thanks Dad – this is a great story. You rock.

—-

Growing up in an Italian family, I was lucky to enjoy and share the family’s many customs and traditions.

My father and mother were born in the small village of San Valentino in the Abruzzi region on the eastern side of Italy opposite Rome.  Like many immigrants, they came to “L’America” early in the 20th century, in steerage class of an alleged ocean liner.  They worked hard, maintained their customs, and raised their families.

Our family of five children (two boys; three girls) lived in a two-family house my father built in Peekskill NY; the upper floor had rent-paying tenants.  On the lower floor, my brother and I shared one of the three bedrooms, and my three sisters shared one other bedroom.   There was only one clothes closet in the house  …  in my parents’ bedroom.   So:  unoccupied door knobs were precious items for hanging up what few clothes we had, first come-first served.

Sunday dinner was served at 12 noon SHARP, and included as many as four or five courses of home-made pasta, roast chicken, fresh-made Italian bread  right out of the oven, fresh salad, and the best tasting Italian desserts (The joys of a high carb diet!).

Gardens  …  in the Italian tradition

Each year, a huge vegetable garden was planted, tended, and maintained by my mother (who had an unbelievable talent also for growing beautiful roses), the garden included a tremendous variety of plantings especially tomatoes.  We ate them fresh off the vine!

Another food miracle is fresh figs.   We always had two fig trees.   Eat a ripe fig picked right off the tree, or miss a true treat.  There was a small price to pay, however:  for every winter the fig trees had to be wrapped and buried to prevent freezing.

and Pasta … an Italian Tradition

Pasta has conquered the world!   It’s impossible to give it up.    It is one of the most common and beloved foods, and has its own regional aspect.  As far as its formats, it has a quite almost-infinite number of shapes:   for example: spaghetti, lasagna, noodles, etc.

The best pasta in the world was the spaghetti hand-made by my mother on a typical Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday – homemade pasta days.  On those days too, you woke up in the morning to meatballs being fried.  And if you were lucky, you might get one before they were put in the sauce.

My boyhood friend, Bernard, now an eminent psychiatrist in Boston. ..and also a lawyer . . . always seemed to be playing in our back yard on those three homemade pasta days.  Even he admits that his almost-Adonis-handsome-ness is attributed to “Ma’s “spaghetti.  Besides speaking nine other foreign languages, Bernie also speaks the Abruzzi dialect fluently and claims he didn’t realize he was NOT Italian until he went away to college.

Easter …  in the Italian Tradition

Every Easter when I was a boy, I looked forward to my mom’s Easter pie.  An Italian tradition, “Easter Pie”, as it is known colloquially, is a quiche-like, savory pie, filled with eggs, cheese, meat, and a variety of other possibilities.   ‘Easter Pie’ has many different names and even more recipes, depending on the province or section of Italy in question.

As a kid, all I knew or cared about was that it tasted great!   Little did I know that, decades later, I would be dissecting the intricacies of this festive preparation.

Easter is preceded by Lent, a period of time hallmarked by fasting, particularly from meat on Friday’s.   Come Easter Sunday, it was time to celebrate, splurge and indulge.   Hence, the rich, cheesy and meaty Easter Pie.

Making Wine …  in the Italian Tradition

In October, it was time to make wine.   Wine making in our house was a ceremony.

The basement of our house was a true wine cellar.   The wine grapes needed were purchased from an Italian fruit vendor (of course!).  All one needed to get started was to select and buy the grapes, a ceremony in itself.

My father’s wine-making methods were not scientific at all.  Just about everything he did was “by feel”.  Zinfandel was the red wine he made…. and it always turned out to be the right color, taste, and bouquet.

He used barrels made of Yugoslavian oak, and each year the barrels had to be filled with water so the wood could swell and the barrels wouldn’t leak.  It was difficult to clean the barrels and to make sure there were no bacteria that would ruin the wine.

For me, the most fun was crushing the grapes with our feet.   What a great feeling having all those grapes squishing between our toes.

My father seemed to know just when the fermentation process was complete.  He was always right.  Would you believe he used phases of the autumn moon as his ‘calendar’?  The barrels were then sealed snugly with a cork bung to allow the fermentation to finish, and to allow the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation to displace any air or oxygen in the top of the barrel.

Weeks later, when it came time to ‘tap’ the barrel (each containing about 50 gallons of wine); the wine was transferred to one-gallon jugs using only new screw-on caps.  This sealed the wine in a much smaller container than the barrel and made it much easier to pour into a large tumbler.

Drinking Wine …  in the Italian Tradition

As a result, I was four years old the first time I was drunk.  My father and his friend Alfonso were in another part of the cellar when I chose to emulate them by drinking the wine from a tumbler.

My father wanted to take me to the hospital, but my mother –- always the practical person –-   said “He’s drunk, he‘ll be alright tomorrow.”

Years later, I was allowed to share the ‘tapping of the barrel” ceremony. Sipping away, I commented to my father:   “Pop!  This is a good year! ”

His response was:  “Ronnie, when it comes to wine, EVERY YEAR IS A GOOD YEAR”.

Coda

Of course, I miss most of these aspects of my life. The only thing I wish was that my five children could have met their Italian grandmother and grandfather.

But, I’ve done my best to bring them to my children. Call it heritage, call it tradition, call it ‘roots’. It’s important for me to pass on these stories.

The good news: the seven of us have created new traditions. And I can only hope that my children pass on our stories to their families as I’ve tried to do for them.

What are some family traditions that have been passed down to you? How have you – or how will you – pass them on to your children?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Danielle Cococcia December 5, 2009 at 10:34 AM

Go Daddio!!! Great post…makes me hungry for pasta–even though it’s only 9:30am!

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Josh Hanagarne December 5, 2009 at 2:56 PM

Every year my wife and I have a night of ham-themed gluttony called “Night of friends and ham.” We buy two or three hams, invite tons of people over, and eat until they’re gone.

I’ve already started Max on this tradition. At 21 months, he’s already been through his first NOFAH.

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Chrissy Martini Wright December 5, 2009 at 7:02 PM

Nice memories, Uncle Ron! I’m glad I was able to at least know my “PAPA” — he was quite a character!

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Laura December 6, 2009 at 10:11 AM

@Danielle – yes, made me hungry too. Good old Dad.

@Josh – NOFAH. OMG. That sounds both very scary and quite fun. Leave it to you and Janette to have the most fun life.

@Chrissy – thank you for commenting :) I’m glad you were able to experience much of this story too.

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Terrance Koinzan November 23, 2010 at 10:37 AM

Man, my grandmother was from Sicily and she made the most amazing meatballs I ever tasted, like you wouldnt believe. Sadly, she didnt leave a recipe for me so I’ve been trying to figure it out by myself… slowly working my through the meatball recipes here, I still cant figure out what her secret ingredient was though!!!

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Laura November 25, 2010 at 7:43 PM

Hey Terrance -Glad to see you on here! I just, ironically, got a call from my mom to let me know they had the classic family meatballs for Thanksgiving. Another food that seems the cornerstone of so many of our lives! Aah, the secret ingredient may never come through, but you should create your own! A whole new meatball (with a new secret). Hope you had a great day and thanks for sharing you cool story.

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