Bonded by tradition

Part of the beauty of the Italian people is there sense of abandonment to life. When visiting Italy for the first time, I felt near-drunk on the exuberance of the people on the streets, in the cafés, or watching people chatter in the piazzas.  Like animated characters in a film, everyone seemed to have a story that was bigger than life.  Even more fascinating though, was my connection to the people and the lifestyle in Italy.  It felt like I was among family.

Italian’s have a deep connection to food.  It is one of the cornerstones of Italian culture.  No matter how frenzied life becomes, there is nothing more important than gathering together around a meal–even if only sharing an espresso, it is the connector for life. Every city and town has markets where people shop for fresh fruit, meat, vegetables and fish.  If one doesn’t find what they need with the food vendors, there are also supermarkets and small shops specializing in one type of food.  Italians find great pleasure in sitting at a table, whether at home, in a restaurante, or in a café and sharing a meal together.  Everything around you slows down to a glacial speed, while the food is being enjoyed.  It is a moment to savor life!

My parents were always on the go.  My mother, a concert violinist and music professor always had something going on.  My father was equally busy.  He was an opera conductor, music arranger and composer, and actually didn’t open his restaurant until I was in my late teens.  Life in our household was filled with two things:  Music and food.  Yet, in  the midst of so much busyness, they still found time to gather the troupes and enjoy cuisine together.

Holiday’s were out of control.  My parents had an over-sized music studio that housed not only a grand piano, a cello, several violins and a flute, but a pool table.  The pool table was a lot of fun, but it was functional as well.  About four days before Easter, my father would line up several huge pots in the kitchen and make bucket-loads of sauce.  The process began something like this:  Using large beef neck bones, he would brown the meat in about ¼ cup of olive oil, adding seasonings (marjoram, oregano, basil, rosemary and anise or fennel and salt and pepper) and about 5-6 fresh cloves of crushed garlic to the mix.  When the meat was browned, and covered with the seasonings, he would add several cans of Progresso (it had to be Progresso) canned tomatoes in puree and several cans of puree, about ¾ cup of red wine and ½ cup of fresh (finely-grated) romano cheese.  He would then fill the water to the brim and the cooking process began!  It was an all-day adventure.  I won’t even begin to tell discuss the mess he made.  Mamma mia!

Once the sauce was underway, he spent 2 solid days rolling out homemade ravioli that were the size of a clutch purse!  They were truly remarkable, and undeniably calorie-loaded. He would lay out bed linens on our pool table and literally layer ravioli on the table, filling it from side-to-side, and stacking at least 2-3 layers.  I think he made around 300 raviolis for family and friends.

Easter morning was always a scene, because my dad was the choir director at the Catholic cathedral and my mother played the organ.  We rose early, got dressed in our Sunday finest and went to mass. Admittedly, that was never the fun part of Easter Sunday for me.  It was the food aftermath, which began with an Easter egg hunt in the backyard with family and friends.  While my father was in the kitchen cooking the ravioli’s, and tending a roasting lamb, the kids (and my mom) were running amuck outside, gathering every piece of candy we could find.  Keep in mind that desserts were not normally a part of our diet, so Easter-egg hunts were epic adventures.

The table was prepared with absolute care. From one platter of food to the next, there was little space for much else.  The only real challenge was that our stomachs couldn’t possibly hold that much food, and within the first 10 minutes of eating, we were as stuffed as the raviolis that were prepared.

Holiday meals were not just about sharing food and wine together, but they were also the stage for sharing one family story after another.  If our sides didn’t ache from all of the food we devoured, guaranteed they nearly popped from laughter.

I am sure most Italian’s would relate to this scenario.  The connection with food, family life, and the abandonment to it is what makes life full.  It is not just about eating; it’s about tradition.  We don’t just have a relationship with the food, but an indissoluble bond.

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4 responses to “Bonded by tradition

  1. You captured it and well said. I should share with you a poem written by my Italian mentor and PhD advisor about his Mom’s tradition of making cous cous by hand back in the day. His memories as a child before WW II. I’ll see if I can find it, and if not will ask him again…

  2. Thanks so much! I would love to see the poem! I do think there is probably a certain reliability here in my little familia stories that will be shared by most Italians who read this. Thanks so much!!! It’s been a hard transition for me in many ways, but one that I am fully embracing, and STILL very committed to the abandonment to life and the love of life so prevalent among the Italians.

  3. COUS-COUS
    by Rino Di Bartolo

    It was a rite, not a preparation.
    She would get up
    at four o’clock in the morning,
    to make the cous-cous.

    It took hours
    and hours of work,
    the rolling of the tiny balls
    of semolina.

    And then there was the cooking,
    with water vapor.
    She had four hands like Vishnu,
    because, at the same time,
    she prepared the broth with fish,
    thick, exhaling all the flavours
    of the Sicilian Sea.

    And there was the pouring
    of the broth over the cous-cous,
    and the covering of it with blankets,
    so that not a molecule of flavour
    would escape.

    And there was the waiting,
    while the broth would seep
    inside every tiny little ball,
    and, finally, the triumphant arrival
    of the cous-cous at the table,
    amid shouts of approval,
    praise, thanks.

    It was so every time
    that I went back to Sicily.
    But the last time,
    I found my father in bed,
    fallen, like a tall oak,
    cut near its roots.

    My mother was sitting
    by his side, looking at him,
    almost helplessly.
    But, suddenly, I saw
    a twinkling in her eyes;
    she smiled at me
    and said:
    “Tomorrow I will make cous-cous.”

    (Spoleto, July 1996)

  4. This is so endearing. What a sweet poem… It reminds me of my father and his family and all of the preparation of the foods we ate. Hours upon hours…day after day, it was the combination plate of tradition and dedication. Thanks for sharing this!

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