My sister will often say that we were raised like Italian immigrants. Although our parents were born and raised in the US (we even have one grandmother who was born in Boston), I tend to agree with her, especially where food is concerned.
My mother didn’t believe in meals out of a box. If she made it, she made it from scratch. There were no Betty Crocker cake mixes or Kraft macaroni and cheese boxes in our pantry. If she didn’t have time to make it or buy it from a local bakery or mom and pop restaurant, we didn’t eat it. Keep in mind that we were raised in the 1970s and 1980s – the era of Hamburger Helper and its ilk – not in the age of helicopter parenting and organic everything, so this was considered odd.
In the winter, my mother would buy seasonal fruits and vegetables from a local vendor. In the spring summer, and fall my father would provide most of our (and the neighbors’) fruit and vegetables from his garden in our backyard. No mean feat since the backyard was about 100 square feet. I’m talking string beans, tomatoes, zucchini (and zucchini flowers – yum), cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, eggplant, basil, parsley, peaches, plums, apricots, figs, and berries. My mother would send us into the garden with a list of things to harvest for the evenings meal.
The things that appeared on our dinner table would vary, but we were not allowed to reject any food. Of course, there was the normal fair. Chicken (cutlet, roasted, etc.), veal, fish, beef, and pork (sausages, roasted), pasta (sometimes homemade, sometimes not). However, there was tripe, kidney, sheep’s head, pickled pig’s feet, liver, eels, and snails. I’m sure there are things that I’ve forgotten – or blocked, depending on your perspective.
Whenever the family got together, there would always be a mini feast. Whoever was hosting would lay out the antipasto that would contain, at a minimum, prosciutto, dried sweet sausage, capicola, pickled vegetables, roasted peppers, marinated artichokes, olives, cheeses.
I’m grateful I was exposed to such a wide variety of food growing up. I never realized how different it was from how other people ate until I went to college. I had one friend who liked to visit me during break to enjoy the “ethnic” food she would get at my house. To this day, I can’t convince her that swiss chard and bok choy are not the same vegetable.
My upbringing has made me an adventurous eater. I’ll try almost anything (I will not eat a bug, no way, no how, not on purpose). And my eclectic tastes have worked to my benefit when I began my career in international banking and started traveling abroad. Colleagues and clients alike were surprised when they didn’t have to find something the American would eat. I’m been to Asia, Australia, and Europe and never turned my nose at the local cuisine. I can brag that I never sought out the local McDonalds. There was always a food stand or a mom and pop restaurant featuring the local fare, which exposed me to some great dishes, and have bonded with a great many people over the joy of food.
I try to give my children the same opportunities I had growing up. Don’t misunderstand, you will find macaroni and cheese in my pantry, but it’s not a staple, more of a treat. In 2017, the food I enjoyed as a child isn’t exotic and more parents realize the value of cooking from scratch. I must do this so my kids will fit in. At least, that’s what I thought.
My middle son would get mocked in elementary school because of the homemade lunchable we’d make for lunch. Nothing too odd. Capicola, provolone (not the type you get from the deli counter, but hand cut from a wedge), sliced Italian bread, grapes, and nuts. He was told his lunch smelled and looked funny. He was asked how he could eat such weird food. Fortunately, the boy is thick skinned. He would tell them, “My ancestors came from Italy. What smells gross to you smells delicious to an Italian nose.”
My daughter had her friends over for dinner. I made something safe: spaghetti and meatballs. During the meal, one friend holds up a meatball with her fork, and said, “Something is wrong with my meatball. It’s deformed.” My daughter looks at her and asks what she thought a meatball looked like. Apparently, her parents buy frozen meatballs, which are perfectly round. She never had a hand formed meatball before. It opened the door to a conversation about food and how it’s prepared. Her parents are busy and prefer to buy things premade. That’s Ok. However, I felt bad because I don’t think she was convinced that we didn’t give her the rejected meatball.
I went to an event and brought pizzelles. If you’ve never had a pizzelle, try one. They’re an Italian cookie made with a special pizzelle iron. They are flavored with anise extract and anise seeds. You can only make two cookies at a time and they are an expensive cookie to make. A woman picked up a cookie to and bit into it. Her faced dropped when she felt something crunchy. She asked what was in the cookie because she was allergic to nuts. I said, they’re made with anise. She spits the cookie out and goes digging in her purse for her EpiPen, thinking anise is a type of nut. Before she injected the epinephrine, I explained that anise was not in the nut family. I even managed not to comment (come on, if you have a nut allergy, you ask what you’re eating before putting it in your mouth, and you should really know whether something is a nut).
I can’t even escape the differences at family gatherings. My husband’s family isn’t Italian. The kids’ have cousins who are grossed out by olives and don’t understand why I would ever serve them. I can’t make a Caprese salad because we like it made with fresh mozzarella and everyone else likes it with Polly-O (we love their string cheese, and I use it when I make lasagna, just not in Caprese salads). Fish can’t be served because no one eats it. I once made broccoli rabe and they were surprised that the kids ate it, despite the somewhat bitter flavor.
I also get weird looks from other people over what we don’t eat. For example, the only peanut butter I keep in my house is for my husband. The kids and I don’t eat it. It’s not that we dislike it. It’s just not something we crave. The same can be said for pot roast, hot dogs, hamburgers, potatoes. They don’t play a major role in what we eat. My son went to a friend’s house and had Oscar Myer bologna when he was in kindergarten and had to have it for a while because it was so unusual.
There are still differences in what people eat, yet, we’re able to get together at the dinner table and enjoy the company and conversation. Perhaps Ben Franklin was right when he wrote in his autobiography, “[My father] turned our attention to what was good, just and prudent in the conduct of life, and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, or good or bad flavor, preferable or inferior to this or that other thing of the kind; so that I was brought up in such a perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me.”