Monday, May 10, 2010
Eh oh, don't be a stunad...have some gabagool & proshut.
My mother-in-law is visiting right now, so our house is full of the temporary smell of cigarette smoke and old-lady perfume (not meant to be an insult, just a fact). George loves having her around because she tends to drop food on the floor randomly, unknowingly, so he follows her around and waits for the goodies to fall. When she’s here, she makes her old standard recipes that she made when my husband was a kid: asparagus, eggs, & onions (a mixture that is eaten on Italian bread as a sandwich); homemade spaghetti sauce & meatballs with raisins in them (she’s been told repeatedly for 40 years that no one likes the raisins but she insists on them); and chipped beef on toast.
I grew up in a town where everyone was culturally the same: a mixture of various cultural backgrounds, mostly from Europe, whose families had been in the United States for hundreds of years. Until I met my husband, I never even asked what our family background was. I’d never thought about it – no one in my hometown ever claimed any certain heritage. And while I did travel a bit during my life, I always saw other cultures through the eyes of a tourist.
So it was eye-opening to suddenly marry into a family that is Italian. More specifically, Italian American. And I find it fascinating to compare the differences – the generations of Italians that have been here since their grandfathers came over are very different from the Italians who are in Italy. The American experience has morphed them into their own unique culture.
I never noticed this culture until the first time I was taken to my husband’s friend’s house for dinner. It was here that I first heard the loud “Aaaaaaaaaaay!” greeting (rhymes with day or pay) that Italian Americans always seem to use, to greet any long lost friend or relative, or just anyone new who walks in the door.
Lance and I had been dating for about a year when we went to his friend Craig’s Mom’s house for a dinner at Christmastime. Craig and his brother were what I considered almost stereotypical Italian-Americans, minus the New York accent. They were both big guys with dark-tanned skin and facial hair. They wore t-shirts that proclaimed their heritage and talked about wrestling, “Philly”, and their mama’s pasta. Their Mom, Edie, had the Philadelphia accent, short dark hair and constant smile, always telling us to “Eat!” No matter how many times we said we were stuffed, she would open up pots and pans to show what was cooking. “Looooook, it’s Pasta Fazool.” “Looooook, it’s Sausage & Peppers,“ she’d say, lifting lids while constantly stirring a pot of thick red sauce with her other hand. We ended up at the table, which was covered with plates of antipasti and half-eaten pasta. The eating had begun hours ago.
The house was full of activity. Edie ran back and forth between the kitchen stove, the table, and the front room, making sure everyone was eating. The kitchen table was packed shoulder to shoulder with family and friends who were used to piling their plates high when they came to this house. Craig sat at the table next to Lance and yelled a conversation back and forth to his brother Kirk, who sat in the overstuffed chair by the TV with a plate of food on his lap and a can of Coke on the floor. The TV blared a football game – probably some team from back East - because everyone on the couch shouted at the TV every few minutes.
Amid the chaos, somehow Craig heard someone at the door. “Come in!” he yelled above the din, and the door burst open. It was four people Craig and everyone in the room knew well, obviously, because suddenly the whole room – including the couches, kitchen table, and kitchen – erupted in a loud, long “Aaaaaaaaaay!” Edie ran to them, sauce-covered spoon in hand, giving them hugs and a kiss on the cheek. Kirk raised his Coke can in salute and resumed eating his plate of pasta. Not moving from his sardined spot at the table, Craig motioned for them to go into the kitchen, “Come and eat, there’s plenty of room!” but Edie already had them in the kitchen and was opening lids for them to see.
I sat at the kitchen table and marveled at the scene before me, which seemed straight from TV. My hometown had absolutely no minorities or people of any type of culture besides “Mutt,” as Lance called me. But these people were straight out of the kitchen scene from Saturday Night Fever or old gangster movies, which were my only frame of reference for Italian American families. I grinned through the whole meal, glad that this little Hoosier girl had broadened her horizons.
(Since then, I learned that I am a mixture of English, Danish, and Irish, and some of my ancestors fought in the American Revolution. I think it’s good to know where you come from, to give a sense of permanence – a linkage to the land and the people. I thank my husband for giving me reason to discover my history.)