Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ties That Bind: Holiday Food Traditions of the Italian Diaspora

I recently had the distinct honor of writing an article for the winter issue of Edible Milwaukee magazine about traditions brought to America by Italian immigrants.

The article, Food Traditions of the Italian Diaspora, has been percolating for over a year now, and began when I met a woman named Silvana Bastianutti Kukuljan at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. I was hosting the cookbook stage, and she was making a presentation about the cookbook that the students of her Italian Language and Culture class had created.

The cookbook contains a wide variety of recipes from members of the class -- many of whom are first and second generation immigrants and all of whom have connections to Italy through travel or interest -- as well as anecdotes and information about traditional Italian ingredients.  Guides in the book also provide valuable information for food lovers, including guidelines about the appropriate times of the day to drink espresso, cappucino and the like.

After hearing her presentation -- which included a wide variety of stories about how Silvana and members of her class preserved elements of tradition from their Italian backgrounds and experiences -- the thought of writing their story stayed with me.

So, I was delighted when the concept seemed to fit with the theme of Edible's winter issue, which focuses on traditions, celebrations and overall conviviality.

I'd love for you to read the article, but I also wanted to share an "out-take" that didn't make it to print -- a story shared by Riccardo Sarbello, about his role in helping to make the wine his father sold to friends and neighbors.  Sarbello is a retired professor of physics at UW-Milwaukee whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Toarmina, Sicily in 1920. They settled first in the lower east side of New York, eventually moving and settling more permanently in Brooklyn.
“My father was a cabinet maker by trade. But, he also made wine and was the source of wine for many people where we lived in Brooklyn.
When he would visit people – where you might bring candy or flowers or something – he’d bring a gallon of his wine, and that was very well accepted. In fact, my father courted my mother by bringing gallons of homemade wine to her family.
He used California grapes. He always kept ties to the lower east side where he knew producers and importers of fruits and vegetables. So, in the fall when there were grapes available, he’d have them delivered to the house by truck. He’d take out the basement window and put a slide in. And then they’d push in all these crates – I can still see the “42” on the side of the crates that indicated 42 pounds – and they’d slide in one after another, after another. And then the grapes would go into the press.

We had a big basement; it was one room. And there was a press in the middle with a long, long pole. So two or three people would actually help to push it all around; and I could play a role even when I was eight or ten years old. It was like those old pictures of Samson going around the grindstone.

Then the wine was put into three large barrels and a fourth, smaller one. And for the first two or three weeks you’d have to stir them every night. And that was my job. I could do very little damage that way. I took a pole with a little square piece of wood attached to the bottom that I would push up and down and the bubbles would come up – bloop bloop bloop – that was fun.

My father would always keep a special barrel from each batch. He’d keep gallons of wine from each year so he could say “this is from when my sister got married,” or “this was from 1963” or when this or that happened. Ultimately, those were the worst, because they’d gone past their flavor peak. But the yearly one was always delicious. Good strong red wine that everyone loved.

At the holidays wine was always served with dinner, and of course the eating went on for hours. So there was always ample opportunity for me to go down and get a gallon of some other vintage year of wine.”
And because I can't resist, I'd also like to share the recipe for Fregolotti that Sandragina Ebben shared with me.  It's delicious (which I know firsthand from testing the recipe before I sent it it off for publication) and it makes me wish I had an Italian Nonna to teach me how to bake.

Fregolotti: Italian Almond Cookie

Thank you so much to Sandragina Ebben, Silvana Bastianutti Kukuljan, Gustavo Ricca and Riccardo Sorbello for taking the time to share their stories. I'd also like to thank the Italian language and culture group at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UW-Milwaukee for welcoming me into their world.


1 comment:

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