In the 1960’s, I grew up visiting my father’s Italian family on the weekends. We made regular visits to my grandparents which was 20-minutes away. The house was in the middle of a very ethnic neighborhood of a northeastern city.
It was a multi-occupancy house, it had two-floors with a functional basement and a very large garage. During that time in history, many families lived that way.
My grandmother and her three sisters shared space in this large house. My grandparents lived on the first floor. Across the hallway is where my Aunt M and her husband lived.
My Aunt J, her husband, and their daughter lived on the second floor. My uncle unfortunately passed away from cancer before I was born.
I couldn’t wait to run up the flight of stairs to see my Aunt J and my Cousin B.
My Aunt J always had a full meal waiting for me, I look forward to spending time with them.
They were so sincere and holy. My cousin B was a rare and pure soul. My Aunt J was so loving and welcoming. They were both wonderful.
Additionally, my Aunt L lived with them, in a very small room. She had a learning disability. My Aunt L was very child-like and sweet. We both loved seeing each other.
In my mind there are vivid and long-lasting images of that house, let me take you on a journey.
Entrance to The House: The entrance to my grandmother’s house was through a side door.
It was a holy experience visiting my grandparents. There was a small holy water font in the form of the blessed mother’s face which was nailed into the wall. I would bless myself by dipping my pointer finger into the holy water and making a cross on my forehead. In that instant I felt the protection that surrounded me.
Kitchen: After opening the door, I would be standing in my grandparent’s kitchen. The first thing I would see is my grandfather sitting at the kitchen table smoking his Camel cigarettes while drinking a cup of coffee.
His face lit up each and every time he saw me. My Papa would always say the same thing “my dolly, my baby” in a deep joyful voice.
This would always make me feel so special
In my grandmother’s kitchen there was a refrigerator, a sink against the wall and a washer and dryer. Her kitchen table was quite large for that small area. That’s where all of us gathered for our meals. Her stove and oven were attached. She cooked her meals on top of the stove while using the oven to bake her homemade pies and bread.
Her dishes were stored in a shelf behind the kitchen table. On top of the shelf was a huge tin of old-fashion hard candies. The assortment was wild. My Papa and I loved the anise (pronounced an·ise) candy covered in a red wrapper.
It was a delicious licorice hard candy.
-Bathroom: Off the kitchen was a very small bathroom (tub, toilet and mirror) The bathroom only fit one person. There was no walking space.
-Living Room: It was off the kitchen, it was a small room. It had a couch, a chair, a recliner and a TV. My Papa always sat in that black recliner that faced the TV. The couch and chair matched. The décor was very retro. The chair was extremely unique, it swiveled. The color of the fabric was turquoise and had silver tinsel interwoven through it. Even though it was classy and stylish; when you sat on it, it was very itchy.
-There was a ceramic statue of a lamb on the floor. It was in between the TV and the couch. It didn’t fit in. My grandmother loved it, but it was tacky. Thinking back, it must have had sentimental value to her.
Bedroom: There was a bedroom off the kitchen. This is where I slept when visiting my grandparents. There was a double dresser and a double bed. There was no room between the bed and the dresser. It was very cramped.
On my grandmother’s dresser she had a jewelry box. It was full of the most beautiful costume jewelry you could imagine. I used to go through it all the time.
The bracelets and earrings were gorgeous. It was high quality jewelry, not like the costume jewelry of today.
In the top dresser drawer there was several packages of juicy fruit and double mint gum. She would always offer me the gum. It was another ritual.
I remember waking up at 5:30 am to the smell of freshly baked pies and bread. I would open the expandable door from the bedroom to the kitchen. My grandmother would always be busy cooking and baking.
She always had at least two things cooking on the stove at one time. She would cook lunch and dinner simultaneously. There were fresh pies in the oven and fresh dough was on the table ready to make bread, pies, pizza, or raviolis all from scratch.
My grandmother was not formally trained but she was great at baking pies. Her pie crust was amazing! It was light, flaky and browned perfectly on the top.
A pastry chef once told my grandmother “the reason why your pies always come out perfect is because your naturally warm hands mix the yeast and flour to make the dough rise perfectly every time”.
The pies looked like a work of art. She was like an artist not a baker. She was so talented that local restaurants hired her to bake their pies. She specialized in Apple, Boston Crème, and Lemon Meringue.
In today’s world we would have captured her talent by video or by pictures. What a shame, all I have are memories.
It was impossible for people to duplicate her talent, so I appropriated (take something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission) her recipes. I hijacked her recipes and made them my own.
My grandmother’s youngest sister (my Aunt M) was also very talented. She specialized in baking Italian cookies (Italian S-Cookies, Sesame Cookies, Pizzelle Cookies and Wine Cookies). Her cookies were the best I ever tasted.
Not to mention, she was the number one chocolate dipper at Fowler’s Chocolate.
Let’s Talk Aunt M’s Cookies….
Wow, I was so lucky to have great female foodies teaching me how to cook and bake. This is how I became a connoisseur and gourmand at a very young age.
My grandfather was a blessing in my life. His male influence shaped me as much as my aunts and grandmother did. One of my favorite things my grandfather and I did was walk together. We would walk around the front and back yard. He would hold my hand and I would pick up the chestnuts that had fallen off the tree. My grandfather would always tell me “don’t eat those chestnuts, they are not like the chestnuts we bake in your grandmother’s kitchen”
At the end of the walk I would tell my papa “I will see you in the house”. I would then walk down a flight of stairs to their basement. I don’t know what my fascination was with the basement because it never changed. It was spacious, dark, and damp.
The garage was huge, it had big wooden doors, and everything was concrete. I remember there was always this old oil can in the corner of the garage.
What was weird was that there was never a car in the garage. It was kind of strange because not many of my family members drove. Now looking back, it makes sense why my Grandmother and my Aunts walked to church, the grocery store and the bakery.
The Bakery: The bakery was run by Pasquale, he emigrated to the US in 1905. He came from Castelgrande-Potenza, Italy.
He was a baker by profession, and established his first bakery in 1918, he later opened his second bakery in 1928. My grandmother used to say, “It was the only place you can get good bread in this town, unless I bake it myself”
I used to walk to the bakery with my grandmother. It was ½ mile away and I hated the walk. I felt like I was going back in time. At my home we drove every where.
When I got to the bakery the only thing that was worth the walk was the cookie that was waiting for me. The first words I heard when I entered were “Honey, I gotta the cookie for you” in broken English. I used to love those fresh baked cookies. Cholate Chip was my favorite.
There were a lot of incredible memories in that home for me. This atmosphere was a lot like the movie (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
The Positives of My Family Culture
-Loyalty (through thick or thin your family will always be there for you).
-Family is your top priority (blood is thicker than water).
-Family traditions (sauce served on Sundays with everyone attending).
-Family members saw each every week.
-When family members saw each other their level of love was off the charts. They embraced, they hugged and kissed (men included).
-The love they showed each other was endless.
-Family holidays or birthdays were a big part of our lives. -When we celebrated there was always a special dinner and a specialty cake or dessert.
-Cousins were not only family members but best friends.
-There were very conservative defined roles (men had to be tough and protective all the time and women were expected to act feminine).
– A family centric environment that was very close knit.
The Negatives of My Culture
-They are rude and impolite.
– Very chaotic people.
– Everyone is constantly yelling.
-No one listens to each other because everyone is fighting to be heard.
-There is arguing and loving at the same time, it’s very confusing.
-Parents are very possessive over their children.
-The fathers were never pleased, everything had to be perfect every time.
-They lacked consideration for anyone who is not part of the natural family.
-Outsiders can never be really in the family.
-Not open-minded to any other culture.
Rituals & Superstitions
-Unfounded superstition-the malocchio (Italian horn necklace) it protected you from jealousy and warded off people trying to harm you.
-We were told if we didn’t eat the sardine on New Years we would not have good luck in the up and coming year.
-You never cut the birthday cake all the way through because it was a guarantee that something bad would happen to you. It would also negate your birthday wish.
The Love of Food
-You are taught that food is an answer to everything.
-Food could make you forget all your problems.
-Food was not only nourishment, it was love.
-Food was the way you expressed yourself.
Results of Eating Together as a Family
-You opened up to others.
-You learned manners.
-You felt connected.
-Sometimes conflicts are resolved.
-At the end of a good meal with those you love you feel less stressed.
My life with food and family are one in the same. The love and passion that was passed down to me will forever live in my heart. It has been many years since my grandparents have passed. Their legacy of love continues. My dad carried on the traditions of food and family for me and my children. I am so grateful.
Every weekend my dad would bring home specialty donuts for all of us. My favorites were the peanut donuts, angel donuts, blueberry donuts (with real blueberries), and many others.
Powdered Sugar Donut (Fur Donut)
I will never forget how my children anxiously awaited the Saturday morning delivery of donuts from their Papa. My youngest son would say “Papa don’t forget to bring me the donuts with the fur on them” (powdered sugar)
My dad and I would eat fresh dipped sponge candy in his car. He would hide the left over sponge candy in the glove box in his car.
Easter day we would go to church as a family and end the day with a great Easter brunch at a high-end restaurant. My dad always bought all the girls fresh flowers. We also got Easter baskets that were overflowing with gifts and great quality chocolate.
On Valentine’s day my father would buy me the most expensive and exquisite chocolate hearts.
On Christmas, my dad would buy me a 2-foot solid chocolate Santa.
Wednesday was the only day my dad had off, so we would eat a special dinner with a filet and a lobster tail drizzled with butter (Italian Surf & Turf).
He would also take me to the mall and we would shop for clothes and get my hair done. Our last stop would be our favorite bakery to buy Flaked Pastry Hearts. OMG… So Good…
After reviewing this blog post, I bet you are wondering how I am not in rehab for loving sugar and food.
Me Too, The End…
-noun food·ie \ ˈfü-dē \
-Definition of foodie: a person having an avid interest in the latest food fads.
-noun gour·mand \ ˈgu̇r-ˌmänd , -mənd \
-Definition of gourmand
-1: one who is excessively fond of eating and drinking
-2: one who is heartily interested in good food and drink
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