Foodways, Food Traditions, Gardens


Foodways, Food Traditions, Gardens

See: FOOD & RESTAURANTS , Introduction; Restaurants, Bakeries, Markets, Gelato, etc. See: CELEBRATIONS, Folk Festivals St. Josephís Tables)


Olives picked for home curing
(photo by Diana Lundin)
Food, of course, has a primal role in Italian culture, and it is that part of Italian cultural most readily experienced (literally, consumed) by the American public at large. It may not be generally known that food traditions show a tenacity and longevity unmatched by any other area of Italian folklifeópossibly because entrusted primarily to women (generally the conservators of family food traditions), partly because what we are taught to eat and how we are taught to eat it becomes so deeply ingrained, is so integrated into a sense of well-being (social and physical), that we do not easily change such habits.

Traditional foodways range from herb and vegetable gardens to curing olives, making wine, to various forms of socialization around food (family dinners to festive occasions). It is no coincidence that many Italian families are involved in some aspect of food production and distribution, often as family-owned businesses. In the past these included: canneries, pasta and cheese production, grocery stores, delis, and restaurantsó many of which continue today (e.g., Costa Pasta Mfg., Claroís Markets). In California furthermore, Italians have historically played a central role in wine and agriculture, as well as in (San Pedro) fisheries (Further reading: Gloria Ricci Lothrop, Italians of Los Angeles, Historical Society of Southern California, 2003.)


Street food vendor at the San Gennaro
festival 2004: fresh raw seafood by Frankie
A common food language. What in linguistics is called a koinÈ (a common language which emerges when different linguistics groups come into contact) may be found in Italian American food as well. A common food language has arisen that cuts across Italian regional lines (but finds its main sources in central and southern Italian cuisine). When pan-Italian club events take place (the common dinner dance, a picnic, or festival) the structure of a typical dinner will include pasta with red sauce, meat and vegetables (sometimes heaped together on a single plate, American-style), and perhaps cannoli for dessert. At a picnic or less formal event, the pepper and sausage sandwich might be found. Memory of regional specialties had been generally lost (e.g., Northern specialties such as polenta or risotto)before regional Italian specialties became better known in mainstream restaurant culture in recent years. Regionally-based groups such as the Fameja Veneta however have clung to polenta dinners from its inception in the early 1990s. Again, the growing attention to regional Italian foods in restaurants, has made "regional consciousness" a growing phenomenon among Angelenos in general.


Snails (lumache) picked in the wild and
prepared alla romana (Roman style: with
tomato, wine, garlic, and wild herbs)
Many families of Italian heritage conserve some traditional dishes (or at least fond memories of them). Piedmontese women may still make bagna cauda, Ischitani (from the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples) their fish dishes alla pescatora, and Sicilians their eggplant and fava bean specialties. The abundance of fish in communities such as San Pedro makes it fairly easy to continue a predominantly fish-based diet, as has proved the case with the Ischitani, for example. In San Pedro until recently, one could even have fresh fish delivered to one's door by fish retailer Andrea Briguglio or go straight to the docks for the Saturday morning fish market. Today, home delivery of fish (and other foods), for ex., by Santa Monica Seafood Co., is an upscale and more costly option, than driving to the store oneself. Labor-intensive ìnostalgiaî dishes, relating to family tradition may be conserved, even among 3rd and 4th generation Italians, and may surface on especially important festive occasions. All groups have, for instance, their distinctive (often egg-based) pasta for Christmas and Easter, even though the homemade egg pasta entrÈe might well be followed by a traditional American turkey or ham.


Traditional, homemade Christmas sweets
stuffed with figs, nuts and candied fruit
Italian festive sweets still to be found among Sicilians are cudureddi, sfingi, and cassadini (sweet ravioli), for Ischitani instead casatella. Because Italian 'country' cooking has become so popular with upscale Americans, there has been a resurgence of dishes once exclusively in the domain of the Italian lower classesósuch as panzanella, bruschetta, polenta. Alongside myriad commercial publications - too many to list - there exist various cookbooks produced by the local community, which reflect the cooking of Italian Americans. Compilations of recipes collected from individual cooks themselves include: 1) The Women's Extension of the Garibaldina Society has produced two cookbooks of (authored) family recipes, collected from members: The Best of the Best in Italian Cooking, and Let's Cook Italian; 2) Dolores Lisica ed., Around the World, Around Our Town: Recipes from San Pedro (illustrated by Leo Politi), Friends of San Pedro Library. The centenary cookbook produced in San Pedro includes 500 recipes from the community's best cooks (not exclusively Italian). Many individual Italian Americans of course, also have informal family recipe collections inherited from parents and grandparents.

Evolutions. Foodways are in constant flux as Italian Americans are expanding their culinary vocabulary, in part due to the general Italianization of California cuisine, the high status of Italian cuisine, and the increasing availability and decreasing cost of Italian products in Southern California, , many more produced locally than once was the case. Mozzarella di bufala no longer costs $14/lb. or radicchio rosso $7.98/lb., as they did when they first came on the market decades ago! These and countless other Italian food items have gained wide currency across Southern California, as they have elsewhere. While they are not as common as pizza and pasta, signs point in that direction.


Frying sweets at the Festa di
San Pietro picnic, San Pedro

Preparing pasta at the Festa
di San Pietro picnic, San Pedro
(Stefano Finazzo on the right)





















Further reading on food and wine in Italian American life by Luisa Del Giudice:

-"Ischian Cultural Sites on the San Pedro, California Map" ('Siti culturali ischitani sulla mappa di San Pedro, California') in Pe' terre assaje luntane: L'emigrazione ischitana verso le Americhe, Ischia, 2007

- ì`Wine Makes Good Bloodí: Wine Culture Among Toronto Italians,î in Ethnologies, 2001, Vol. 23, number 1, 1-27.

- ìPastaî (46-52) and ìSlow Foodî(288-89), in Encyclopedia of Food, Vol. 3, ed. by Solomon H. Katz, New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons, Thomson Gale, 2003.

- ìItalian American Food and Foodwaysî (245-248), in S. LaGumina, F. Cavaioli, S. Primeggia, J. Varacalli, eds., The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia, New York: Garland, 2000.

- "The `Archvillaí: An Italian Canadian Architectural Archetype," in Luisa Del Giudice, ed., Studies in Italian American Folklore, Logan: Utah University Press, 1993:53-105. Chosen official publication of the American Folklore Society.

- ìFeeding The Poor: St. Joseph's Tables in Los Angeles,î in Lucia Re and Claudio Fogu, eds., Italy in the Mediterranean (special issue of: California Italian Studies, 2009.)

Cuccagna: Mountains of Cheese, Rivers of Wine. The mythic Land of Cockaigne (Lubberland, Schlaraffenland, Panigons, Oleana, or the Big Rock Candy Mountain), popular since the Middle Ages all across Europe, projected a gastronomic utopia, ìpoor manís paradise,î or ìcollective dream of the hungry massesî (Camporesi 1978). In its Italian variant, it featured mountains of cheese, rivers of wine and other sensual delights, as well as punishment for those who worked. This Topsy Turvy world represented a time and place of perpetual feasting. This mythic land survived in Italian popular consciousness for centuries, became one of the driving myths behind mass migration to America (otherwise known as Cuccagna) and although transformed, still animates aspects of Italian and immigrant culture in America. The greased pole found at public festivals is known as líalbero di Cuccagna. Climbing to the top, one finds special foods, perhaps money, and other prizes. Further reading: Luisa Del Giudice, "Paesi di Cuccagna and other Gastronomic Utopias," in Imagined States: National Identity, Utopia, and Longing in Oral Cultures, ed. by Luisa Del Giudice and Gerald Porter, Logan: Utah State University Press, 2001: 11-63.


A 17th-century Italian print depicting
the mythic land of Cockaigne (Paese di Cuccagna)

Gardens The Italian presence in California agriculture is well-known (e.g., Oberti olives, Del Monte fruits and vegetables, Mondavi vineyards, etc.), but even urbanized Italians have enjoyed their vegetable and herb gardens, and gardening formed, at least until recently, a traditional topic of discussion (something like discussing the weather) among Italians originally rooted in the land (as the majority of Italians in America were prior to emigrating from Italy). thatEarlier immigrations considered land used for non-food producing plants (i.e., flowers) largely as wasted space better used for fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs. But while gardens may still be an important part of Italian home life (it is difficult to gauge to what extent), their importance is becoming secondary as California's abundant and varied agriculture increasingly produces foods once cultivated only in private gardens (e.g., basil, Italian parsley, rosemary, arugula or rucola, radicchio, etc.). If the majority of Italian Americans no longer grow vegetables such as eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, artichokes, fava beans, and so forth, many continue to grow herbs, despite the fact that they are now widely available on grocersí shelves and at farmersí markets. Vegetables, fruits, and greens difficult to find in markets may still be grown: cicoria, figs, olives, etc. Although vegetable preserving is not all too common today, it still survives, as does olive curing in several central and southern families in whose home regions olives grew, that is Central and Southern Italy. Slowfood sustainable agriculturalists, locovores, and the new food consciousness, are all helping to revive traditions of home-style food processing (See: "tomatomania" events, as well as olive curing seminars, FOOD ASSOCIATIONS, Slowfood).