In our house, no one ever went with the flow. There was no flow. There were only dangerous rapids, huge whirlpools, gigantic waterfalls. In our house, you had to be wary, vigilant. To stop paying attention, even for a moment, was dangerous.
Memoirist Louise DeSalvo’s remembrances of her Italian family’s life in New Jersey in the 1950s is ostensibly about their experiences in the kitchen, but ends up being a much darker story about family psychology and dysfunction. It’s certainly not what you’d expect from a memoir about an Italian-American family centered around the kitchen. Actually, Louise’s love of cooking barely comes into it until the book’s latter half, which was also where I found my enjoyment increasing considerably.
The conflict between her mother and her mother’s stepmother, a somewhat eccentric (but more just sad, I thought) Italian immigrant who lives with them, is a central one. “Two women in the same kitchen,” my mother says. “Dear God, why have you done this to me?” The two have different ideas of what constitutes food and family interaction, as her grandmother cooks elaborate meals from her homeland and DeSalvo’s mother doesn’t much like to cook at all. There are significant issues of depression and mental illness coupled with the stress and frustrations of living in a foreign country at play as well.
DeSalvo’s descriptions are telling, and she has a gift of saying volumes about someone by highlighting incidents that put their personality and quirks on display. Here’s her mother, for instance: “She rarely replaced anything she broke— a hand mirror, an electric mixer— but made do without it, as if she should be punished for the rest of her life for her transgression.” Although its events are clearly delineated, there’s a strong impressionistic feel to the storytelling.
And I loved her descriptions of herself: “Unlike the fancy girls with the teased hair, I had no “look” to speak of, unless looking like you’re fifty when you’re a teenager is a “look.” I have more important things on my mind than clothes and looking in a mirror— sex and books, to be exact.”
Where the book really picks up is when DeSalvo leaves, physically and mentally, that kitchen in North Jersey and builds her own life, loves, and traditions, where food and cooking can be ways of healing and caring for yourself and not cause for conflict. The connections, good and bad, to family and identity will always exist, but she made new associations for herself and reclaimed her relationship with cooking. “With every excellent meal I make… I drive away the phantom of my mother’s kitchen, try to obliterate the want of my ancestors.”
She writes about a similar dream she and her mother had that encapsulates a lot about the feeling of loss and displacement that everyone in her family seemed to feel in their own way, for their own reasons: “It is also a dream of exile. A dream about leaving, but not knowing what it is you have left. A dream of never being able to return home.” There’s a melancholy that pervades the story but it’s clear that later in her life she was at peace with what came before and how it shaped her, which is something I love to see in memoir.
This was one of my favorite moments:
As I approach my sixtieth birthday, I sometimes regret that there are only three meals a day I can prepare. When I say this to some of my friends, they look at me as if I need to be institutionalized, or as if I’ve become a homemaker, the kind of woman they don’t admire.
She acknowledges it’s her way of fighting her own mortality, but the argument she makes isn’t maudlin or melodramatic, rather it’s sweet, clearly made her happy, and relatable. The warmth that was lacking in her bitter family dynamics was something she found she could create herself, with her husband and her own family. It was a lovely, reaffirming conclusion.
A very different book about the foodways of Italian-American families in the New York City area is Daniel Paterna’s Feast of the Seven Fishes: A Brooklyn Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food and Family. The gorgeous photos in this visual history capture a disappearing world of small specialty shops and family-run businesses in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. It’s also a testament to Paterna’s mother and how she fed her family with so much love.
It feels like looking through someone’s family photo albums, while taking breaks to flip through their grandmother’s recipe collection. Paterna’s capturing of these disappearing small businesses in the traditionally Italian enclave couldn’t have come a moment too soon, as the face of New York’s old neighborhoods changes rapidly and small specialty shops struggle for survival. He highlights fish markets, ravioli shops, sausage makers, and colorful, eye-catching vintage-style signs and advertisements.
The photos are really the highlight, as they’re absolutely stunning, gorgeously shot and framed, and rightfully occupy the most page space. Many of the recipes are promising too. I was surprised that none are particularly complex. My bookmarks included a Torta di Pasta, a kind of spaghetti pie that sounds perfect for cold wintertime; a super-simple Gamberi Fra Diavolo (shrimp with chili); and a rosemary-infused version of pasta with lentils that sounds delicious. And of course, multiple takes on tomato sauces, with summer and wintertime options.
The stories are fairly brief and light, and that’s fine, considering Paterna’s aim seems to be to capture something of this community and its history, and what his family’s place in it has been. I was anticipating more memoir but it’s less that and more a historical record with some warmly personal stories from his family archives. It’s massively appealing to those interested in New York City history and authentic Italian home cooking.
I read it soon after DeSalvo’s memoir and despite their differences, they complemented each other perfectly. No one chooses their family, and DeSalvo clearly struggled with the stereotypes of a big, warm, joyful Italian immigrant family when hers was cold, angry, and cooked weirder things than big pots of pasta marinara and pans of lasagne, if they were cooking at all. Meanwhile Paterna wanted to break the Mafiosi stereotype and celebrate the community and family bonds he loved. Both succeed in vividly expressing their family lives, however those looked, including how ancestral history shaped them, and both are revealing records of the experience growing up Italian-American in and around New York.
Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, by Louise DeSalvo, published 2004 (Amazon / Book Depository)
Feast of the Seven Fishes: A Brooklyn Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food and Family, by Daniel Paterna (Amazon / Book Depository) I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.