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Growing up in an Italian-American Family

Updated on August 20, 2011

Sauce or Gravy?

Just to cause trouble, I often say to people I know have not grown up around Italians that I am cooking gravy. I am well aware that they are going to correct me and tell me that if it is red, it is SAUCE. I always reply that marinara without meat is sauce, alfredo is sauce, even vodka is sauce, but when I am working with sausage, meatballs and pork, I am cooking GRAVY. Yes, of course this is a debate that never comes to an end, but I laugh just the same and start the argument as often as possible. Gravy, sauce, it's delicious, that is all that matters.

My husband is the only person in our house who has absoutely no Italian blood running through his veins. The same can be said about me when St Patrick's Day rolls around and I am the lone person without any claim to Irish heritage except through marriage. The kids and I often tease my husband because we say that there is no greater way to grow up than as an Italian kid. He has totally embraced the traditions so he heartily agrees. Of course the traditions he enjoys the most involve lots and lots of eating.

I spent one day this week teaching my teenage son how to properly prepare homemade meatballs and add them to the "gravy". I showed him how to cook the sausage just right to add flavor. He and I mixed and rolled those meatballs into tight balls. Of course there was no measuring, I have no idea how to do that, I just go by look, feel, smell and taste when I am cooking any Italian dish, especially my gravy. We spiced and stirred and let our pot simmer and cook all day. The aroma filled our home. It was a familiar scent to me, growing up as an Italian American girl. I am glad it will be the same for my kids.

How fondly I remember walking into my grandmother's house and being greeted by the delicious scent of her food! A big dish of cavetelli and meatballs covered by her gravy was a wonderful way to end a weekend. Heaven forbid you did not want something to eat! There was no option, you would eat, you had to. With all the good food, I can't imagine anyone not wanting to dig right in. A typical holiday meal consisted of a fruit cup, followed by antipasto which by the way was a full course, not the salad that most American people would presume to think. You had all sorts of marinated treats, eggplant, mushrooms, stuffed clams, stuffed mushrooms with the sausage and mozzarella cheese melted on top. Oh and cheese, lots of good cheeses and cold meats. My parents would always make homemade garlic bread, which we were recruited to help with. As a result I never attended any family dinner without my fingers reeking of garlic after peeling and crushing it. We got to the point where we could not even taste it anymore, so we kept adding more and more garlic. Anyone outside the family would have fallen down from the scent if they had dropped by, but we loved it. I recently taught my kids how to make that type of garlic bread, not as strong, but just as good! After the antipasto, the plates were cleared and the macaroni portion of the meal was served. You are all saying macaroni? You mean pasta. We were raised calling it macaroni and gravy.Christmastime, my parents made manicotti, which involved we kids abandoning our new gifts to cook and roll those thin shells filled with our cheese mixture. Sometimes there was lasagna. In addition to the sausage, meatballs and pork we were treated to braciole and more garlic bread. Eggplant parmigana freshly prepared by grandma or my aunt would sometimes grace our table. The adults got to enjoy wine with their food, sometimes homemade. It was a wonderful experience, so many of us gathered together, talking, laughing and sharing a meal that was created with love.

After the macaroni portion, we took a break. The men watched sports and talked, while the women cleaned up, prepared for the next course, watched the children and chit chatted themselves. We children went outside if the weather permitted and played. If it was cold we stayed inside and made up all sorts of games to play, sang and even made up shows to perform for our parents. We did not have electronics and television was limited. There was no cable in those days either. So many of my friends have no idea what it is like to spend so much time with cousins, theirs lived far away and they never saw one another. This is a foreign thought to me. We had so much fun and suddenly we were called back to the table for the meat course. This was either a roast, ham, chicken or turkey. I can still taste the wonderful roasted potatoes, string beans from the garden with onions. The very best homemade tomato salad ever, sat on the table made by my grandmother. I have tried my best to replicate her recipe, but try as I might, I don't believe anyone quite has her touch.

It does indeed sound like I am only writing about food. True, I admit, growing up as an Italian DOES indeed involve food and eating. However take a look at what goes on around the food and eating. The preparation, the absolute joy everyone took in giving joy to those they loved. Planning, shopping or growing the food adds to the pleasure of serving it. Then of course sitting down together, getting everyone you love in the room together for many hours to talk, to forget about work, other commitments and the rest of the world. For that moment in time, it is all about family. Few people can appreciate the feeling of security one can have at that moment when the whole world is shut out except for the people who share your heritage, your blood and who love you more than life. For a few hours, for one afternoon, for years of holidays, it is a lasting feeling of warmth.

So often I tease my husband that somewhere over the many years we have been together, he turned Italian. He understands finally the way I was raised. The way we stand on principle, the way we fight for what our family needs. The way we forgive each other, even if we don't talk to each other, we never stop loving or caring about one another. We live on the foundation set by our grandparents and great grandparents. We know what it is like to walk into a room with hundreds of people and be related to almost all if not all of them. There is always someone to turn to in times of need. We are everywhere, we are family. Even if we have the outward appearance of not getting along, we still care about each other, we are drawn together by tradition, heritage and blood. My grandmother used to tell me not to get upset with my husband because after all he was an American boy and therefore wasn't raised "right", not like us. I would not trade my history for anything, and I treasure passing it on to my children and grandchildren someday.


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