An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

Monday, November 25, 2013

In Any Language, It's All About Giving Thanks


It doesn’t take much more than a holiday and food for our Italian-American family to gather in celebration, and Thanksgiving is no exception. People often ask if our Thanksgiving meal in any way reflects our Italian background, and while the immediate answer is yes (for with an Italian mother anything involving food reflects our Italian heritage), the answer is also no because Thanksgiving is the one holiday my mother uses to celebrate all things American, an opportunity to pay homage to a land which welcomed her with open arms.

My mother came to this country as a young bride on the arm of my father, a soldier in the U.S. military; she was only 20 years old and determined to embrace this new life. She took language classes, became fluent in English, learned to drive, and volunteered for the American Red Cross. When my parents lived in Washington D.C. during the racial unrest of the sixties, my mother studied American history to understand what was happening.

When she was 32 years old she stood before a judge in Savannah, GA and was sworn in as an American citizen. She had her picture taken under the American flag, and her nationality would henceforth be hyphenated, a bridge between the words Italian and American, between the country she was from and the country in which she now lived.

Those two words also meant my sister, brother, and I got the best of both worlds. We spoke Italian with our Nonna and English at home; we ate gelato in Piazza Navona and an ice cream cone in Disney World; we explored the hills of Tuscany and the streets of Manhattan; and while holidays in our family were a beautiful blend of both cultures, there were some things quintessentially American that my mother embraced – and the traditional Thanksgiving meal was one of them.

She had a lot to learn, however, and it took years of trial and effort to get it right. In one of her earliest letters to her mother, she described this strange, white cooking stuff that came in a blue can (Crisco shortening); she had never eaten turkey, much less cooked one; she had never heard of sweet potatoes (why, in America even the potatoes are sweet!); and she definitely didn’t know what to think about cranberry sauce or Jell-O (all that jiggling red stuff didn't look like food at all).

It took years of trial and effort, of studying Betty Crocker and cutting out recipes from Good Housekeeping, but today my mother has perfected the art of the Thanksgiving meal. The moist turkey, the perfect balance of brown sugar and marshmallows in the sweet potato casserole and, yes, the dish of jiggling cranberry sauce are all displayed with a sense of pride on how far she has come. Two ceramic pilgrims decorate the dining room table, and in the afternoon everyone heads outside for a family game of backyard football.

Of course, there are small concessions to our Italian heritage: we sip espressos with our pumpkin pie and have a small glass of limoncello as an after dinner digestivo. But it is an American meal celebrating an American holiday, and with a rousing Buon Appetito! three generations of our family gather in thanksgiving to honor the American half of our Italian-American heritage.

 

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