Vincenzo and Gelsomina (Italian for Jasmine, my wife's name) came separately to America from Italy in the great immigration wave of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vincenzo came from Calabria and traveled to America as a ship's cook. (I'll bet the ship's captain was surprised to find himself one cook short after Vincenzo decided he liked America and jumped ship!) Gelsomina came to America from the town of Gaeta near Naples under someone else's passport at the age of fourteen. She was indentured as a domestic servant to the home of a family acquaintance. Her family's desperation to get her to America, and to what they hoped would be a better life for their daughter is an indication of just how difficult living in Italy had become at the time, especially for those living in the "Mezzogiorno" or southern regions of the country.
Vincenzo and Gelsomina met, married, and brought eleven children into the world, one of them being Erasmo or Raymond, my wife's father. Vincenzo was very industrious and hard working, and eventually bought a brownstone in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn which is no longer in the family. (Too bad...it would sell for a cool $2 mil, even in today's soft market.) This is the house where my wife's family gathered on Sundays for a typical Italian dinner. In those days, the cooking was done mostly by Grandma and Grandpa, who shared the house with two daughters who never married, and a bachelor son, Michael. Vincenzo and Gelsomina's married children, with their children, would come to the house every week and gather at the big dining room table. I sat in at a couple of these dinners and can give this first person account of the event.
The long table was surrounded by mismatched chairs, and everyone had assigned places. The menu rarely varied: chicken soup to wake up the taste buds followed by antipasto, and pasta with meatballs and other "gravy meat". Then came a roast, usually veal, with some vegetables like escarole, potatoes or stuffed artichokes. After this came a pause during which family discussions took place. These were sometimes loud but never ill-tempered; it's just the way Italians made room for dessert. Coffee and/or espresso would be served in the kitchen accompanied by Italian cookies, a cake from Ebinger's Bakery, or maybe something homemade like chocolate pudding pie. A bottle of anisette would make the rounds, either sipped as a cordial or poured into the tiny espresso cups to liven up the coffee.
After dinner the ladies would clean up with some assistance from the men. I can see all their faces in my mind's eye...My wife's dad Ray and his stylish wife Belle; Uncle Anthony who was a kind and loving father, and his smartly dressed wife, Chris; Uncle Frank,who served in the Navy, and his quiet wife Mary; Uncle Gregory, the rogue of the group who never met a scheme he didn't like, and his sweet, patient wife Mary; Uncle Mike the bachelor professor and resident intellectual; Aunt Julia, who spent hours and hours playing with our kids at any game they wanted, just like she played with my wife and her sister when they were growing up. She never once displayed any sign of impatience, and the kids adored her for it. Aunt Nancy was a little "Adams Family-ish", and had a set of idiosyncrasies that made her a bit of an oddball. Throw in some scattered kids and Grandma and Grandpa, and the cast was complete.
When Jasmine and I host one of these Italian dinners these days, it's hard to imagine how these wonderful people ate and drank like this every week! It was a time when families lived near one another, making weekly gatherings more feasible. Sometimes, in the midst of such a party, I sit at the head of the table and watch my children and their cousins having five loud conversations simultaneously, and I feel so blessed that the Italian tradition of Sunday dinner is in our DNA. The sense of "family" is paramount in the Italian culture, and these gatherings help me remember and be thankful for my own childhood in the bosom of a nurturing, caring, and yes, sometimes crazy family. I know that even though they are living many miles apart, that somehow my children will find a way to honor their heritage after we are gone, and pass along this beautiful custom to their children. Alla famiglia!
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