Childhood memories, unlike other thoughts, have strong emotional dimensions that include amplified aspects of sight and smell. I discovered that food, because of its social and sensuous qualities, unlocks a treasure chest of childhood memories. With this in mind, I decided to use food to probe into the childhood memories of my in-laws and garner insight into ethnic New England during the Great Depression. So often we think about our region and its colonial past, town greens, and white church steeples, yet we forge many of the ethnic threads that combine to form the broader New England fabric.
From Old Italy to New England
My in-laws, Umberto and Isabel (Celani) Ciampa, grew up in Boston’s Italian North End during the Great Depression. They rarely speak about their past unless they are reminiscing with their contemporaries at some gathering such as a wedding or (more frequently) a wake. I found the best way to gain any insight into their childhoods was to be direct and use their culinary memories as a catalyst. For the most part, after some prodding, they appeased me. I’m not quite sure why it is so difficult to get them to share their stories; perhaps they consider their lives nothing special or extraordinary. Nonetheless, they just can’t understand why someone would find their lives interesting.
Once they begin articulating these fascinating, often-humorous childhood stories, the details innocently reveal a side of them rarely seen. Their tales not only shed light on a generation, but also introduce me to friends and family who seem to exist only in old photographs. I’ve had the privilege of subsequently meeting some of them, but their numbers are diminishing, a loss for all of us. These stories fill in missing gaps and explain the idiosyncrasies and unique views of my in-laws, particularly when it comes to food.
My father-in-law, Umberto, “Bert,” was born in the North End on Charter Street, the third child of six children and second of four sons. His parents were from the villages around the southern Italian town of Avellino. His immediate family moved often and lived in various apartments in either the North End or the nearby Boston suburb of Medford.
Pepper and Egg Sandwiches
As a child, his mother would make him pepper and egg sandwiches for his school lunch. Frequently he would trade those sandwiches for a friend’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Why?” I asked. (I would have preferred the pepper & egg myself) “Because,” he replied, “it was something we never had at home and I loved it.” Then the stories began to flow.
Bert immediately spoke of tripe, one of his favorite comfort foods. He laments that unlike during his youth, tripe appears less often on both kitchen tables and contemporary restaurant menus. He still enjoys it when he is fortunate enough to find it.
He then spoke glowingly about his mother making pasta every week and laying it upon their beds to dry; a favorite was fusilli, prepared by dexterously wrapping the dough around a dowel.
Basil and Gravy
His mother grew many things, including basil, which decorated windowsills and fire escapes. I would imagine if you closed your eyes, you’d smell the tomato, garlic and basil wafting from their open window to the street below. Sunday was “gravy” (tomato sauce with meat) day.
My mother-in-law, Isabel (Lisa Bell on her birth certificate due to a poorly interpreted Italian accent) was also born in the North End, in a third floor walk-up apartment above Parziale’s Bakery (est 1907) on Prince Street. She was the sixth child of seven, and third girl of four daughters. Ironically, she and her sisters were not taught to cook by their Italian mother, who also came from a village not far from Avellino. This surprised me. One can only speculate the reasons: safety, duty, and impatience.
My mother-in-law has an aversion to basil, which surprised me, but she could never explain why. She learned how to cook from her mother-in-law after she got married, who, ironically, loved basil, but it didn’t matter. She speaks fondly about her father, a waiter at the Cantina Italiana (est 1931) on Hanover Street. He always cooked on Tuesday, his day off, while drinking wine and listening to Enrico Caruso.
Over lunch last fall, I asked her if she remembered having a favorite dish. “Oh, I loved the snails my mother would cook in garlic and oil.” Purchased by the bag from Giuffre’s Fish Market at the corner of Cross Street and Salem Street, the snails would constantly crawl out of the bag in the sink and up the kitchen walls. Members of the family would pluck them down and place them back into the bag until dinner.
After the snail account, she moved to speaking of eels. Prior to becoming part of a family meal, the eels occupied the family bathtub. This description evoked audible gasps from her grandsons, whichs turned into a discussion they won’t forget and will likely share with their own children.
Pigeons, locally grown and caught (meaning snatched via an open window from a windowsill) were another culinary delight in the North End, though not to my mother-in-law. I found this out the hard way. As a new bride, I carefully and meticulously prepared a special dinner for my new in-laws that would include Rock Cornish game hens à la Silver Palate. Four lovely, brown, succulent birds came out of my oven. When I placed upon the table, my mother-in-law proclaimed that she would not be able to eat dinner. Why I asked? (Shocked and disappointed for I knew she ate chicken- although never on the bone) “I cannot eat them because they remind me of the pigeons from the North End.” Wait. Wasn’t this the same woman who expressed such passion for snails?
Both of my in-laws will not eat a lentil in any form. I discovered that they were not alone among many of their North End peers. The reason? Apparently there was a pasta and lentil dish from Campania that all the southern Italian children in the North End would be forced to eat regularly. How often? Enough that the mere taste of a lentil elicits a gag reflex. I surmise that this pasta and lentil dish comprised a protein-filled meatless meal, very economical for large families during the Great Depression.
And We Weave
Ironically, this is not just an Italian-American story, but also a New England narrative. Our region is home to many ethnic groups (Native American, French, Portuguese, Irish, Eastern European, Latino, Asian, Indian, African etc.) which share their history along with our colonial forefathers.
New England’s ethnic diversity is a true gift, one that is easily taken for granted, but noticeably absent in many areas of the country. Failing to capture these sometimes-quirky snippets from long ago means the human side of life gets buried with the storyteller.
Gather those family memories, stories and recipes from whichever New England state was home. For it is these seemingly insignificant threads that when woven together, create our regional, historical fabric. A fabric so strong, durable, and rich it can only be found here.
-Laura Ciampa, Palaverer Too