My mother, and most of her siblings, were first generation Americans. Her parents came over from Italy, landing in Portland, Maine and settling in Beverly, Massachusetts. She was the youngest of seven children who, collectively, created a massive assortment of first, second, third, and in-law cousins. To give you an idea of the size of the family, I was still meeting relatives well into my forties. My father, on the other hand, had a small, geographically dispersed, not-very-close family. The result—the Italians dominated our family culture and immeasurably shaped who I became as a person.
This is good. Italians, in my view, are the greatest people in the world.
The most accurate scene I’ve ever seen in a movie was in the old Cher classic Moonstruck (which, for Italians, is a documentary.) Cher’s character arrives home after getting engaged and says to her father something along the lines of “Pop, I’ve got news.” His immediate response is “Let’s go into the kitchen.” For Italians, the kitchen is the most important room in the house. Growing up, I can’t remember learning anything important in any room other than our kitchen. All significant news, from marriages, pregnancies, upcoming surgeries, college decisions, career choices, vacation plans, a lake house fire, and any death in the family, was communicated around the kitchen table.
Of course, the kitchen also supports the most significant facet of Italian culture—food. In today’s world, there’s the phrase “love language,” which is meant to describe how someone typically expresses their affection for another person. In an Italian home, the language of love is food. If you doubt my conclusion, go to any Italian household after there’s been a death in the family. There will be tables buckling under the weight of meatballs, lasagna, pepperoni rolls, cookies, cakes, deli platters, and fresh bread, all delivered by friends and relatives. Even in normal times, no matter when you visit, food will appear. My college friends remember us randomly showing up at my parent’s house at ten o’clock one evening. My mother went digging into the freezer and produced a full spaghetti and meatball meal within an hour. It’s no cliché to say Italian mothers are insulted if you don’t eat when visiting. The comedian Ray Romano explains this best. If you ate at his house (I’m paraphrasing here), the only way to avoid a second helping of his mother’s dinner was to kill her.
With me, my mother’s need to provide food reached peak levels. Because I’ve always been thin, she was often concerned with my caloric intake. I can illustrate this with a simple story. Towards the end of her life, while lying in a hospital bed hooked up to IV’s and monitors, she looked at me and exclaimed, “You’re getting too skinny. When I get out of here, we’re going to teach you how to eat.”
As you can probably guess, in our family food was about much more than consumption. One of my father’s favorite stories recalled a walk down my mother’s street the day of their wedding, enjoying the aroma created by neighbors cooking food for the reception. Food also drove our traditions. For example, the big Christmas ritual was making homemade pasta.
Celebrations in an Italian family are major events. A typical summer party involved three tons of food, all day Bocce Ball tournaments, and fireworks provided by my uncle the cop (I’m reasonably confident they were confiscated in the line of duty.) Weddings were big, noisy, extravaganzas—think of the beginning of The Godfather and add in the “Hokey Pokey” and the “Chicken Dance.” Holidays, though, were the pinnacle. In those days the men would be exiled from the kitchen during dinner preparation and the women would gossip while they prepared shocking amounts of food. I think the rule was, if twenty are coming, cook for forty. The whole family squeezed into two, maybe three rooms, eating at a train of folding tables. During dinner, everyone spoke at the same time, half in English and half in Italian. After we ate, kids ran around playing, banging, and yelling. My uncles drank wine from jelly jars or beer from the bottle, playing some Italian word game that would gradually evolve into screaming matches laced with Italian profanities. My relatively reserved Irish wife recounts how, when she first attended these events, the overwhelming clamor would cause her to hug a wall while she tried to figure out what the heck was going on.
The personalities in an Italian family seem larger than life, especially to a young boy. There are no staid, introverted, laid-back wall flowers. To begin, all the uncles were World War II veterans and they’d tell mesmerizing stories. I’d sit, spellbound, listening to every word. There was the aunt who worked at a Chinese restaurant. Fairly regularly a group of the Red Sox players would visit the bar and she’d get me autographs. Her husband always wore a baseball hat and said things like “gorammit” when he wanted to curse. One uncle slipped me a dollar bill every time I walked past him. In keeping with the money theme, another aunt frequently gave me fifty cents and told me to buy an ice cream (you could buy one for fifty cents back then.) She’d also visit my house on weekday afternoons and we’d play cribbage. She ruthlessly took the points I missed and, in a gentle way, trash talked me throughout the game. My favorite uncle, whenever I dared express a personal viewpoint, would reply with, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”
Underneath all the food, noise, and personality, Italian families are grounded in unsubtle, sincere, and unshakeable love. Marry an Italian and you’re adopted by the whole clan. As my wife describes the phenomenon, there’s an instant 100% sense of belonging. She met most of my family at a wake for my aunt, as my mother firmly held Kathy’s hand and methodically moved her through the room, introducing her as Steve’s fiancé. In a thirty-minute time frame, she instantly had close to fifty new family members.
Italian love manifests itself in action. If there’s a crisis, people come out of the woodwork. In addition to food magically appearing, people show up and mow your lawn, clean your house, do your laundry, and drive people around. They don’t ask if you need help. They simply do what needs to be done. Also, Italian families protect their own. My dad loved to recall a Friday night, back when he was dating my mom. He was exiting a jazz club. Waiting outside, in his squad car, was one of my police officer uncles. My uncle motioned my father over and pointedly asked “are you taking my sister in there?” When my dad said no, the uncle followed up with something like “good, and make sure you don’t.” My father never did. When my mother first met our six-foot, four-inch son-in-law, she grabbed his collar, pulled him in close to her four-foot, ten-inch frame and stated, “I’ve heard great things about you, Noah. If you hurt her, I’ll kill you.” You can’t buy that kind of chutzpah or loyalty.
As you can tell, I cherish the memories of my Italian family and truly appreciate the impact all those wonderful people had on my life. To this day, I love feeding a crowd and always cook way more food than is necessary. My brothers are the same way.
Food, family, love, and chaos. There’s nothing better than the Italian way of life.
Steven Rogers first novel “Into the Room” is scheduled to be published in September of 2021 by Elk Lake Publishing.