By Chuck Tabaracci
As the Easter holiday came and went, as with other major holidays, I am reminded of the great family get-togethers of years past.
I grew up in an Italian family. No, it wasn’t the loud Italians you see on Jersey Shore or The Sopranos. Those are Hollywood exaggerations. My grandparents came from northern Italy, Tuscany to be more specific. It’s quite different there than what is characterized on those shows. Sure, it could get loud at family gatherings, but that was more because of the quantity of people at these events.
Every holiday took place at the house of a different relative. Thanksgiving was always the big dinner, and that one lasted at least an hour or so, and was my personal favorite. The courses of food consisted of both Italian and American dishes, and as a small child, I thought this was normal. As I got older, I discovered that my family offered much more food than most of the other families cooked.
What wonderful food it was. It began, as all my grandmother’s meals began, with a broth. Serving a broth before dinner is common in Italian households to help fill you up, so you didn’t eat too many solid foods. This is now touted by dietitians as a weight-control method. Who knew Italian grandmothers were so wise? This was followed by a plate of my aunt’s risotto, which was my favorite. She took a variation of the family sauce recipe, a northern Italian brown sauce, and incorporated it into an amazing taste of Nirvana. The smell of this sauce simmering overnight on the stove filled the entire house with the wonderful scents of herbs and spices. Then came the typical Thanksgiving meal of Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy, plus vegetables. Even the stuffing had my grandmother’s Italian touch to it.
During this entire meal grandpa’s wine was on the table. There was a special section of his cellar that was a dirt floor just for his wine-making area. He would purchase grapes from a local produce distributor, as would the other Italians in the area. I remember going there with my dad when he and his brothers would help dump the grapes into the large barrels. There was more talking than work that went on, but it was great spending this time with them. The musty scent of those wine barrels and the smell of earth permeated the cellar, and I can still recall that after all these years. Nobody in the family remembers what his blend was, and we all regret it. My aunt told me one day she knew it was a blend of five grapes, but that was all she knew. We also enjoyed the vinegar that was skimmed from the top of the barrels, as this was used for our salad dressing. I don’t remember ever getting store-bought dressing until grandpa was unable to make wine. Grandpa also saved the wooden grape boxes, because that’s what he used to grow his crimini mushrooms. We ate well and healthy in those days — the original version of eating locally.
The other holidays were equally as boisterous, but not nearly the quantity of food. It was a wonderful experience growing up with such a close immigrant family, but during my years in college both of my grandparents and one uncle passed away, and it was about the same time my older cousins began to have children. The various families splintered off to hold holiday celebrations of their own. I felt a bit sad that things weren’t as they had been, but it’s a natural progression amongst most families; as we grow, we leave our respective nests and form traditions of our own.
I still have these memories instilled in my mind like a video that I can play back repeatedly. The smells and tastes of these great foods come alive in my sensory memories every time that I make the family sauce.
After college, I moved to Seattle, and a few years later my younger sister moved to New England. Now I live in Utah, an immigrant to the state. Unlike my immigrant grandparents, I can easily visit my siblings who are only a quick flight away. When I was young, I never thought about what my ancestors went through to come to this country, leaving their families and knowing that they may never see them again.
Unfortunately, it’s too late to tell them in person, but I try to honor them by telling my own children about them and where they came from. Luckily, I was able to take them back to Tuscany several years ago to meet the relatives, and see the houses where their great-grandparents lived before emigrating to America. I can’t imagine why they would want to leave a place so beautiful, but, like most immigrants to this country, I imagine it was for a better life. My grandfather would always say he missed the mountains back home, but we lived next to the Rockies, so that made no sense to me. Until I actually saw the mountains he grew up with, I finally understood why he would miss them.
Living in Utah has made me interested in genealogy, so I have been able to do some tracing of family records, but those only give basic facts. I plan on returning to Italy, visit that small village of Santa Maria del Guidice, and talk with all those family members who remain there to find out more about where I come from. More importantly, I wish to relive and enjoy the ‘la dolce vita’ that I enjoyed so many years ago.