GROWING UP ITALIAN-AMERICAN IN A WONDER BREAD WORLD
Come back to our apartment,
To our building filled with love!
Gumma Millie lived across from us,
Gumma Minnie lived above.
All our doors were kept wide open
Sharing laughter day by day,
And also sharing the many heartaches
That were sure to come our way.
One Hundred and Sixteenth Street,
It casts a magic spell!
Where memories dwell!
When I was growing up in East Harlem’s Little Italy, my grandparents’ apartments were my second home. My grandparents immigrated in the 1900’s from Basilicata, the towns of San Fele and Melfi, to East Harlem, but the traditions of Italy were evident in my every day life. Grandma Lizzie or Grandma 116 (which is what I called her) and Grandpa Louie, my mother’s parents, lived in a tenement apartment at 326 East 116th Street.
Across the street from “326” were the brownstone homes of the doctors and lawyers of East Harlem, and also Haarlem House—the settlement house to which my parents devoted their lives. It was also the sunny side of the street, and my mother’s family would often cross the street to take photos in front of the building directly across from them: 331 East 116th Street. This house that belonged to Judge Joseph Boccia (a pall bearer for Congressman Vito Marcantonio), years later would become our home.
It was a tradition to visit Grandma 116 after church on Sunday. On her kitchen table would be a silver tray with cordial glasses, bottles of whiskey for the men, sweet cordials for the women, and all the children would get a taste of vermouth “because it was cold outside.” Homemade cookies would be piled high on a tray, including round sugar glazed Janette cookies, which we also called “hard rocks” because when they got stale they were like rocks. My favorites were “the bows”, light crispy deep-fried cakes shaped like bows for a birthday gift and dusted with powdered sugar.
Every Sunday all over East Harlem you would wake up to the smell of gravy cooking and the gravy meat frying. In our family we don’t say tomato sauce we say gravy. It always fascinated me how different everyone’s gravy would taste—my grandmothers’, my aunts’, and my mother’s. I can still smell and taste the differences in my memory. In that tenement building, I would be greeted by the different aromas coming from each apartment as I walked up the stairs. There were four apartments on a floor, the doors were always kept open, maybe it was due to the heat, but it was like a small town in Italy.We were part of a community. Neighbors would pop in and out of each other’s apartments sharing food. Sometimes my grandmother would say they were nosy and just came by to see what we were cooking. Neighbors would borrow from each other. And you always gave them more than they asked. You knew people who were down on their luck—so you would knock on the door and say—“Oh we made too much today—here, this is for you.” Saving face was important when you shared food. When someone came to your house you put everything you had out for them. Having something to offer was very important. When there were guests, the children were taught never to take any food from the table. You had to wait for a signal that you could. You had to make sure there was enough for the guest. My mother would say, “You don’t ask a guest what they want because a guest would always say, “No, I don’t want anything.”—for they didn’t want to embarrass you in case you didn’t have enough.
My father always told the story of a social worker who went to a family’s house to evaluate them to qualify for some public assistance. My father knew this family was in a desperate situation. When the social worker came back from her visit, she said to my father, “I went to her house—the table had a lovely lace tablecloth and there were all these beautiful dishes filled with food, cakes, and cookies. This woman doesn’t need any money!” My father had to explain to her that the woman had borrowed everything from her neighbors to save face—as a guest was coming into her home—and God forbid she didn’t have anything to offer her.
The shopping of food was a part of daily life—the special shops in the neighborhood, the smells, the community interactions, and the neighbors asking, “What are you cooking today?” First Avenue, which was once a large street full of pushcarts where my grandparents had shopped, had given way to storefronts: Madonna’s vegetable market where we bought arugula before it was fashionable; Tacco’s fish market with the beautiful mosaic walls of sea life, and baskets outside with crabs that often escaped onto the sidewalk; the butcher and the pork stores where my mother would watch carefully as they cut the meat; the Lattacini where they made homemade mozzarella (It’s floor was covered in sawdust. I would love to get the sawdust all over my shoes much to my mother’s annoyance.); Lombardi’s Grocery Store where my mother bought Ronzini macaroni (I remember cutting off the special coupons from the blue boxes—saving them and traveling to the Bronx where my mother redeemed the coupons for an electric fry pan.); the bakery on First Avenue where all the Italian men would sit having their café, smoking their smelly cigars; Saratella’s bakery downstairs from Grandma 116 filling our street with the aroma of bread baking in the coal oven; Cincotti’s bakery on the corner of Second Avenue filled with all kinds of pastries, including my favorite the Charlotte Russe, the little sponge cake in a fluted cardboard container with whipped cream and a cherry on top; and the smell of roasting coffee beans that filled the neighborhood coming from a store that sold demitasse cups and also fixed your wrist watch. I would walk home holding that brown bag of coffee to my nose.
In Grandma116’s house after Sunday’s meal, my cousin Leonilda and I would play store in Uncle Sonny’s old bedroom, which was turned into a storeroom of sorts filled with homemade jars of vinegar peppers, pickled eggplant, tomato sauce, and Grandpa Louie’s homemade wine. But my favorite of all were the homemade sausages hanging from the ceiling.
Food was a calendar in our lives too. We always ate macaroni on Sundays and Thursdays, Monday was soup, and Friday was of course fish. Fish also played a part in one of our biggest holidays—Christmas Eve. I can hear my Grandma 116 saying:
Rosie—fry the eels!
Dolly—fry the calamari!
Everybody will be coming!
We gotta hurry!
We have seven fishes,
That means seven dishes
That we serve on Christmas Eve—
Don’t get gravy on your sleeve!
Outside the snow is flying,
Inside the eels are frying
While we soak the baccala.
Everybody’s getting ready
For the octopus and spaghetti,
Nobody knows the secret really
How grandma fixes the scungilli!
Who cares if you get gravy on your sleeve!
Nobody wants to leave!
That’s seven fishes
I didn’t eat lunch in school—no school lunch for me. My mother was working, so I would walk to Grandma LuLu’s house and she would watch for me from the window, signaling to me when it was safe to cross the street. Grandma LuLu ignored my American name and called me LuLu, and I called her Grandma LuLu. Sadly I was not taught to speak Italian. My parents were born in America and I was an American. I should speak English. Grandma LuLu didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian—we only communicated through food. And then it would start as soon as I entered her house:
Figlia Mia –Mangia—LuLu Mangia—
Mangia a sausage!
LuLu Mangia! Mangia! Mangia!
I would go home and tell my Mother: “Mommy, Mommy, what am I going to do? Grandma LuLu, all she does is say Mangia! Mangia! Mangia! Eat! Eat! Eat!”
She says mangia!
I say I’m through!
I say I’m finished!
She says mangia di piu!
Mangia di piu!
This is our lunch every day!
I say I’m too full!
She says mangia minestrone!
I say not another mouthful!
She says mangia macaroni!
This is our lunch every day!
She comes from Potenza,
South of Napoli—
I come from East Harlem’s
She says mangia!
I say I’m trying!
She says mangia!
I say I’m dying!
This is our lunch every day!
I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Grandma LuLu’s house made me think of Italy filled with dark strong wooden furniture. She would feed me vegetable soups, all shapes of macaroni she had made, and exotic fruits: persimmons and pomegranate, For a treat she offered me chocolate covered cherries and torrone—really hard torrone—once I lost a tooth filling biting on her torrone.
In Grandma’s LuLu’s bedroom there was an altar with saints and a snow globe of the Virgin Mary that when you shook it rose petals would fall—I loved that snow globe. You could never sit on her bed or God forbid put your coat on her bed because there would be a big board with homemade macaroni drying there covered with a tablecloth. We always said macaroni not pasta. We did specify shapes like spaghetti or linguine or perciatelli, but it was always macaroni and not pasta. In our house when the water was boiling and my mother would say, “I am throwing in the macs!”—that meant you had to wash your hands and sit at the table because when the macaroni was ready you had better be sitting at the table.
When I am asked what is the greatest influence on my art, I always say my grandmothers: Grandma LuLu and Grandma 116. They were a major source of inspiration to me as I watched them take a simple substance like flour—what did they create?—they created sculpture—it was my first introduction to sculpture. My grandmothers would take flour and shape it into a perfect mound and then break eggs into the hollowed center—and these eggs would sit there —never leaking out—and then how carefully they would mold the flour and eggs together. I’d watch them form the mound into macaroni—all kinds of shapes: ravioli, fettuccine, and cavatelli. And Grandma LuLu, she was like a machine—she would roll out long strips of dough and then she would cut them—hundreds and hundreds of them. I watched her as she shaped them on her thumb. We called them “the hats”, That was the greatest influence—my grandmothers—they were truly creating art out of nothing—yes, we ate it—we ate it—it was food—but it was great art! One day I had such an artistic revelation, I did. My grandmothers made two different kinds of ravioli—Grandma LuLu—she made round ravioli—she used a glass to cut them—and Grandma 116—she made square ravioli, using a pastry cutter. This was an artistic breakthrough for me.
And then it happened, my introduction to American dining. Growing up in East Harlem, you didn’t really leave the neighborhood, and for years people always said East Ninety-sixth Street was the invisible dividing line. My introduction to American cuisine happened when I was a little girl. My parents were working at the settlement house Haarlem House, and I was to go downtown with Mrs. Domini and her young son. She was an American, a large woman married to a tiny Italian man. Their size difference fascinated me. We had to go to City Hall and take a photo with Mayor Wagner. It was a publicity photo for Haarlem House. After we left City Hall, Mrs. Domini said we would go to lunch. I am thinking to myself this would be my first American restaurant. The only time I had ever eaten outside our home was at “Ferrara’s Pizza Parlor.” In those days you always ate pizza in a pizza parlor, they didn’t sell slices.
Well, Mrs. Domini took me to Howard Johnson’s. I can remember being excited that I was in a real restaurant. I was hoping I could pick out whatever I wanted to eat. But Mrs. Domini didn’t ask me what I wanted to eat, she ordered for me, and then it was set down in front of me: a glass of milk and a sandwich of white “Wonder Bread” with peanut butter and jelly. This was alien food to me—this fake white stuff that was called “Wonder Bread”—where was the crusty bread like we got from Saratella’s bakery? There was nothing “wonderful” about this bread. And this sticky brown peanut butter with jelly? I had never had anything like this before! I knew my mother would get mad at me if I didn’t eat it, so I took a bite and it was bland and tasteless in my mouth. And then there was the glass of milk—something we never had with our meals except in the morning with oatmeal or cream of wheat—or a little milk when we had a taste of the grownups’ coffee
All of our meals always had tomato sauce, and for an Italian, milk and tomato sauce don’t go together. I remember once my father brought a college student from Ohio to a family Sunday dinner. We were all eating our macaroni with gravy and someone asked the student what did he want to drink? On the table were wine, seltzer (in one of those old squirt bottles), orange soda, and my grandmother’s favorite cream soda. He answered, “Oh I’ll have a glass of milk.” Everyone’s fork just stopped in mid-air and a look of horror came over everyone’s face at the thought of someone having milk with tomato sauce.
Ironically, a sandwich played a pivotal part in my father’s life too. In the 1930’s, my father joined the Three C’s (the Civilian Conservation Corps). He was working with a group of men building a road upstate. When it came time for lunch, the men were tired and hungry, and they were served a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This outraged my father, and he said, “How can we build a road when all we are getting to eat is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” So my father organized a strike and he got kicked out of the Three C’s for being a troublemaker. He always said, “You know, kid, if it wasn’t for that peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I would have been sent to California and you wouldn’t have been born.”
My father loved to take me on a stroll through the Feast of Our Lady Of Mount Carmel, where the lights and stands of the Feast would stretch all over the neighborhood. I would wait for him on the balcony of Haarlem House watching the people walking in the feast, and when my father was finished with the summer Fresh Air Fund registration, he would take me by the hand and we would walk through the feast. The street was filled with the aroma of sausage and peppers frying, the still life tableau of the ocean of clam shells with lemon slices, the dangling strings of ceci beans, mounds of torrone, and the lupuni beans that you would slip out of their case into your mouth, sidestepping the watermelon pits that dotted the street—then we would stop at my favorite stand, the zeppole stand. The zeppole (or as we said, “fried dough”) was stuffed hot into a little brown paper bag, sprinkled with powdered sugar. You would shake the bag and then bite into that hot dough and the powdered sugar would fall all over your clothes.
The Feast was when the smells of food would fill the air of East Harlem just like it did in the tenement building of my grandparents.
Growing up in Italian East Harlem, food was the center of our family life. It was food that held us together, the preparation, the presentation, and the gathering around the table.
It was what signified: La Familia!
LuLu LoLo is a playwright/actor and performance artist. She has been published in Nerve Lantern Axon of Performance Literature, Meta-land Poets of the Palisades II, and 365 Women a Year a Playwriting Project. Her performance project Where Are the Women? highlighting the lack of public monuments honoring women was featured in the New York Times LuLu was a 2013 Blade of Grass Fellow in social engagement and a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Writer in Residence in 2008