Introducing Joan Leotta
Family home: Pennsylvania, USA
Talking about growing up Italian American often results in a discussion about food.
Really when you think about Italy, you probably think at least partly about the food. For those of us who have Italy in our genetic structure, food is a big part of what defines us, has shaped our fondest memories, and makes us stand out to others (especially those who are invited into our homes. Really though, the traditions of food are simply an outgrowth of other aspects of Italian culture. Food is the vehicle by which we carry that culture into modern American life, into future generations and our family histories but what powers that engine is a strong love of family.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, a few miles from my cousins, Aunts, Uncles and my beloved Grandmother. Sundays we all gathered at her house. My best friends were my cousins. My closest confidante was my Grandmother. Moreover, often our “secrets” were shared while she prepared food for an upcoming family dinner or holiday celebration.
Food is central to my concept of my identity as an Italian –American. First, Italian food’s basic concept is that it must be the best available product on the market, prepared simply and served to everyone at table, thus, the tradition of Sunday suppers with the extended family and mealtime together, nightly if possible with the nuclear family.
My husband and I both had pasta at least twice weekly growing up. We continued that tradition when we had children, but what made us really and out culturally was the enforcement of daily supper with the four of us, every night. We gritted our teeth and changed mealtimes often to satisfy the demands of the local soccer league for practices that bulldozed across our regular meal hour. We endued whining—”No one else has to eat with their family” when teens wanted to leave early for a party We reaped the benefit when our daughter started to preach this philosophy among her friends and told us that others envied our family and loved coming to our house where everyone ate dinner together.
Holidays and Sundays – as adults, we lived too far from extended family to have a Sunday with everyone (several hundred miles). However, the four of us carried on the seven fishes and opening of gifts on Christmas Eve and my husband and I told tales of our own childhoods when grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins also joined in. We reinforced that by spending part of our children’s school holiday on the road to actually celebrate the holiday with family on both sides (three days each) even if was not on the actual night of Christmas Eve.
We invite people into our home and stay at the table with conversation. Everyone who can speak is welcome to join in. All opinions are welcome. We like to talk. We like to listen.
|Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house. My father, my grandmother (my mother’s mother) and I (around age five).|
Therefore, in that regard, I am sharing a short story, a poem and photos along the theme of food and family gatherings.
The Oak Table Discussion
This small story is a tale of how our dinners set us apart from even other adults. My cousin’s friend (we will call her Rhoda here) was coming to our city. My cousin called me.
“Joan can you invite my friend Rhoda to dinner at your house next week? She is considering moving to your area for a job and does not know anyone.”
Of course, my answer was a resounding yes. I took the woman’s name down and called her. She was very happy to accept for a Wednesday night dinner, which dovetailed nicely with an appointment with potential employers—not far from our suburban home.
Knowing she would probably expect an Italian meal, I prepared roasted chicken with rosemary, a side dish of rigatoni in a sauce with eggplant and green peppers, a lovely salad and fruit and ice cream for dessert. This menu was also one of my husband’s favorites. Our children were mostly neutral although our son hated eggplant and our daughter moaned every time I served rigatoni, so I made a plain sauce side of fusilli for them—with enough to serve our guest in case her taste buds were more inclined to vote with those of our children.
She arrived just before the meal. My husband had been home for twenty minutes. The children had picked flowers for the table. All was well. Because it was a school night and the children would be leaving the table to go into the den to do homework and eat their dessert with a side of math problems, we ate in the eat-in kitchen rather than the formal dining room.
Our guest did not seem to mind sitting at table quickly.
Rhoda was a very intelligent and accomplished woman. My husband and I asked her about her interviews and she revealed an interest in some of the major political issues of the day. When she had just finished expounding on some aspect of that issue, our ten-year-old daughter, Jennie asked a question that sliced across Rhoda’s logical presumptions. Rhoda looked amazed. She stumbled over a few words to try to defend her position.
Then our eight-year-old son, called that answer into question based on logic and consistency with Rhoda’s earlier statements. Rhoda’s reply was calm but her eyes blazed. She turned to me with a look of “Really?” I noted her visibly recoil when I guess she noticed that I was beaming! I was so proud of my children. They were following the discussion. They were participating. We were not talking Ninja turtles! This was for real—just as when I grew up. My husband was beaming in the same way. We were cultivating a pair of people who had opinions and knew how to express them. Their questions were offered in a respectful tone of voice; however, our guest was appalled. She left so soon after desert that I think the coffee in her cup was still warm when I removed it from the table to the sink.
I later learned that she told my cousin that she had never heard of anyone allowing children to talk at the table like that.to question an adult. My reaction – “What planet is she from?”
My more Americanized (on this issue) cousin laughed in reply, “Not everyone considers it fair game to speak your mind at the dinner table as soon as you can speak!”
In fact, she also told me that some people in our generation not only no longer ate together on weeknights, but also had the children eat separately when they had adult guests, as a regular pattern, not on the occasional dinner party.
Now I was the one reeling and the one who realized that indeed we were unusual and had preserved the Italian side in our hyphenated identities—Italian-American.
On the Making of Pizzelle
“Please write your recipe for pizzelle,”
Mama answered, “Words are not enough.”
That very afternoon, together,
we measured, stirred,
matching the day’s humidity
with the correct amount of flour.
She let me stir too
so I could feel, “just right.”
We oiled her special press.
Two hours later we
proudly out set a plate of
light, barely browned, pizzelle,
crisp with hints of vanilla and anise.
Next, she took me to buy a pizzelle iron
from the man who sold one to her
and to her mother.
|One of the traditions of holiday time is making pizzelle, an Italian cookie shaped like a flat waffle.
Eggplant Parmesan (The way my Grandma made it)
2 cups marinara sauce
2 small-medium eggplants
½ cup fresh Flat Italian parsley
½ cup grated pecorino romano cheese
- Slice the eggplant thinly and salt. Allow the slices to stand for at least four hours. Then rinse and press each slice. Either fry the slices in olive oil or brush with oil and bake for fifteen minutes at 350 degrees.
- Beat the eggs with parsley and cheese.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Put some sauce on the bottom of a casserole dish. Lay down a layer of eggplant. Pour on some of the egg mix, some sauce, repeat until all ingredients are used up. Pour some sauce on top.
- Bake for 45 minutes to one hour.
Shades of the Same Skin is an anthology of culture. The world is in need of a vigorous seasoning and it is why the poets in this book are willing to share their ethnicity. Each one will give some insight into their culture, music, clothing, food, traditions, and even share a few recipes. Some will engage in unique stories and folklore. Others will take us back to their childhood days and compare it to the experience of children today. A few will even welcome us into their homes to share items from their heritage.
This is also a book of unity. Its purpose is to show that without diversity, the world would be a boring place. Each poet in this anthology has a unique style because of where they came from, their experiences, and who they are. Their words are printed on these pages to inspire why we belong. We are all vital ingredients for the recipe to keep the world stirring.
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