Amarcord: the Flavour of Buried Memories
Presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery
In the United States we call ourselves ‘a nation of immigrants.’ One thing that this means for us is that there’s often a gap, a break in family memories. People whose families came over from Europe may be almost completely cut off from knowledge of anything earlier than some dividing point when another generation reached America. There’s a Before, and there’s an After.
As a third-generation Italian-American from the town of Sagamore Village, Massachusetts, I experienced this gap of memory in two ways. One — the break between two continents — might have been something I could put in the back of my mind and only think about occasionally. But the second break with our family past may be the reason I’m here today. I was almost twelve years old when my mother, my maternal grandmother, and one of my two brothers died in a terrible fire from which I barely escaped. Everything in my life belongs to Before or After.
The first way I learned to fill in part of what was missing was through cooking. It was what connected me with our village and part of my parents’ world. But before we go further I’d better introduce the village.
Shortly before 1910 a huge construction project was started on what we call Upper Cape Cod, the southern part where the Cape joins the mainland. The idea was to dig a canal between Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay and open a shorter water route to Boston from points south along the Atlantic coast. Construction workers poured into the Sagamore-Sandwich area, many coming almost directly from Europe, lured by the prospect of work. Among them were thousands of Italians who stayed on after the canal was finished to find permanent employment with the biggest local business, a company that manufactured railroad cars. One contingent, including the Carafolis, came from the vicinity of Bologna.
I’m leaving out a lot of earlier local history here, including other job opportunities that started attracting Italian labourers long before 1910 — I want to concentrate on the core group of Italians who founded their own little society in Sagamore Village. You probably know that people from different regions of Italy can be divided by dialect to the point where they have trouble understanding each other. This happened in our village. So the immigrants communicated in a kind of made-up Italian using words from all their separate backgrounds. They created a world for themselves, a little Italian melting-pot based on the ways of the country districts where they had grown up: Their food was a combination of memories and new inventions – also influenced by pros¬perity some of them couldn’t have dreamed of in Italy. They had the time and money to plant beautiful vegetable gardens and fruit trees. They found which of the old-country crops would grow in the new home, a much colder climate. Someone was always harvesting something, from early spring to late autumn — tomatoes, basil, white peaches, squashes. Many raised their own chickens, rabbits, and even pigs, and they would hold pig-butchering and sausage-making sessions in the autumn just as they remembered from their Italian homes. There was a grape arbour in every backyard, and every year, the men crushed the grapes and bottled their own wine. At the same time the women would be making savor, a tradition that goes back to Roman times, where you boil down grape must with other fruits for days, to make a super-concentrated preserve that was many peoples only sweetener in the days before sugar. Incidentally, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Cape Cod or the American image of Cape Cod, but most of what I’m describing would have been totally invisible to tourists who came from all over the country to visit what they thought was the ‘real’ Cape Cod of whaling museums or artist colonies.
The unofficial centre of town life was Louis’ Market, built in 1914 to keep this community of labourers supplied with imported arborio rice, dried pasta, olive oil, cornmeal for polenta and Italian cheeses. Meanwhile, many in Sagamore found ways to use skills they had learned in their first homes. Men fished for lobsters, clams, mussels, squid, codfish, swordfish and bluefish. Women gathered young dandelions in spring, the native wild cranberries and blueberries in summer, forest mushrooms in autumn.
These people were the contemporaries of my grandparents, bringing to life something they had carried in their minds and hearts since they were born. They would never have thought of not recreating their Italian birthplaces from direct memory when they put down roots in Upper Cape Cod.
Now we come to the other side of the memory coin: forgetting. You can’t talk about memory without — in a way — talking about forgetting. Or wanting not to forget. There’s no way anybody can remember everything forever, especially when a community or a family is broken apart. Wanting to not forget comes when people see something being lost.
The first memory-casualty in immigrant communities is usually language. This was especially true for people who had done little reading or writing in their own language before coming to America. I described how the first generation in Sagamore learned to talk to each other in a hybrid Italian with words from their different dialects. At home they spoke their own dialect. In the next generation, English became the first language, or at least the one that children were taught to read and write. By my generation, most children spoke only English. I grew up not knowing either standard Italian (Tuscan) or any of the dialects, except for a few words I might have picked up without ever thinking about it or knowing where they fitted into a pan-Italian picture. By this time people were marrying outside the community. My father was Italian, my mother French-Canadian.
By then the Sagamore Village roots that the first immigrants had put down had already started to be torn up. It didn’t take long. The railroad-car company that was the economic backbone of the town closed in 1928, the year before the Great Depression began. People moved to other Massachusetts towns looking for work, or left the area completely. It was another break with the past, even if not as drastic a break as crossing the Atlantic. To this day, local history buffs and the few elderly residents of Sagamore who arrived in the early days divide life into Before and After the Keith Car works went out of business. For the dwindling number who remained, memories became extra-precious because there was so much to be forgotten. This is where I enter the picture. I guess I always had more of a motive to remember the Italian Sagamore Village than Sagamore had to remember itself (especially now that the Italian Sagamore is nearly 100 per cent gone). My Before and After was the fire. I clung eagerly to my memories of a safe, stable family life when I was quite young and we were living with my Carafoli grandparents.
The Carafolis came from near bologna, a little town called Renazzo. There were a lot of people in Sagamore from Bologna and nearby parts of Emilia-Romagna. At that time I only vaguely understood that ‘Italy’ meant many regions and sub-regions, not just one place on the map. So the meaning of its culinary tradition in relation to other culinary traditions was beyond me, at the time. But the meaning of food as love wasn’t. What happened was that after the fire some of the women who had been neighbours and friends of my parents befriended me. They let me and my baby brother (I had to be a kind of parent to him) spend hours in their kitchens after school, watching them cook and sometimes being allowed to help.
This was an incredible gift to me, because food was my most treasured link with Before (before the fire, that is). Many of these women shared the regional traditions the Carafolis had brought across the Atlantic. My joy was to remember my grandmother’s polenta, her risottos, her version of a simple bollito misto that would be our Sunday dinner, or the tortellini that she would make later, filled with beef or chicken from the leftovers of that meal. The few household possessions that hadn’t been in the fire became revered objects for me — both those brought from Italy and those that my grandparents bought in America when they set up housekeeping. I still have the garden bench where my grandmother used to sit, picking over a basket of spring dandelions. I have my grandmother’s wooden polenta board and spoon, her Hoosier cabinet (‘The Hoosier State’ is a nickname for Indiana, where these cabinets were manufactured around the turn of the last century), her olive oil cruet (‘S.S.P.’ stands for S.S. Pierce, a renowned Boston purveyor), my grandfather’s brass corkscrew, and his glass dish for pinzimonio (olive oil seasoned with salt and cracked pepper, served with raw vegetables or bread for dipping). They were then, and are, links with everything I’ve lost. They were allies in the mission not to forget.
Generally speaking, I don’t think anyone in our community made a big point of food and memory when Sagamore was at its height. The women who taught me to cook, several decades later, didn’t do any song and dance about it, either. They were too busy cooking — from memory of course. They rarely wrote down a recipe. To them it was all second nature, which may be another name for memories so strong and instinctive that people can’t even imagine them being lost. It’s only an accident that a child happened to be around, a child with a desperate need to remember. I absorbed their way of putting together any dish without recipes. I absorbed things I didn’t know I was absorbing — like the Bolognese passion for ragus and the Italian love of fresh greens, when Rose Sorenti made her ravioli filled with Swiss Chard and topped with what we called ‘Bolognese sauce’. Like the northern Italian reverence for polenta, when Alba Papi served her polenta with stewed rabbit. Like the wisdom that Rosina Boffetti passed down to me one day when I wanted to know why she cooked wild mush¬rooms (picked only an hour or two earlier by herself) with a silver dollar, a sprig of parsley, and a slice of bread. ‘If the silver tarnishes and the parsley turns a strange colour, the mushrooms are not good,’ she told me in her broken English. ‘But what about the bread?’ I asked. She threw up her hands expressively and said, ‘You feed the bread to the chicken. If the chicken dies, you throw the mushrooms out!’ I never thought I’d be almost the only person from our village who is still around to bequeath this piece of medical science. Everybody just knew these things, and it seemed eternal.
People start worrying about food and memory when they realize that the food they’ve loved might not be around forever. As a kid learning to cook from the women of Sagamore, I had a feeling that they were helping me to remember the best of my own family life from Before. The meaning was personal. But it wasn’t until many years later that I realized how easy it is for food to be forgotten by a whole community. Or let’s put it another way — how easy it is for a community to disappear and be forgotten, along with its food.
I had grown up and moved away from Sagamore, then eventually moved back to Massachusetts and studied cooking at Madeleine Kamman’s school near Boston. I became a food professional (specifically, a photography stylist). After that two things began happening: (i) I saw that my parents’ contem¬poraries were dying out together with the food traditions they’d brought and re-created; and (2) my work and study had given me some of the necessary knowledge to look at those traditions and draw connections instead of just passively taking our village food for granted. A good example is the bread that used to be made at Louis’ Market in the old days when Louis’ still had bread ovens in the cellar. People in Sagamore just called it ‘horn bread’ in English; I never knew any Italian name for it. I just thought that was what good bread was supposed to be like. But, coming back years later with a wider knowledge of food, I realized how unusual it was. It had four points, like horns, belonging to two segments of bread jointed in the middle like Siamese twins. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a culinary historian, but it dawned on me that this bread must have a past. It didn’t seem as if it had much of a future. After Louis’ Market closed down their bread ovens they started importing ‘horn bread’ from a bakery in Plymouth about twenty miles away. I tried inquiring about it there. But at this point the original owner was too old to be much help, and the younger woman running the bakery didn’t know anything about the bread’s history. I have a feeling that in a few years no one is going to be making horn bread – and it used to be almost the staff of life in Sagamore! The key to helping it survive has to be somewhere on the other side of the ocean, though it took me a while to know that.
I decided that I had to start working on behalf of more memories than just mine. It was time to learn Italian. Well, another thing I’m never going to be is a linguist. But in my spare time I started studying the language with a teacher – that is, studying Tuscan, the ‘standard’ Italian. I see now that for most of my life I was totally cut off from a big part of the village memory and the Carafoli family experience coming to America, because I was ‘deaf to the talk that flowed around me unless it was in English. If the older people had an Italian name for our ‘horn bread’, it went right past me.
And I’m afraid that this loss also is a big part of why I’m here today -because it’s all too typical of something that happens with the movement of people around the globe. Not just Italians, but people of all ethnic backgrounds, tend to forget their ancestral language by the time the third generation is growing up. It’s not necessarily that we’re ashamed of the group we started out belonging to, it’s that when we get to school age, somehow everything keeps us from belonging to the group of speakers. I was too young at the time to understand that this is almost like losing a parent. Or let’s say that I was too young to understand the nature of the loss until I was too old to get the full benefit of study. It’s a loss of memory, including important culinary memories tied to language.
I know that I’ll never be able to get the nuances of our family’s home dialect. But at least I can communicate now, after a fashion, when I go to Italy – for that was probably the most important step I took. I saw that if I wanted to re-forge a broken chain of memory, I would have to go to Italy. Now you have to understand that European travel wasn’t always an automatic thing for American grandchildren of European immigrants. It all depended on a million different factors in a family’s situation, like whether somebody appointed him¬self or herself the international social secretary and kept the different branches in touch. We didn’t have anyone like that, and in our family, there wasn’t any possibility of any of us visiting Europe. So my opportunities for figuring out where my folks fit into a larger family picture beyond Sagamore were limited.
I did remember that a very nice elderly great-uncle and his wife would sometimes visit our home and that he was a professional cook somewhere in Connecticut who used to make the most terrific lobster cacciatore (among other things) when he came. I registered his name as ‘Zio Carabing’. Maybe I thought ‘Carabing’ was some sort of nickname – it was one of those things that kids don’t really pay attention to. I knew that ‘Zio Carabing’ and Tessilla, his wife, somehow had disappeared by the time of the fire, but I never knew the rest of their story.
Now, let me try to wrap up all these issues of food and memory in the Italian community of Sagamore Village, Massachusetts, as quickly as I can. It all started coming together for me about a year and a half ago when I made my first trip to Bologna and neighbouring regions in the spring of 1999. I’ve been back three times since, and I’m on my way there now. I have just begun my mission to take vanishing memories of food (vanishing in my home community, that is) and understand them as I never have, hoping that it will make a difference for people with even fewer first-hand memories than I have.
Someone had told me that a bread like our ‘horn bread” still existed in Emilia-Romagna — and I found it! The original bread is still being made in Ferrara, Modena, and Bologna. They call it la coppia (‘the couple’ or ‘the pair’) or in dialect ciupita. The shape is a little different, because the Siamese-twin halves are rolled into thin crescents. The texture is somewhat drier. But when I saw and tasted la coppia, I knew, ‘That’s it!’ Now that I can talk to people in Ferrara and Bologna who have living knowledge of this bread, I just may be able to take home what I’ve learned and interest New England-Italians in producing it, so that the memory of our Plymouth and Sagamore ‘horn bread’ doesn’t perish when the last of the old bakers dies in Plymouth.
I feel that with each trip I make I’m recovering from a kind of amnesia. Some piece of memory is filled in every time. It might be going to a restaurant in Ferrara and eating a dish of ground-up sausage over mashed potatoes and realizing why my Aunt Mary used to serve a dish of hamburger meat (ground beef) over mashed potatoes. It might be going to the cemetery in Renazzo accompanied by a distant relative whose mother was a Carafoli and seeing the name of my ‘Zio Carabing’ in writing for the first time by the picture on the vault. My own grandfathers brother, the prince of cooks in our family, and we had nothing in Sagamore with his name actually written down! His real name was right there engraved on the vault, Cherubino Carafoli, which my child’s ear had turned into ‘Carabing’. And when I was eleven, Cherubino and Tessilla, his wife, had returned to Renazzo, where they lived until the 19605.
Remembering, forgetting, and learning to remember again – my community and I are not unique in this pattern. The wave of immigration that brought the Carafolis to America is over. But now there are other waves coming from different places. People are moving around the globe looking for jobs, stability, democracy, or just a better life. It’s one of our big political issues in America – and now in England, too. I won’t go into that. But I can imagine some other family in a few years trying to look back and saying, ‘How did we ever forget?’ I hope that small attempts like mine to recover memory through cooking can be a future help or model to other people fighting amnesia – because food will always be a powerful magnet to draw out buried memories.
I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to Anne Mendelson for helping me sort out my memories.