“Many cultures have looked to the Italians to light the way in this regard:
We seem to know how to hold each other close.”
Food. Mangia. Cibo e vino. Pasta. Sauce. Meatballs. Bread. Mortadella. Mozarella. Tiramisu. As Italian Americans, these things mean something to us. If it were simply that they are tasty items to consume, they would not exert the power they have, not only us, but on the wider American culture. Many people find McDonald’s offers tasty items to consume as well, but McDonald’s isn’t lauded in thousands of cookbooks, television shows, and movies, the way Italian cooking is. And the nonnas and mammas who cook it have become icons in American culture – purveyors of love who are equal parts stern and dutiful (Chef Lidia Bastianich as the warm, traditional nonna; Giada as the sultry Italian goddess a la Sophia Loren; Sophia Petrillo of “The Golden Girls” as the feisty yet wise mother always feeding everyone her irresistible cooking while solving their problems through her stories; Joe Pesci’s on screen-mother in “Goodfellas” as the devoted mamma waking in the middle of the night to feed her baby boy and his friends spaghetti; and the list goes on.)
I have food on the mind in particular for two reasons: Because I’m just returning from another visit home, and every visit to my mother’s house is like a tug of war between whatever she is cooking and me, who likes to eat healthy and clean by default. Here I’ll be, two weeks without an ounce of refined flour in my mouth and then, not two hours into being home, I’m tearing a hunk of bread off a loaf fresh from Arthur Avenue and dunking it into a big silver pot of bubbling red sauce. And then repeating it. The second reason I have food on my mind is because Anthony and I recently spoke to Bastianich, otherwise known as simply “Lidia,” chef, cookbook writer, and host of the popular show “Lidia’s Italy.” In both our conversation with Lidia and my own experience, I have come to understand that the food is just the vehicle, the car we climb into in order to drive closer to something much more impactful – communion with one another. The food offers a means to feel that indescribable sense of knowing, Here I sit in a crazy, unpredictable world, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but I do know that here, right now, at this table, I belong. I am loved. I am.
This, delivered largely through our cooking and the culture of family it is centered on, is what we must continue to cultivate and to give to others. We Italian Americans have the antidote to the isolation of our modern age. We have the cure to loneliness and the feelings of depression that accompany it. We have the answer to the problem of emptiness. We know how to make life richer. It’s up to us to continue to share that antidote with a culture that very much needs it. Perhaps now more than ever.
In her latest book, “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook,” Bastianich writes, “I was fortunate to have been born into such a fecund culture and have had the privilege of being able to communicate my traditions to my adopted home, America.” When we spoke to her, for an episode that will air this coming Sunday, Easter Day, she explained that cooking is what keeps her tied to her roots, the traditions of her family, and the larger Italian culture. She wants to share this with others because, of course, she believes that it is something the world could use: Your heritage, Lidia explained to Anthony and me, “is like a tree. If you have deep roots, if you know your roots, and a hurricane comes in your life, the tree with long roots will survive the hurricane. Whereas, if you have short roots, chances are you’ll be toppled by the hurricane.”
When we put in the work required to cook a beautiful meal, we are putting in the work of nurturing those roots for our families, our friends, our children’s friends; in fact, anyone we invite to sit at our table. This is a gift. Certainly my awareness of and appreciation for this gift is why I end up chin deep in a bowl of spaghetti before I’ve even unpacked my bag back home. My mother works hard to give us this gift. She always has. Food is how she has kept a large family and an even larger extended family together through whatever the years throw at us. She could have fed us anything, but she chose to feed us tradition, and that choice made all the difference in the strength of our bonds, the strength of our character, and the deep, firm rootedness of our lives. We feel we belong. We feel we have a place. In this world and among one another.
In a country like America, which encourages independence foremost, to think of yourself and forget the tribe, Italian Americans have a thing or two to teach by our example. Someone like Lidia is a bestower of riches. So is my mother when she cooks a meal for 25 of us and never complains. And so is your nonna when she does the same. And so are you when, after a very long workweek, you still make the time to have your sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews over (and probably their friends, too!), using the siren of Italian cooking as the song that draws everyone in; a trick really, to get us all to the real thing – togetherness. As we increasingly assimilate into American society, we must be mindful of what we allow ourselves to lose. The family dinners, the community that is built around the kitchen table, we need to be sure we don’t surrender that and become like everyone else in this regard. This would be un peccato; a sin. Just like it’s a sin to fail to use any talent you’ve been given. When we cook this amazing food that is universally loved, and we draw people close in its name, we are contributing something of immeasurable worth, which heals the people receiving it and the world those people live in.
Next time you place a platter of meatballs you rolled between your own hands down onto the table, remember that is one of the gifts God gave you – your heritage, and your ability to offer the beauty of it to others. Know that you are giving the world love and communion, along with the reminder that they are the only two things that truly matter.