Traditions are hard to change, and even harder to let go of. The Italian kid in me has often been resistant to altering the way things are done. It’s tradition, my mind says, and I dig in my heels.
It’s easy to equate change with loss.
Up until about 10 years ago, we waited until after midnight to open presents on Christmas Eve (technically the first hours of Christmas Day). I stubbornly insisted it continue that way, even as the family expanded and circumstances changed. To allow that adjustment felt as though we were allowing our traditional Italian home to be overtaken by strangers; except we were the strangers.
The fact that my older siblings, now living 30 to 60 minutes away from our parents and with small children of their own, seemed to push for this modification made Christmas miserable for me. I grew crankier as the night went on and it seemed, around 9 pm, that we were about to open our gifts. I lamented that no one valued ritual any longer. I lamented the destruction of my beloved: Tradition.
When we were younger, and we opened those presents at midnight (not finishing until 2 am or so), all of us kids lived in the same house, and the aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends who joined us lived in town. You’re more inclined to stay a while when you don’t have to drive an hour on dark, wintry highways, and then put your four kids to sleep. The proximity of family made such a tradition possible. But as life is now, it makes it more trying. I still won’t say that I completely agree with the change; it’s one lousy day out of the year, for goodness sake, but trying to stand as the dam holding back the flood waters only made me weary.
I had to accept the changing tradition, because refusing to accept it was ruining my experience and by extension, everyone else’s. Was I going to be depressed every Christmas, missing out on time with family, because Christmas wasn’t the way it used to be? Or was I going to help create new traditions, in lieu of current circumstances? Bend or break. Change or atrophy. Adaptation or extinction. These are life’s natural laws; I don’t make these rules, and I promise you I do not like them, but for the sake of grace and peace, I accede to them.
Food, which in tandem with family is a holy, sacred thing in Italian-American culture, is one of the major traditions that meets with resistance when you propose change. Of course, I love Italian food. I grew up with a garden full of vegetables; a pantry full of jarred tomatoes; sausage and provolone snipped from ceiling beams; a slicing machine in the basement to slice prosciutto fresh and on demand; and a mother who piled a volcano of flour on a wood board by 7 am to roll out gnocchi or knead fresh dough for bread.
Nevertheless, much of our cooking is unhealthy. Gnocchi, pizza, bread, cannoli on a Sunday afternoon, once a week, is not a problem. But this type of eating as a daily staple of our lives is, contributing to diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart attack and stroke, and a whole host of other ailments, not the least of which is physical bodies that many people self-loath, contributing to mental and emotional stress. As the health conscious fitness instructor in my family, I know all about the resistance Italian Americans can erect when it comes to altering their diets, even as their health fails because of it and their quality of life declines.
One of the main reasons given for the resistance is – It’s tradition.
Oh, bread was good all these years, now we can’t eat it? Get out of here!
That type of thing.
The truth is, as far as traditions go, the way Italian Americans eat is a relatively new one. My maternal grandmother, for instance, did not eat Italian subs for lunch, and she did not eat fettucine with a heavy cream sauce, the sauce sopped up with a heel of bread, followed by a platter of braciole, the whole meal ending with the opening of a white box full of cannoli, napoleons, sfogliatelle, and pignolli cookies. My bet is, if your grandparents grew up in Sicily or Southern Italy and not America, they didn’t eat that way, either. My grandmother was way too poor to afford such a meal. In fact, my mother tells me that when she was a kid in Italy, such items – the cookies, pastries, and cakes we so easily access nowadays – were served only at weddings. You went to church, got married, and then you went back to the bride or groom’s home where the parents, if they could afford it, would have the treat of pastries, espresso, and champagne set out as reception.
Otherwise, no one ate those things. No one had money to buy them. All the Italian immigrant women I know, including my mother, didn’t learn to cook until they came to America. Abbondanza. The abundance of America infiltrated the cuisine, which was only possible around the mid 20th Century, when Italians who came to America began to make money. They could afford ricotta to make lasagna and veal to make veal piccata, and the act of eating way too much of this opulent, mouthwatering food proved to them and the world that they had made it. For a people who had struggled and starved for so long, a table crowded with family, tipping with meats, cheeses, pane e vino as far as the eye could see was the dream actualized. The sacrifice validated. The loss leveled.
Now, the other half of me – the non-traditionalist – loves taking things to the next stage, reinventing, creating, reimagining, and trying new things. This, of course, is exactly what Anthony and I are doing with The Italian American Experience, trying to give tradition the space to breathe and grow; to move it into the future.
A traditional Southern Italian view of daughters, for example, is that if you allow them the freedom to come and go as they please, the way you allow your sons such freedom, they will be viewed as loose women. Since you don’t want to raise such daughters, you keep them in the house, limiting how long and how much they can leave it. My sister and I were raised this way, and it was difficult, because we were not growing up in Southern Italy in the 1950s, but in New York in the 1980s and ‘90s, and the society outside our home did not look at us that way if we, say, were at the diner with our friends at 10 pm. But the society within our home did. In the year 2017, would it be appropriate for my brother to raise my 13-year-old niece the same way? Given everything he knows as a more modern man than my father was? It’s a custom that had to transform, or my brother’s relationship with his daughter would be fraught, contentious, a needlessly unhappy one. Not to mention that my niece’s experiences would be limited, and her development stunted. In short, it no longer makes good sense to strictly adhere to that custom. Is she raised more strictly than most of her friends? Yes. Is she taught Italian American values and morals? You bet. But it’s augmented from the way her aunts were raised.
As someone who straddles the line between tradition and modernity, one of my favorite things to do is take conventional Italian and Italian American dishes and find ways to make them delicious and good for you. Like many Italian Americans, I’ve never been one for moderation. I like to eat. I like to drink. I like to do things fully and passionately. And that includes being healthy, strong, and fit. It’s not easy to be a health-minded, body-conscious young woman in a traditional Italian family! To eat or not to eat, to drink the vino or not to drink, that is always the question! Part of what I do to balance this out is make pasta, bread, and pizza using different flours that do not cause the type of sugar spike, inflammation, and thus fat buildup that today’s traditional flours cause.
Hate to break it to you, but the bread Italian Americans insist on eating with every meal because it’s tradition, is not traditional. Neither is the pasta, because the bread your grandparents ate was made with different ingredients. Today, flour is largely so bad for you because of the way it is processed. Manufactured, dwarf versions of the wheat are ancestors grew are processed, chemically treated, bleached and stripped of the germ, which is where the good stuff like fiber lives, leaving just the junk that causes insulin to flood your body and fat to accumulate. The bread you’re eating today hurts you in ways the bread your grandparents ate did not. Even more so, folks used to (and in many places, still do) sprout grains for flour. Sprouted flours are grains like wheat, kamut, and rye that are left to sprout like vegetables, and because of this, they digest like vegetables. You can bake breads, pastas, and desserts with these nutritious flours, getting hearty, healthy, rich traditional foods without the damaging health impact, which is something I can write about more in a future post.
In Italy, alternative flours like chestnut or chickpea flour have been used for centuries, so while using almond flour or coconut flour might not be traditionally Italian, it’s also not radically off base, either; using flour made from nuts and vegetables is common. I use different flours to make everything from pasta to bread to breading for cutlets. Is it exactly like my mother’s version of these foods? It is not. Is it a close approximation, delicious, and a way for me to eat foods I love without derailing my health and fitness? Absolutely. I can eat pizza with dough made from tapioca flour, topped with traditional homemade sauce I make from scratch, using a jar of our preserved tomatoes, of course, and gobs of mozzarella cheese, and it hits the spot. If two days later we have family dinner, and mamma, as she’s inclined to do, totes out pasta, stuffed bread, and homemade pizza, I don’t have to feel guilty joining in, and I don’t have to worry about eating it. And I just had pizza twice that week. What’s better than that?
For modern traditionalists, this is a great way to go back to the future. Cooking old-style foods in a way that aligns with contemporary understanding of our health and wellness can create a sustaining tradition; one wherein adhering to tradition doesn’t have to break us, hurt us, or make us suffer.
When I made pasta a few days ago, using almond and arrowroot flour (one a nut, one a plant), I was using pure, honest flours created the way food used to be, and the way Italians insist their food be created. Like my ancestors, I mixed eggs with flour (although the modern gal in me used the Kitchen Aid!), I rolled the dough out on a wooden board, just like my mother does, and sliced and shaped the dough. I felt part of a long line of pasta makers, and it made me happy. The resulting meal was al dente, comforting, filling, and delightful, and it was not damaging to my health or physique.
Sometimes I wish I could’ve been (and could still be) the dutiful Italian daughter in house slippers, wearing an apron dress, cooking for my father and family, staying close to home, not dreaming of much, but content within my small world. In my circumstances, to have lived that way, knowing what the possibilities are for me, would have been unnatural; it would’ve been trying to live as a dam holding back flood waters. We know better now than to demand our daughters live that way. To be fair, my father never wanted that of me; he wanted me to be successful and the greatest version of myself. Even he understood, in his own way, that customs change.
We know better now than to pretend like what we eat doesn’t greatly impact our lives, and the lives of those around us. Using tradition as a justification to hurt ourselves is not the intent of tradition. We must find a way that works for each of us to be modern traditionalists – connected to the past, yet eyes wide open to the truth of the times we live in.
Want to hear more about this topic, including recipes and learning about how eating the fatty, rich foods we love like mozzarella, ricotta, meats, olive oil, and more can help you burn fat? Let me know in the comments section below!