by Giacomo Moscatelli
I was well into adulthood before I realized that I was a Cana dian. Of course, I had been born in Canada and had lived here all my life, but somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of Canada meant that I was a Canadian. Canadians were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of plastic bags. Me? I was Italian.
For me, as I am sure for most second generation Italian- Canadian children who grew up in the 40’s and 50’s, there was a definite distinction to draw between Us and Them. We were Italians. Everybody else, the English, the French, the Irish, Germans, Poles, they were the “inglesi”. There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard feelings, just… well… we were sure that ours was a better way. For instance, we had a bread man, a fruit and vegetable man, a chicken man; we even had a man who sharpened knives and scissors right outside our homes. They were part of the many peddlers who plied the Italian neighborhoods. We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual distinctive sounds. We knew them all and they knew us. The Canadians… they went to the A&P for most of their foods… what a waste.
Truly, I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every morning to find a hot, crisp loaf of Italian bread waiting behind the screen door. And instead of being able to climb up on the back of the peddler’s truck a couple of times a week just to hitch a ride, most of my “inglesi” friends had to be satisfied by walking with their Mamas to the store. When it came to food, it always amazed me that my friends and classmates only ate turkey on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas. Or rather, that they only ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Now, we Italians, we also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, but only after we had finished the antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever else Mama thought might be appropriate for that particular holiday. The turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of some kind (this was just in case somebody walked in who didn’t like turkey) and it was followed by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes, and, of course, the homemade cookies sprinkled with little colored things. No holiday was complete without some home baking; none of that store-bought stuff for us. This was where you learned to eat a seven course meal between noon and 4 P.M; how to handle hot chestnuts and put peach wedges in red wine. My friends ate cornmeal mush. We did too, but only after Mama covered it with sauce, sausages and meatballs… we called it polenta… now it’s a gourmet food… Mama must have known it all the time.
A romance with food.
I truly believe Italians live a romance with food. Sunday was the big day of the week. That was the day you’d wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil, as it dropped into the pan. Sunday we always had sauce and macaroni. Sunday would not be Sunday without going to Mass. Of course, you couldn’t eat before Mass because you had to fast before receiving communion. But, the good part was that we knew when we got home we’d find hot meatballs frying, and nothing tasted better that newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of hot sauce.
There was another difference between us and them. We had gardens, not just flower gardens, but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them, and jarred them. Of course, we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree, and in the fall everybody made homemade wine. Then, when the kegs were opened, everyone argued over whose wine tasted the best. Those gardens thrived because we also had something that our Canadian friends didn’t seem to have… we had grandparents. Of course, it’s not that they didn’t have grandparents; it’s just that they didn’t live in the same house or on the same block. Their presence wasn’t that noticeable. We ate with our grandparents, and God forbid if we didn’t visit them at least 5 times a week. I can still remember my grandfather telling us about how he came to Canada as a young man, on the “boat”. How the family lived in a tenement and took in boarders in order to make ends meet. How he decided that he didn’t want his children, five sons and two daughters, to grow up in that environment. All of this, of course, in his own version of Italian/English which I learned to understand quite well.
So, when they saved enough money, and I never still can figure out how, they bought a house. That house served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. I remember how they hated to leave the house for any reason. They would rather sit on the back porch and watch their garden grow. When they did leave for some special occasion, they had to return as quickly as possible… after all, “nobody is watching the house”.
I also remember, the holidays when all the relatives would gather at my grandparents’ house and there would be tables full of food and homemade wine. The women in the kitchen, the men in the living room, and the kids… kids everywhere. I must have a thousand cousins, first cousins and second and some friends who just became cousins, but it didn’t matter. Then my grandfather, sitting in the middle of it all, his pipe in his mouth, his fine mustache trimmed, would smile and his dark eyes would twinkle as he surveyed his domain, proud of his family and how well his children had done. One was a cop, one was a fireman, the others had their trades, and of course there was always the rogue about whom nothing was said. The girls? They had all married well and had fine husbands, although my grandfather secretly seemed to suspect the one son in- law who wasn’t Italian. But out of all of this one thing that we all had for each other was respect.
They had achieved their goal in coming to Canada; to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, or Timmins. Now their children and their children’s children were achieving the same goals that were available to them in this great country. When my grandparents died a few years ago, things began to change. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing. Although, when we did get together, usually at my mother’s house, I always had a feeling that they were there.
It is understandable that things change. Everyone now has families of their own and grandchildren of their own. Today we visit once or twice a year, or we meet at wakes or weddings. Other things have also changed. The old house my grandparents bought is now covered with aluminum siding. A green lawn covers the soil that grew the tomatoes. There was no one to cover the fig tree, so it died.
The holidays have changed. Yes, we still make the family ‘rounds’ but somehow the things have become more formal. The great quantity of food we once consumed without any ill effects is no good for us anymore. Too much starch; too much cholesterol; too many calories in the pastries. And nobody bothers to bake anymore… too busy. It’s easier to buy it… and anyway… too much is not good for you.
The differences between “us” and “them” aren’t so easily defined anymore, and I guess that’s good. My grandparents were Italian-Italians, my parents were Italian-Canadians, I’m a Canadian-Italian, and my children are Canadian-Canadian. Oh, I am a Canadian, and proud of it. Just as my grandparents would want me to be. We are all Canadians now… the Irish, Germans, the Poles… Canadian citizens all. But, somehow, I still feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture, call it roots, I’m not sure what it is. All I do know is that my children, my nieces and my nephews have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of heritage… they never knew my grandparents.