That’s Italian! Macaroni and Gravy, Not Pasta and Sauce

By JAMES R. TROTTO | Nov 22, 2017
Courtesy of: James R. Trotto Cousins of the author celebrate a birthday at the kids table around 1954. Families were tight-knit back then, and those of Italian heritage had memorable traditions brought from the old country.

The neighborhood in Belleville where I grew up was full of Italians. Most of my friends, both male and female, were Italian. I am sure, for most second-generation Italian American children who grew up in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, there was a definite distinction between us and them. I was once told by a high school friend of mine named Alex there are two kinds of people, Italians and people who want to be Italian.

It was not until then I discovered my little town also had Irish, German and Polish people. One of my friends in high school was Jewish, and I played sports with black kids. I learned the town was a melting pot of many different types of people.

It amazed me that some of my friends and classmates on Thanksgiving and Christmas ate only turkey with stuffing, potatoes and cranberry sauce. We had turkey, but only after antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs and salad.

Soon after, we ate fruits, nuts, pastries and homemade cookies sprinkled with little colored candies. This is where you learned to eat a seven-course meal between noon and 4 p.m.

On Sundays we would always wake up to the smell of garlic frying in olive oil. Sundays were a time for macaroni and gravy. Not pasta and sauce! Our grandparents had gardens, not just with flowers, but tomatoes, peppers, basil, lettuce and eggplants. Everyone had a grapevine and a fig tree. In the fall they would make homemade wine and then argue over who made the best. These gardens thrived because my grandparents put love and care into them. Of course, some good stories were told about how they came to America when they were young, “on the boat.”

I’ll never forget the holidays when the relatives would gather at my grandparents’ house, the women in the kitchen, the men in the living room, kids everywhere. My grandfather sat in the middle of it all drinking his wine and being so proud of his family and how well they had done. How many New Year’s Eves did I spend going over to that house? After the stroke of midnight and the start of a new year, the aunts started cooking sausage and peppers. It must have been a tradition, and I remember it. I also remember going outside, banging pots and pans. 

When my grandparents died, things began to change. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing. We did gather for birthdays and graduations for a short time.

It’s understandable; things change. My relatives all had families of  their own. Today we visit once in a while or meet at wakes or weddings.

Other things have changed. The old house my grandparents bought is now covered with aluminum or vinyl 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. I still send Christmas cards, but hardly see aunts, uncles or cousins anymore. The great quantities of food we consumed, without any ill effects, are not good for us anymore. Too much starch, too much cholesterol, too many calories in the pastries.

The difference between “us” and “them” isn’t so easily defined anymore, and I guess that’s good. My grandparents were Italian-Italians; my parents were Italian Americans. I’m American and proud of it.

But somehow, I still feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture … call it roots, I am not sure what it is. Maybe some of my nieces and nephews have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of our heritage.  

James R. Trotto lives in Little Egg Harbor.






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