“Whenever I would visit my aunts [Zia Maria and Zia Elodia], their very effusive greeting would always end with this question: ‘Hai mangiate?’ (Have you eaten?). If I had eaten, the next question would be, ‘Che hai mangiate?’ (What did you eat?). Now, to a pre-teen boy, this question is somewhat disconcerting. At the time, I could hardly remember what I had been doing five minutes earlier much less remember what I had eaten the last time someone fed me. I felt as though I was being put on the spot and was troubled by what I perceived as a third degree. Later, I understood that by feeding me, these dear ladies were showing their love for me.”
The above was a passage from an essay my Grandpa Petosa wrote about the meaning of food and how we use it to show our love to others. As Italians, one of our main concerns is good food; that includes serving good food and eating good food. While I know that a lot of cultures take pride in their dishes, I always felt that Italians had a particular zest for food; they always truly seem to enjoy the experience.
Whenever my brother and I came for a visit, almost the first words from our grandparents were, “What do you want to eat?” Not that we ever objected. Treats from Grandma and Grandpa were always welcome as far as two young children were concerned. When it comes to Italians and food, most people picture Italian families force-feeding everyone. I have to say, this is a stereotype that is fairly accurate. I do not think there has ever been an Italian who has uttered the words, “I think you’ve had enough to eat.” Please. You can have seconds of everything on the table and someone will still say, “Eat more! You’ve hardly touched a thing!”
If my grandfather didn’t understand his aunts’ intent when he was young, he certainly had learned by the time my brother and I came along. When we were little, we would sometimes spend a weekend at our grandparents’ house; and an entire weekend with Grandma and Grandpa meant a lot of eating. One of my grandfather’s specialties was his Saturday morning breakfasts. He and my grandmother would prepare a huge breakfast consisting of Grandpa’s (self-proclaimed) “World’s Best Pancakes.” Grandpa would prepare platters of pancakes and urged the two of us to consume as many as we were capable of eating. He once tried to get me to eat ten pancakes at once. I am pretty certain that I would have spontaneously combusted had my grandmother not called him off.
Another treat Grandpa prepared for us were oranges. He would slice up a whole orange for each of us and put the slices in a bowl. Then, he would sprinkle the slices with sugar. This is how his own father would prepare oranges for him, Grandpa would explain proudly. Obviously, this is a very simple dish to prepare, but it felt special because it was something from Grandpa’s childhood that he wanted to share with us.
Yes, the food stereotype may be fairly accurate in regards to Italians, but this is one I think Italians can enjoy and even be proud of. We use food to show our love for others and our desire to nurture the body and spirit. Food is a way for us to pass down traditions and share a part of ourselves with the ones we care about. Having realized the message that my grandparents always tried to convey, has made me love them and appreciate their lessons all the more today.
Written by OSIA National Office Administrative Assistant, Laura Kelly.