Marrying into an Italian family: baptism by sauce

31 Aug

Jars of sauce, ready to boil.

I married a first-generation Italian boy. In my youth–usually enamored by the loud, showy, unreliable, ebullient jackass-type–I found solace in his quiet reserve. His complete and unabashed loyalty. His work ethic. His handsomeness. His amazing family.

Although I am half Italian, I am not Italian Italian like my husband’s family. My in-laws came here in 1968, shortly before my husband was born. They did not know the language. They did not know any other “Americans.” They did not have anything but what they could carry over. But they had each other. Many people from the same part of Italy settled in a particular part of Pittsburgh called Bloomfield. I was lucky enough to start out my married life in this neighborhood, and many of my husband’s relatives still live here. I felt like I had become a member of a magical and cloistered society. Where Italian was still spoken around the table, prosciutto (made by my father-in-law) was hanging from garage rafters, where homemade wine was placed on the table for every meal, and every supper had a pasta course, then a meat and vegetable, followed by a salad–and of course an espresso to finish it all off.

Unidentified relatives of mine from Calabria.

My mother is Italian and I grew up learning how to cook from her and her mother, my Grandma Rizzo–also a first generation Italian born in 1918. I learned how to bake bread for Easter, always rolling out two small dough strips before covering the bread to rise, using the strips to make a cross over the dough to bless it and, according to my gram, help it to raise. My grandma would make bread each year on the feast day of Saint Anthony and get it blessed at the church in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. Sometimes when I was looking in one of her buffet drawers for something, I would find little stale frizenes (a crunchy anise-flavored type of bread, typically eaten buttered and then dipped in coffee) from previous years, tucked neatly away into socks. Kept safe since they were blessed, not to be eaten.

Saint Anthony

An interesting thing happens in many immigrant families. Oftentimes, the people from the origin country culturally progress and give up “the old ways,” but those that emigrate to another country hold onto the traditions of their home. So, even though the customs and lifestyle of the mother country have changed, the immigrants hold on to the ways that they left. It is what ties them to home. It is how they remember.

On my in-law’s most recent trip to Italy, my mother-in-law lamented that many of her friends and family still living there had given up on many of the labor-intensive traditions. The fine lace work to embellish tablecloths, the pasta from scratch–even the canning of fresh tomato sauce. I am so blessed that my husband’s family, my family, has held on to the old ways.

So every year in August, we travel to a local farm to pick tomatoes. This year we brought home 11 bushels.

It’s a family job and everyone pitches in. What makes things particularly effective, is that we process everything outside. My father-in-law has acquired steel drums and large burners that run from propane tanks. Pots and utensils travel between homes when it’s a family’s particular day to do their canning (sisters-in-law, parents, etc.). The tomatoes are usually left to ripen for a few days before processing. Calls are exchanged between family to discuss the ripeness. The final decision is always made by my husband’s parents on what day we should finally jar everything.

The process, although time- and labor-intensive, is quite simple. The tomatoes are washed, cored, squeezed (of water and seeds), boiled, machine processed, canned, and boiled.

Tatone, Paulie, and Uncle Ronnie processing the tomatoes.

We don’t add anything but some fresh basil to the top of the jars before canning. We flavor the sauce when we use it.

Making the final sauce is pretty subjective, and is all about what you like. Your sauce will end up being great if you just try your best and add what you like. Personally, I shred up a carrot and onion and fry in olive oil. Then brown some lamb and add the tomatoes to that. I flavor with salt, basil, oregeno, and parsley, but like to go very easy on the garlic.

Believe me when I tell you, there is nothing like the taste of sauce on the day the tomatoes are crushed. Nothing. Of course, after a day of canning, a big dinner is prepared where you taste the fruits of your labor.

Happiness is when you finally sit down after canning and cooking all day, look over to your youngest son, and watch him doing this:

Anthony enjoying his pasta.

12 Responses to “Marrying into an Italian family: baptism by sauce”

  1. amy baker August 31, 2012 at 9:03 pm #

    I loved this post. It made me miss my grandparents.

  2. naimavanswol September 1, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    this post is awesome. i can not believe you guys do that much sauce in a day. its amazing. also, no one has every linked to my blog before and I’m flattered and excited about it. you rule.

    • motherallie September 1, 2012 at 8:33 pm #

      Well, you lit the fire under my ass to write about it after your beautiful post. Here’s to lots and lots of people reading your blog!

  3. Lisa September 4, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    i loved this post for so many reasons, most of all because of your beautiful writing – it makes me laugh and it’s so full of life (and i totally want to steal all those jars of sauce pictured at the top of the page!).

    • motherallie September 4, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

      Thank you so much, Lisa! That means *so* much coming from someone whose writing always touches me. I would gladly share a jar with you. 🙂

  4. Janelle September 7, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    This is wonderful! What a meaningful family tradition to take part in every year!

    • motherallie September 7, 2012 at 9:37 am #

      Thanks Janelle! We didn’t do it one year and it was HORRIBLE not to have those canned tomatoes during the long winter…

      • Janelle September 7, 2012 at 10:40 am #

        A friend gave me a tomato sauce recipe that is frozen instead of canned. I’m going to give it a try. It’s such a staple for so many recipes and I’m trying hard to get away from commercially processed stuff.

      • motherallie September 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

        The freezing method is actually how my Mom does most of her tomatoes…it really works well for her!

  5. bowsprite January 9, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    Bellissima!! Grazie! xoxo c!

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