Keeping an Italian tradition alive while it becomes newly mainstream
When I was growing up in Red Hook, our family garden was an integral part of our life. Practically everyone in the neighborhood had one.
It was pretty much the norm that if you were Italian, there was a garden of some sort in your backyard, side yard, front yard, or even on a piece of purchased property elsewhere. If there wasn’t a yard available, you might offer to do the gardening in another’s yard and split the produce.
Even a stray public property somewhere may be found flourishing in the summer with tomatoes or beans, courtesy of an Italian who sought to make use of otherwise wasted soil. And widows or the elderly were guaranteed visits from neighbors bearing gifts of fruits and vegetables from their yards, so no one should, God forbid, go without eating something fresh from the ground. This is inherently who Italians are; creatures of producing, conserving, providing, and eating abundantly from the earth that was gifted to them.
Someone I once met from the north of Italy said that he admired America, especially the money our country spends on medical research, something very much lacking in Italy. “But,” he said, “it is a terrible thing to be poor here. In Italy, you can be poor, but you will never starve.”
This is a certainty, because if there is one thing that I have often relayed to my own children about growing up Italian in Red Hook, it was the reality that while we were poor, we ate like kings. All the produce we harvested was jarred and preserved to get us through the winter. Tomato sauce, roasted peppers, artichokes, pesto, beans, and even foraged mushrooms were mainstays of our winter dinners. And wherever there was a garden, there was usually a winemaker as well.
On our block alone, all the Molese longshoreman—after putting in serious hours of work on the docks—came home to tend to their gardens.
Chances were our neighbors were all eating the same things, too. If the string beans were coming in, most of us were home devouring them with fresh cooked tomatoes and spaghetti. It was common to look out our backyard windows and see fathers and grandfathers working quietly and diligently as they thinned plants, tilled dirt, pinched and pruned leaves, seeded, grafted and staked their plants for ample growth. Continue reading at The Red Hook Star Revue.
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