Commoners to Competitors

It isn’t Christmas or Thanksgiving or any other special holiday. My distant family is not sitting down with us, no aunts or uncles or crying, baby-cousins. It is just me and my family: my dad, my brother, and my two sisters, sitting down to dinner in Woodstcok, Georgia. The days are short, the air bites your exposed skin when you walk outside, and all you really want is to sit by a fire with a warm drink. It is warm and quiet in my kitchen. The tomato sauce simmering on the stove perfumes the air with subtle notes of onions, roasted garlic, and sweet Italian basil. We sit in our chairs and wait for my mom to take the sauce from the stove and place it in front of us.

After a few minutes of silence, the timer on the oven dings and the sauce has simmered to perfection. My siblings and I exchange what can only be described as glances of mischief as we wait for the food to make it from stove to table. My dad breaks the bread, and I watch as the golden crust seems to shatter like a mirror around his tear. Dinner has begun.

I lunge for the fork in the pasta, while my brother grabs for the Parmesan cheese, one of my sisters tears the bread from under my dad’s hands, and the other stretches across the hot pots to grab the salad tongs. The sauce finally hits the table and the game is changed. I go for the sauce ladle from the left, my brother comes in from the right, and my sister from above! The four of looked like lions pouncing on a wounded antelope. It is survival of the fittest, and the best competitor wins at the dinner table.

“Enough!” my dad firmly states in only the way fathers can, and the frenzy ceases. Order is restored. My siblings and I sit back and our chairs, now bound by our dad’s command to be patient and wait for the sauce to be passed to us.

This is our family tradition, hungry competitors willing to fight to the finish for food and for fun.

This is an image of our family dinner. To the right is our family spaghetti. To the left is our whole meal: bread, salad, and spaghetti.

Traditions are unique to each family, and ours are as different as any. My family has holiday traditions that are unique to us, but we practice the tradition of family dinner over pasta and sauce more often then we practice singing Christmas carols around the fire. We gather around the dinner table to make each of our individual lives part of one life together. There is something about the warm pasta and sweet sauce that gives us the ability to solve a problem, like my brother cutting my favorite doll’s hair, make decisions, Florida or Alaska for summer vacation, and sharing information, like Pumbaa was the first Disney character to fart. Our sauce makes us family.

This is typically what our plates look like when we’ve finished eating dinner. They’re nearly licked clean!

However, our traditions, in a way are not our own, they started many years ago when my great grandparents come to the United States for a better opportunity in life. My great grandparents were common folk, average marble sculptors in southern Italy, nothing extraordinary. They were not starving or diseased when they traveled to the United States from Italy, but they did want better lives for their children and their descendants working long hours with little reward. After moving across the ocean their lives changed dramatically. They were pushed into the labor force because they had no money after moving and had to compete against millions of other immigrants for jobs and space to support their family. The common folk sculptors my great grandparents had been with a distant memory to the newly developed fierce competitors they had to become.

This tradition of competition survived throughout the 20th century. My mother’s mother worked throughout her childhood and into adulthood sewing hems and tailoring dresses to those ore fortunate. My mother followed in her footsteps staring work in her dad’s shoe store at age 10 and working until she was 18 and ready to leave for college. Luckily, my mother’s competitive spirit allowed her to get a good education and later a good job to support my family. Although I haven’t had to compete to survive, the competitive spirit of my ancestors lives on within me and my siblings when we fight over dinner.

Competitive spirit is not new to Italians. Although it was triggered in my family by the move from Italy to America, Italians have been competing for years. Do you remember the gladiators? They fought to the death and only the fiercest competitor lived. The Roman empire was one of the longest lasting empires in world history because they were the fiercest in the land. Italian food and restaurants operate some of the largest food chains in the world today, and they didn’t get that way without competing against similar institutions.

I am taking this opportunity to research my family tree and the origin of my family’s sauce and competitive nature. Researching my Italian background, will allow me to learn how the rich Italian culture of religion, language, art, and so on has contributed to the food identity associated with Italian Americans today. I will also pull research from outside sources to learn how other Italian Americans have changed their traditions as their families transitioned from Italy to America.

Interview Questions:

How much do you know about our family history?

Where did you learn about our family history?

What role has food played in passing traditions on in our family?

Are there any traditions you had as a child that you have not passed down to us? If so, why?

If you had to pick one meal to describe us as a family what would it be? Why?

What made you interested in learning the family history, traditions, ect.?

If you had to use one word to describe our family’s history what would it be? Why?

What traditions would you like to see passed down to your grandchildren?

What brought you to living where you are now?

What is the recipe for the family sauce?