Sunday, March 13, 2011


These delicious dessert pastries are cannoli and they are probably the best known Italian pastry, but the thing is, they're not Italian. They're Sicilian. If you think Italian and Sicilian are one and the same, think again. Sicily has it's own unique culture--and part of that melange is certainly Italian, but parts of it are also Greek, Arabic, African and French--not to mention a few Vandals and Visigoths who showed up around dinnertime. The Mafia--and yes, it exists--is also Sicilian, NOT Italian. The Sopranos--everybody's favorite Mafia family--are not really Mafia, and they're not Sicilian, they're Neapolitan. No big deal, right?

For thousands of years, the area that now comprises Italy was a collection of regions--each with its own food, customs and dialect. The unification of Italy (il Risorgimento, or The Resurgence ) only began in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna (and the end of Napoleonic rule) and became complete around 1871 with the Franco-Prussian War (some parts still didn't join until World War I). For a country--the land and the people--that goes back thousands of years this unification is relatively recent history, and people cling to regional differences to this day. The alpini from the Dolomites are practically German--and many speak it up north--and have little in common with the Venetian shopowner, the Tuscan vintner, the sophisticated Roman, the Calabrese farmer, the Sicilian fisherman. It's kind of confusing.

Even to "Italians."

Americans of Italian descent often don't know what to believe, or what is even Italian. After first and second generation ancestors struggled to assimilate, some of the later generations sought their long-abandoned ethnicity with a vengeance. Mainstream, non-hyphenated Americans could drink a cappucino and eat calamari, and they didn't seem to have this identity crisis, but people who still remembered Grandpa speaking broken English or Grandma making gnocchi di semolina wanted to reconnect with that rich and nearly abandoned heritage. They looked up from the cultural trenches to find popular stereotypes of Jersey Shore loudmouths and their suburban neighbors, The Sopranos, whacking their rivals and figured, hey, that's kind of cool. After all, Italians are entertaining. The folks that brought you opera and the Renaissance know how to please a crowd, but what's the underlying message here? Are these folks any worse than the average Americans idiots on sit-coms? The range may be narrower, certainly, but are these portrayals harmful? Maybe the TV Italians are simply acting out the repressed Ids of uptight puritanical American viewers. For the average non-ethnic American viewer, this amped-up, operatic display of passion and violence and loyalty to the family--yes, the family--might be entertaining. I've got cousins who love Jersey Shore (which is basically Italian American minstrelsy) and The Sopranos (a good show, though hardly filled with role models) and they wouldn't know a "gabagool" if it bit them on the ass. This is part of their "Italian-ness." They're Americans, of course, and maybe, in their way of thinking, they're learning about their cultural roots by watching Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi and Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino strut and fret their hour upon the stage.

Maybe these shows are popular simply because lust and violence are always popular, and it shouldn't seem so weird if people in Nebraska get vicarious thrills watching the trials and tribulations of Tony Soprano. I honestly don't know. For me, keeping my cultural background alive isn't a hostile act directed at homogenized America so much as a journey of self-discovery--however corny that may sound--and as I write this I'm cooking a big pot of marinara sauce (please don't pronounce it "Mary-Nayra" if you can help it) from a recipe my Mom gave me that she got from her folks, which they got from their folks, and so on, going back along a line of ancestors as present as tribal totems to an aborigine, and I'm paying my respects. Why lose all that?

These are important questions, especially now, as xenophobia is sweeping the land. Tea Party types fear foreigners won't pledge allegiance to their new home--but should they erase all trace of their old countries? Should they jettison ancestors somewhere in the Middle Passage? Should they develop cultural amnesia and assimilate completely and irreversibly? I hope not.

Which brings us back to cannoli. My father makes cannoli by hand--does yours? I didn't think so. No matter. You can make it yourself. Here is a recipe (click HERE). Make them for St. Joseph's Day, March 19th. Or if you live near an Italian grocery you can pick up a box and bring it home. Just remember not to leave it at the scene of the crime.

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