Maeve Doyle, University of Toronto Mississauga
In this story, on the long Thanksgiving weekend, friends and family descend on a cottage under construction on the shores of Lake Erie. Everyone paints, hammers, saws, screws, assembles, or installs something—except the narrator who has used the excuse of studying to avoid work.
Giuseppe places a white plastic pail that holds fresh tile mortar onto the grey concrete floor of the bathroom shower. Placido crouches down, dips his tile trowel into the mortar and scoops out a blob. He sits back on one heel and drags a stripe of mortar across the bottom of the wall.
“Placido, when were you born?” I ask.
He doesn’t look up. “1943. Right smack in the middle of the war.”
“Where were you born?” I ask.
“Paluzza, Italy. In the Friuli region about fifty kilometres from the Austrian border.”
“Will you show me on a map?”
Placido presses small white rectangular tiles into the mortar. I open my binder and flip pages until I find my map of Italy. I hold my binder open, my map ready. Placido continues to apply tiles to the wall.
“I have a map,” I say to Placido’s back.
Placido turns to Giuseppe, flings out both hands and looks for an explanation. Giuseppe crouches next to Placido in the walk-in shower and inserts tiny white plastic spacers between the tiles that Placido has just set.
“She just wants to know about growing up in Italy,” Giuseppe says.
Placido turns blue eyes onto me and looks at me over the top of his silver-rimmed eyeglass frames. He huffs, stands, and comes over to look at my map. He stabs a finger at Friuli-Venezia Giulia. His large fingertip obscures the entire region. He turns to go back to his tiles.
“But where is Paluzza?” I ask before he gets away.
“Pepe. Give me a pencil,” he orders.
Giuseppe stands and pulls a flat, rectangular carpenter’s pencil from the pocket of his jeans. He hands the pencil to Placido.
Placido makes a small dot near the northernmost border of Friuli and prints “PALUZZA” in capital letters. He flips the pencil around, hands it back to Giuseppe, and returns to his crouch in the bottom of the shower.
“Have you ever heard the term cucina povera?” I ask.
Placido picks up his trowel and scoops up more mortar. He waves his trowel at me as he speaks.
“Mussolini! Don’t talk to me about that guy. Some people will tell you he was good but don’t you believe them.”
“Hey! My father was born in 1908. My mother was born in 1914. And neither of them ever saw a day of school. If it wasn’t for Mussolini, I wouldn’t have gone to school,” Giuseppe says.
“Cucina povera was all right for you people. You were used to it. But we nearly starved to death.” Placido points to Giuseppe, then to himself, and swipes another stripe of mortar across the wall.
“Don’t lump me in with those people from the south. Those people, they had it hard.” Giuseppe wags the pliers he holds at Placido.
Born in 1950, Giuseppe was the eleventh of twelve children born to mezzadri (tenant farmers). Giuseppe grew up one-pair-of-shoes poor in the agricultural province of Frosinone, in the region of Lazio, in central Italy. Giuseppe tells me that while they never had any money, they always had plenty of food on the farm.
“What did your parents do?” I ask Placido.
“My father was a ranger in the Guardia Forestale. His job was to stop poachers in the mountains,” he says.
“What did people poach?”
“Why?” I ask.
He looks over his shoulder at me in disbelief.
“Because they were cold and hungry,” he says.
“We were lucky, though, because we had my father’s salary and could buy food.”
I continue to coax information from my reluctant subject while he works. Placido was the third of four children. He wore shoes with wooden soles. He skied to school on skis made for him by his grandfather. Placido’s mother kept four cows for milk and cheese, chickens for eggs, a pig, and even a sheep.
“Oh, you grew up on a farm,” I say.
“No,” he says in a frustrated voice. “I grew up in the pre-Alps!”
I don’t understand so I look at Giuseppe. His Amaretto-coloured eyes sparkle.
“His people can’t grow anything there but rocks and trees,” he says.
Placido tells me that it was typical for men to travel for temporary work north from Paluzza to Europe and back again.
“In many ways,” he says, “the men had it easier than the women they left behind. The men got to travel. Their work ended at the end of the work day. They socialized in the evenings. My mother”—he stabs his trowel in my direction—“never stopped working.”
The rows of tiles have climbed the wall to hip height. The men pause for a moment and stand back in contemplation.
“That country survived because of the labour of the women,” Placido says.
“Yes,” Giuseppe says.
It surprises me that the two men are aware of how hard the women worked and that they acknowledge it. In A History of Contemporary Italy, Ginsborg writes that the female head of the family “worked an estimated five hundred hours a year more than any other member of the family.”
Placido turns and plucks half a dozen tiles from the box on the floor between us.
“How many feminists does it take to tile a shower?” I ask.
“Two with tiles this small.” Placido weighs the pile of subway tiles in one hand. “Pepe, how come your wife didn’t choose big tiles?”
Behind me, I hear the thud of heavy steps on the porch. Flavio and Cesare call “Hello” and enter the cottage through the front door. Voices respond from the bedroom and the kitchen and even from deep in the basement.
“We’re in here,” Giuseppe calls from the bathroom.
I turn sideways to allow the two giants to crowd into the small bare room.
“We brought chestnuts,” Flavio says. He and Cesare both hold in their ham-sized hands clear square plastic bags filled with the nuts.
“What are we working on here?” Cesare asks. He indicates my book bag and laptop and the binder I still hold.
“Cucina Italiana,” I say.
“Mmmm, my favourite.” Cesare pats his ample stomach.
“Those people had it hard.” Placido waves at Flavio and Cesare. “Their towns are about eighty kilometres from my town. You should ask them questions. The old people used to tell stories about their children walking around with abdomens swollen from malnutrition.”
“I heard all those stories, too, but by the time I arrived things weren’t that bad.” Flavio was born in 1950 two years after the United States’ Marshall Plan went into full operation and pumped aid in the form of money, technical knowledge, food, and medicine into Italy.
I ask Flavio and Cesare to show me their towns on my map. We crowd around my binder. Giuseppe brings his pencil over to the group.
“You’re missing Austria,” says Flavio.
“And Yugoslavia,” says Cesare. “And Trieste is in the wrong place.”
They modify the map with the carpenter’s pencil. They move Trieste and add dots to represent their towns. Flavio labels one “Aurava San Giorgio della Richinvelda.” Cesare labels the other “Roveredo di Varmo.”
“Pepe! I need two more hands over here,” Placido says from the shower stall.
Giuseppe jerks his head in Placido’s direction.
“Il Duce,” he says.
“Flavio, what did your parents do for a living in Aurava?” After Placido’s response to my assumption that he lived on a farm, I hesitate to ask if Flavio’s family were farmers.
“They were farmers,” Flavio says. But unlike Giuseppe’s family of mezzadri, Flavio’s family owned the land that they farmed.
One of five children, Flavio lived with his parents and three of his grandparents. He grew up in a sixty-year-old, two-storey farmhouse. The house had electricity but lacked running water. The kitchen comprised almost the entire ground floor and a focolare (hearth) dominated the centre of the large room. Copper pots that were used to boil water or make soup hung suspended by chains over the hearth.
I think it sounds charming.
“It was just cold,” Flavio says.
Flavio’s family raised pigs, chickens, and rabbits. They kept a horse to pull the plow. They grew potatoes, sugar beets, and corn. They brought the corn to a mill where it was ground into flour. The miller kept some of the flour as payment. Flavio’s mother made polenta with the corn flour.
“We didn’t have the money to buy bread. If you were sick, then somebody bought bread for you. We only had polenta.”
In Flavio’s family, his grandfather controlled the portions of food served at the dinner table. He cut a narrow sliver of cheese, a small slice of polenta, and added a spoonful of salad to each person’s plate. Flavio’s family ate meat once a week on Sunday, and if ever a chicken made its way to the table, it appeared three times—at lunch, at dinner, and in the soup at lunch again the next day.
“Growing up, we always had—” Flavio pauses to find the right word “—enough but you couldn’t go for replica.”
In San Donato, in the Val di Comino, like many of the other Ciociari in the area, Giuseppe’s family raised a small number of dairy cows and kept oxen for plowing. They grew wheat, corn, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. They grew olives and grapes and made their own oil and wine. His mother made bread and pasta from the wheat that they grew and kept chickens for eggs and rabbits for lunch.
Giuseppe lived in a two-storey, three-hundred-year-old stone farmhouse. The farmhouse came with the land they rented from the landlord. The kitchen stood on the ground floor and had vaulted ceilings. A man could stand up straight in the massive fireplace that dominated the kitchen. Giuseppe’s mother boiled water in the large copper pot that hung from chains within the fireplace. She carried the water from a spring that flowed a twenty-minute walk away.
Tucked into a corner of the kitchen stood the forno (oven) where Giuseppe’s mother baked bread and cakes. She called her favourite cake that she made for celebratory occasions pizza d’Espagne. Giuseppe describes this cake with ecstasy.
“The cake was four- or five-layers tall. Between each layer she spread different fillings like lemon custard and chocolate pudding. And each layer she drizzled with a different liqueur. One would be Amaretto, another Frangelico, another Sambuca.
“My mother was a fabulous cook.” Giuseppe waves his hands and sighs.
Giuseppe’s family grew wheat that they had milled into flour. The miller kept a portion of the flour and the landlord kept half of the remaining flour. Giuseppe’s mother used their share to make her homemade pasta and homemade bread.
“Good bread was the food I missed most when I immigrated to Canada.”
Giuseppe’s mother served either a roasted rabbit or the occasional roasted chicken with every midday meal. She wielded the power over the food that she made. She portioned pasta into bowls. She topped the pasta with sauce and served equal amounts to everyone at her table.
“The only thing we controlled was how much cheese we wanted.” Giuseppe stands with his back to me now but I can hear the smile in his voice.
Both Giuseppe and Flavio’s families raised dairy cows but the landlord owned Giuseppe’s cows and kept half of the milk. Giuseppe’s mother made a soft, fresh, mild cheese from the milk for her family.
Flavio’s family deposited the milk from their cows at the latteria comune (communal dairy). When they had accumulated one- or two-hundred litres of milk, the milk was made into cheese. On a day designated by the dairy, they withdrew the milk as big rectangular blocks of cheese. As payment, the dairy kept some of the cheese and butter to sell. This system of communal dairies, once common to the Friuli region, has almost disappeared. The Slow Food movement has established a presidium to preserve the practice and market the cheese that the few remaining dairies sell.
Flavio’s family also kept a pig or two. They made sure that the pig grew fat and, in January, they slaughtered the animal.
“We used every part of the pig. We got bacon and ham and made lardo (lard). In dialect, we called it argel.”
Lardo reminds me of prosciutto and, according to food author Fabio Parasecoli, the best cured pork is prosciutto di Parma.
“Oh! Your region is famous for prosciutto,” I say to the three Furlans.
“Yes,” Placido says from where he stands on a scaffold. “It comes from my wife’s town.”
“Parma!” I declare and feel pleased with myself until everyone else crammed into the bathroom freezes.
“No-o-o. San Daniele,” Cesare says in a kind voice. “Parma is in Emilia-Romagna. Prosciutto di San Daniele is the best cured pork in the world.”
I nod. Motion resumes.
“We named our son Daniele,” Placido says.
I want to ask if they named him after the saint or the prosciutto but I am afraid that Placido will kill me with his trowel.
“How about hunting? Was that a tradition you grew up with?”
“Not for me,” says Giuseppe. He only started to hunt after he met Flavio in Canada.
“Every town where we grew up had a small group of cacciatori. Hunters,” Flavio says.
“Cacciatori? Like the chicken?” I ask.
“Yes. Chicken hunter-style.” Flavio smiles. In Aurava, Flavio hunted jackrabbits and pheasants. “Whatever passed through the farm.”
“What was your regional specialty?” I ask Cesare.
He places his hand on his heart and rolls his eyes to heaven.
“Frico,” he says. Baked cheese.
At one time, baking the hard but edible cheese rinds was an innovative way to eat every part of the cheese. Now, the recipe for frico in La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy calls specifically for a combination of aged and fresh Montasio cheese.
“In Flavio’s town, they add grated potatoes and sometimes onions. But ours is just cheese.”
“Are you familiar with cucina casalinga?” I ask them.
“Home cooking? That’s what we do here in Canada,” Flavio responds. He says that he still prepares food the way it was made in Aurava when he left in 1969. Flavio makes cotechino.
“We called it moset. It’s like a pork sausage but it is raw and requires cooking for hours.”
The first time that he went home to visit, he showed his family that dipping cotechino into water and freezing it preserved it better than hanging. A few years later when he visited, he showed them how to vacuum-pack the sausage before freezing it. But more recently, he showed them the traditional way to make cotechino. Because Flavio’s family could buy mass-produced cotechino, they had lost the traditional knowledge of how to make it themselves.
“Are you guys Italian when you are in Canada but Furlan and Ciociaro when you are in Italy?” I ask.
“Being Furlan or Ciociaro is a part of us. You can’t separate us from that. But we are all Italian, even in Italy,” says Flavio.
“Tiles,” Placido barks.
I scoop a handful of the white subway tiles from the box and hand them up to Placido.
Cesare and Flavio say “Goodbye” and tell Giuseppe that they will return on Tuesday to help cut the cement around the garage.
Giulia, Giuseppe’s daughter, leaves next to pick up her boys from hockey.
My weary sister appears in the bathroom doorway.
“I thought you were supposed to be studying,” Maura says to me.
“I’m tiling,” I say.
Maura leaves through the front door and climbs down the front steps. Her muffled voice carries in from the porch.
“I ordered pizza from Naples.” She means the pizzeria.
“Placido, come for dinner,” Giuseppe says. He helps his friend down from the scaffold.
“No. I have dinner waiting for me at home.” Placido and his wife own the cottage next door. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
As he leaves, I thank Placido for answering my questions.
“Hmph,” he says.
Giuseppe tells me to go get some dinner. “I’m just going to clean up and I’ll be right over.”
I gather my binder and my book bag and my laptop. I cross the floor of the front room and step out onto the temporary plywood floor of the porch. The porch light flickers on and pushes back the dark but only as far as the top step.
I clump down the wooden steps and trudge across the earth in the front yard to the dirt road. I hear the crunch of my shoes on the gravel.
I know my brother-in-law’s story well. His family’s manual agricultural labour resulted in the Mediterranean diet that they enjoyed but never in their economic independence. Giuseppe’s mother, the artisan, demonstrated her creativity through food. And while he often expresses nostalgia for his mother’s food and the people who loved him, he never expresses it for the life he lived there.
I had gained new insights about Italian food from the Furlans that I had interviewed. Compared to Giuseppe’s diet—the Ciociaro diet—of central Italy, the Furlan diet seemed restricted in both variety and quantity. I marvel at the innovations of lardo and frico and latterie comune. And there really was a meat line that divided Italy’s north from its south.
As Cesare explained it, “Our sauce had meat, meat, meat and Giuseppe’s had tomatoes.”
Accademia Italiana della Cucina. La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy. Translated by Jay Hyams, Rizzoli International Publications, 2009.
Cence, Peppino. Personal interviews. 10 Oct. 2015 and 8 Nov. 2015.
DeFranceschi, Paolo. Personal interview. 10 Oct. 2015.
Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943–1988. Penguin Books, 1990.
“Latteria Turnaria Cheese.” SlowFood.com, n.d., www.slowfood.com/expo2015/en/formaggi-expo/formaggio-di-latteria-turnaria-2. Accessed 2 Nov. 2015.
Moss, M. E. Mussolini’s Fascist Philosopher: Giovanni Gentile Reconsidered. Peter Lang Publishing, 2004.
The Legge Coppino of 1877 legislated formal education in Italy for all children between the ages of six and nine. Moss’ book explained that although compulsory education was mandatory, in many cases it was not enforced until 1923 when la riforma Gentile made the national mandatory education free and extended it to children between the ages of six and fourteen. This book also explained Giovanni Gentile’s motivation for, and belief in, providing education for everyone (although he did imagine different educations for different social classes). It further explained that Mussolini, who saw la riforma fascistissima as a means of educating children in the ways of fascist thinking, ensured that mandatory education was enforced.
Mussio, Laurence B. “Famous Furlans.” FameeFurlane.com. Famee Furlane, 2001, www.fameefurlane.com/famous-furlans.htm.
Dr. Mussio’s lecture informed me on Friulian immigration to and contributions within Canada.
---. Personal interview. 15 Nov. 2015.
Through this e-mail correspondence with Dr. Mussio, I learned that at the time that Placido’s father served as a ranger, the Corpo Reale delle Foreste would likely have been known as the Militzia Forestale. Placido’s use of “Guardia Forestale” is probably accurate for the 1940s.
Parasecoli, Fabio. Food Culture in Italy: Historical Overview. Greenwood Press, 2004.
This work informed my understanding of regional pride and the bucolic fantasy that Italy was always a land of plenty. It explained the food traditions that Placido, Flavio, and Cesare inherited from the Longobards and that Giuseppe inherited from the Samnites. Parasecoli’s work further informed my questions about hunting and prosciutto and supported Cesare’s description of the difference in sauce between the north and the south.
Pecile, Cesar. Personal interview. 11 Oct. 2015.
Root, Waverly. The Food of Italy: Etruscans, Greeks and Saracens. Vintage Books, 1992.
Volpatti, Fausto. Personal interviews. 11 Oct. 2015 and 6 Nov. 2015.