To me, growing up “Italian” seemed to mean growing up differently than other kids with whom I went to school and who were not Italian. We had our customs, our feast days, our foods, our music, our extended family and everything else that made us Italian. Everything that was so natural to me and yet seemed incomprehensible to the non-Italians, the “Merigans”, I knew. (See note at the bottom)
This was obvious to me from the questions I got from them. Questions like: “Why don’t you eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch?” And, when I finally got my mamma to make me peanut butter and jelly, they would ask: “Why is your peanut butter and jelly on such big slices of bread with holes in it?” Others would ask: “Do you have a turkey for Thanksgiving?” And I would answer, “Of course we do! With a big antipasto, escarole soup, lasagna or ravioli, brasciole, meatballs, bread, broccoli rabe, green beans, roasted potatoes and fried potatoes. Oh, and ham and roast beef too; for those who don’t like turkey. Don’t you?” My response was usually met with a blank stare.
Something else that seemed to make us different from the Merigans was our garden. My mother and father, like the rest of our extended family and other Italian friends, raised a garden every summer. We lived in a small city in upstate New York and for such a small city it seemed to have a very large Italian population. We lived on Susquehanna Street, which was at the time part of the larger Italian neighborhood in the center of town. The street ran about two blocks north of the Susquehanna River.
During the 50’s and 60’s, the city allowed its residents to take plots along the south bank of the river for gardens. So, every summer our family and Italian friends did just that. A few evenings every week after work during the late spring and summer saw a pilgrimage of Italian immigrants walking to tend to their plots. We would walk from our apartment to my father’s aunt and uncle’s home four houses down where we would meet up with them and a few other Italian families. We would then walk south along Varick Street where several other groups would join the march south towards and across the Rock Bottom Bridge. Looking back, I imagine this was quite a sight for the Merigans watching us go by like a rustic pellegrinaggio of expat contadini carrying pitch forks, hoes, shovels, rakes, bushels, baskets and any other gardening tool you can imagine. There was also a .22 caliber rifle or two to take care of any rodents or snakes that might be found in the gardens. At the south end of the bridge, a path down the side of a levee led onto a flat field that was about one hundred feet wide and ran between the south banks of the river and the levee for quite a distance. The field was really a great place for gardens as the soil was extremely fertile and the river provided an endless supply of water which was brought to the garden plots by long hoses and manual siphon pumps. The men and kids would take turns on the pumps and hoses so that all the plots were well watered while the women weeded and pruned the plants. It was a huge cooperative effort, but one that really paid off big in fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, zucchini, beans, peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, lettuce and eggplants. Just about any garden vegetable you can think of, someone was growing.
We eventually moved into another apartment two blocks north on Hawley Street. The apartment was part of a house that was originally owned by another of my father’s aunts, and was at the time owned by his cousin Inez, a daughter of the aunt. My family, Inez and her husband Vittorio, another cousin Nina, who was Inez’s sister, and her family now occupied the three apartments in the house. Our apartment was in the back and overlooked the backyard that was, as you probably guessed, planted as a large garden. Along with the vegetables, the garden also hosted a large apple tree, a few plum trees, a cherry tree and a pesky, temperamental fig tree in a large planter that never seemed to produce much given the effort it required to maintain. When you stepped out into the garden and looked back towards the house, your sight was overwhelmed by a huge grapevine of Concord grapes. The grapevine literally covered the entire back of the house left to right, and three whole stories top to bottom; and while it may have looked wild, the vine was lovingly pruned and maintained to produce seemingly countless bushels of grapes. In the autumn, when the grapes were ripe, it was truly a spectacular sight. Especially in the morning sunlight when the purple grapes and broad green leaves glistened with dew. From the upper and lower porches, you could just reach out your hand to pick and eat fresh sweet grapes. But of course, we could only eat so many and the vast bulk of the grapes were used to make grape jam, wine and mosto cotto. Naturally. It was just another of those things that seemed to make us different from the Merigans.
Italian families also lived in houses on both sides of us and their backyards were similarly planted with vegetables and fruit trees. So the effect was best described as a small truck farm in the middle of the city. They were three properties, side by side, barely separated by rickety fences that actually provided more openings than barriers. Every evening we’d all be in the in the gardens tilling, planting, weeding, pruning or watering as was necessary. We’d also be talking and gossiping with the neighbors, in Italian of course; and, when finished with our own garden, go through the opening in the fences to help the neighbors with whatever was left to do in their gardens.
When it was time to harvest, there was such an “abbondanza” of fruits and vegetables that they couldn’t possibly be eaten before rotting. So the solution to avoid this potential waste of good food and effort was threefold; eat as much as you could while fresh, give a bunch away and preserve whatever was left. We all had large extended families and the various family members would often come by to visit and then afterwards leave with a bag, or two, or three. Not just from our garden, but also from the neighbor’s gardens as well depending on who had what growing and what was ripe at the time. It truly seemed like the loaves and the fishes; no matter how much was eaten and given away, there was always a lot more growing that ultimately had to be canned.
After a few years, my parents were able to buy their own house on the Southside of the city. The part of the south side we moved to was predominately non-Italian. Now instead of LaViola, DiNardo, Pellicciotti, Stento, Gallo, Marcello, Dellacorino, Putano, Palmeri, Ranucci, Felice, Capozzi, Partenza, Ciancio, De Ritis, D’Angelo, Masciarelli, DiFulvio, Ferrante and Di Benedetto; our neighbors were Humphrey, Ryan, Coughlin, Caden, Cahill, Johnson, James, Walsh, Stanley, Regan, Fehely, Mock, Brady and Patterson. We did also have Correa across the street and Darcangelo, who were half Irish, behind us; and both had roots from the same part of Italy we were from. But nevertheless, Italians on the south side of Binghamton were few and far in between. Shortly after moving in, it was again clear to me that we were perceived as different. The Merigan neighbors usually referred to us as the new “eye-talian” family. While it didn’t stop us from eventually becoming friends, it did seem to create some barriers initially. But now, so many years later, the neighbors who remain seem more like extended family rather than tentative acquaintances.
Being away from the center of the city meant that the houses had more property and our new house was no exception. Our new backyard as seen from my eleven year-old eyes was huge! What could we possibly do with all this property? Yep, plant a huge garden. We moved in October and by the next spring my mother and father were busy transforming the yard into their little corner of Italy on the Southside. First, next to the house, my father poured a 12×12 foot concrete slab for a small patio. Then he built a trellis out of iron pipes over it and planted three grape vines along the three side posts of the trellis. Finally, he put a picnic table under the trellis and in a couple of short years, the grapevine completely covered the trellis providing a shaded area to dine and entertain alfresco during the summer evenings; not to mention the bunches of grapes for homemade jelly and wine. After all, this is what all Italians do, right?
Then they measured out a 30×40 foot plot behind the garage; tilled it, and in this plot they planted their vegetables. Along the outside back wall of the garage, my father built some cages where he occasionally kept some rabbits or chickens. The Garage was detached from the house and its roof seemed flat, but it actually angled slightly to the back. There was never any reason to put a rain gutter along back of the roof, but my father, ever resourceful, had a reason. He put up the gutter and in one corner he ran the downspout into a 55-gallon drum. He would fill the drum partway with composted manure that he sourced from a local farmer and the rest of the barrel would fill with rainwater; this was his natural, organic and inexpensive fertilizer for the garden.
It was a typical garden planted with all the usual vegetables, but it wasn’t enough. My father then planted plum and peach trees and added the anemic fig tree in the planter that he brought along. Only then was our Italian oasis on the Southside nearly complete. As I said, it was nearly complete. This was because my father felt he needed to add some unique but functional features. As it turned out, one of the first improvements he made to the house was to replace the toilet and bathtub. They were the original fixtures and as such they were enamel-clad, cast-iron fixtures and they weighed a ton. I remember he and my mother discussing the cost of having them hauled away that, while seemly little so many years later, was a lot for their limited budget with having a new mortgage and two kids in “Catholic” school along with all the other bills. So my father’s “brilliantly creative” solution was to use the toilet and tub as planters. He had them placed in the far back of the yard adjacent to the garden and in these he planted not flowers but more vegetables, as if we needed more. So now we had a backyard with a toilet and bathtub prominently placed and planted with peppers or whatever vegetable my father felt would thrive in a planter.
What was truly spectacular was when he planted the tub with zucchini. The zucchini vines with the large green leaves and bright yellow flowers would over-grow the tub onto the ground all around and produce zucchini all summer long. If you know anything about growing zucchini, you know they are prolific and it’s truly amazing how much zucchini could grow out of a bathtub. Now remember, by far my new “friends” were Merigans and they found the garden to be a curiosity; after all, why grow those things when you can buy them in cans, as they would say. So now imagine how I felt having to explain why we had a toilet and bathtub in the backyard with zucchini and other assorted vegetables growing in them too. Just one more of those things that made us seem different.
Having so many fresh vegetables available meant that we ate very well and inexpensively. One of my favorite dishes my mother would make was Italian stuffed peppers using the Italianelle peppers we grew. These peppers are also known as sweet Italian frying peppers or Cubanel peppers, and are now available in most grocery stores. This is extremely easy to make and the stuffing is a simple preparation of Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, Parmigiano or Pecorino cheese, egg, garlic, parsley and chicken broth that, when stuffed into the pepper, makes for a savory appetizer or side dish that goes well with any meat. My wife Judy and I particularly like them served as a side with lamb chops.
Give them a try and let us know what you think. Buon Appetito!
Note: Merigan (pronounced Meh-ree-gahn): An abbreviated form of “Americano” and Italian-American slang for non Italian-Americans without regard to actual ethnicity or race. For example, English, Irish, German, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, African-America etc. are all “Merigan”. It may be stated either matter-of-factly or pejoratively with contempt, depending on the context.
- 6 Italian frying peppers (also known as Cubanelle peppers)
- 1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
- 1 cup Parmigiano or Pecorino cheese, grated
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 Tbs olive oil + more for frying
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 Tbs fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Cut the tops off the peppers; remove the seeds and any pith, then wash.
- In a medium sized bowl, add the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, garlic, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, egg and 1 cup of chicken broth; then mix well making sure that all the dry ingredients are well moistend. Finally, generously stuff each pepper with the mixture.
- Preheat the over to 350°
- To a large skillet, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom, add the peppers and over medium heat brown the peppers on all sides.
- Transfer the peppers to a covered casserole dish large enough so that the peppers all lay on the bottom and are not piled on each other. Add the remaining chicken broth and cover.
- Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the peppers are soft.
Attribution: Image Peperoni Ripieni All’Abruzzese – Stuffed Peppers Abruzzese Style © Eligio Bucciarelli