I grew up in an apple pie, brats and hamburger midwestern american home. Our culture was midwest america. I was vaguely aware that my ancestors had come from all over europe – Norway, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, to name a few – over the last 200 years and settled here in the heartland. Some had been here long enough to fight (and die) in the civil war. Some came at the turn of the 20th century and were given citizenship after fighting in World War 1. But from no one, no exceptions, did we receive any sort of cultural heritage.
I was always jealous of my friends who had strong family cultural roots. Be it polish polka-ing, irish step dancing or german cooking, their families had managed to hold on to a little piece of their history.
My family’s cultural history was limited to the norwegian joke book at my grandparent’s house. Seriously, that was it.
I’ve always felt that american culture, if not a void, is at least a neutral. It’s a background upon which a variety of cultural colors can be strewn. Alas, my family’s canvas is sadly blank and devoid of hues of any shade, vibrant or mute.
I had always thought that earlier generations of immigrants melted into the stew of american life quickly. Imagine my surprise to find that many midwestern immigrants maintained their link to europe for generations after immigrating, speaking the european language at home, maintaining european language schools and cooking good ol fashion european food.
Why was my family different? I still haven’t answered that question completely. For my mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother, perhaps part of it was unintentional. Her parents spoke italian only to one another, and after her father was killed in a car accident in the late 1920s, italian was rarely spoken in her home. Faced with the daunting task of raising 4 children alone in the great depression, my great grandmother probably didn’t have a lot of time or energy to impart the finer points of her heritage on her children.
No italian culture, cooking, language or otherwise, passed down to her, and as such, none to my mother, and none to me.
I could always take the path I see many american converts to Islam take – adopt the culture of my husband and become and honorary egyptian. But, while I’m happy to be married to an Egyptian, and hope that our children (inshaAllah) will one day learn and appreciate their heritage, I just can’t do it. Sure, I love to wear abayas on occasion, and I can make some mean mahshy and kofta, it’s just not me.
Alhamdulilah though, I’ve found a way to reclaim my own lost heritage. We acquired some new bookshelves, and as such, I reorganized by book collection, which is quite a monumental task. In doing so, I came across some cookbooks I hadn’t really looked at. They were given to me by my grandmother when she moved out of her home into her condo and were recipes from the Greenbush.
The Greenbush was a triangle of land in Madison, Wisconsin, where waves upon waves of immigrants settled, including my grandmother’s family. Decades later, I would live there for a brief time in college. Each new group of immigrants added to the flavor and uniqueness of the area. Sadly, urban planning redeveloped the neighborhood in the 1960s, scattering the inhabitants to all corners of the city.
Some of the legacy of the neighborhood lives on though, in the cookbooks by Catherine Tripalin Murray, and it was from those cookbooks I began to explore my Sicilian-Wisconsinite heritage this weekend, at least in food. All received high marks from AbuS, who hadn’t liked the americanized italian food we’d eaten in the past.
From Grandmothers of the Greenbush:
Salsa Fresca Di Pomidoro a la Puttancesca – the recipe of a woman who had immigrated from Palermo, Sicily
- 2 T olive oil
- 2 to 3 large cloves garlic, chopped or mashed
- 2 small cans flat anchovy filets, drained
- 2 pounds fresh Italian plum (Roma type_ tomatoes
- 6 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
- 2 T chopped fresh basil (use less if dried)
- 2 T chopped fresh parsley
- Fresh ground pepper to taste (no salt)
Put olive oil and drained anchovies (the anchovies I bought were in olive oil, so I just used that) into a large non-stick or stainless steel skillet. Cook anchovies over medium heat, stirring until they begin to dissolve. Add chopped/mashed garlic. Saute an additional 3 minutes.
Blanch tomatoes quickly in boiling water and peel. Chop into small pieces and add to oil, anchovy and garlic mixture. Cook until tomatoes also begin to dissolve. Add remaining ingredients of sun-dried tomatoes, basil and parsley. Simmer uncovered over low heat until sauce thickens. Adjust seasoning with garlic and pepper. Mix small amount of sauce with cooked pasta. Reserve and pour remainder over individual servings.
Note: tomato pieces make this a chunky sauce. Since anchovies are salty, no additional salt needed. Cooking does away with the fishy taste and leaves only a piquant flavor. Try without cheese, as it may mask the distinctive flavor.
Pollo Stufata con Pomodoro e Patata – from a woman who had immigrated from Cammarata, Sicily
- 1 3/4 pound fryer chicken, cut up into 10 pieces (I used boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead)
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup olive oil (I used much less oil)
- 3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 5-6 fresh basil leaves or 1 t dry basil
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 1 medium onion, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thin
- 1 8 ounce can of peas, drained (I used 1 lb frozen peas)
- Grated Parmesan or Romano Cheese
Dredge chicken in seasoned flour. Brown in olive oil in skillet; remove and set aside. Drain off any excess oil leaving just enough to saute garlic and onion until soft. Add tomatoes, mashing large pieces and simmer for a few minutes. Add basic and oregano and simmer a few minutes more and set aside.
Use a broiler pan and arrange chicken in single layer. Place quartered potatoes between chicken pieces. Pour tomato sauce over chicken and potatoes making sure a little sauce goes under the chicken. Cover with foil and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes. Remove foil and distribute the peas over the chicken mixture making sure peas are pressed into the sauce. Sprinkle cheese lightly over entire mixture and bake another 10 to 15 minutes. Test for tenderness. Add additional salt and pepper to your own taste.
inshaAllah more recipes to come, both from the Greenbush and other areas of Italy!