Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How my definitely-not-vegan Sicilian family taught me the most valuable lessons about food and life

My mom's parents were born in Sicily in the 30's and came to the US in the early 60's. They grew up in rural areas near Palermo and Catania, dealing with the terror and insanity of fascism during WWII, poverty, and trying to make a new life all the way in America. I am intensely grateful that they are both still here, making each other nuts in North Jersey as they've done for the past 50 years. Their home is like a mini-Sicily - a house that usually has at least 3 generations of the family living in it and a backyard that is trying to compress a vineyard, orchard, and farm all into one tiny bit of land that I'm sure is a gazillion times more polluted and less fertile than the rich Mediterranean earth of their homelands.

I have a super deep sense of pride in my Sicilian heritage. It's taught me so much about food, the earth, family, history, what I want to replicate and honor in my own life, and what I want to learn from and leave in my past. My Nonna has spent the majority of her 50 years in the US cooking, gardening, cooking, cleaning, and oh yea -- cooking (save for her first years working in garment factories in Newark). At one point she even owned a restaurant, but all that was when I was too young to remember. She's 84 and still gets up at 6am every day to cook, cook, and cook some more.

Her food tastes like the best food in the world to me. Even though her sauce is thin, it's the most delicious I've ever had. I know it's thin now because she's told me stories of her fatherless childhood filled with poverty and strife, and learning to make every meal stretch. Her cookies are a bit dry, but they are the most delectable to me. I remember summer mornings when she'd feed me and my sister breakfast, which consisted of huge bowls of sugary milky coffee with her cookies broken up in them. That was her idea of "cereal" and probably something that shouldn't be fed to small still-growing children at 8am. But still, totally delicious.

Despite having just turned 82, my Nonno is out in that garden every day, trying his hardest to make something green and beautiful out of that dirty Jersey earth. He's out there fattening his always-multiplying rabbits, who sadly live their whole lives crammed in wooden hutches only to someday be made into stew or have their flesh sold off to other old Italian men (my Nonno's got his very own black market of the tenderest rabbit you can find in North Jersey.) Or maybe you can find him on a ladder leaned up against one of his many fig trees, grabbing birds who dare to snatch his precious fruits and breaking their necks with his bare hands. His garage and shed have countless rabbit pelts and pheasants from his hunting adventures hanging in there, along with ancient tools, rust-covered bicycles from the 70's, tin cans wrapped in brands I'm sure haven't existed for decades filled with bent nails, and other weird old Italian man shit. He always jokes about making a fur coat out of his rabbit pelts, which would really solidify is kooky-old-man status. My Nonno spent many decades as a union carpenter and his handiwork can be found all around the house and yard. The roof he built to cover the cement patio is also home to grapevines - tiny green grapes that never were as big and sweet as I wanted them to be as a kid. He's also got peach trees, various kinds of beans growing up the chain link fence along the driveway, and over half of the tiny back yard is his garden, usually filled with squash, greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, eggplant, watermelon, garlic (which he later braids by hand), onions, and all kinds of other goodies. He feeds his bunnies leftovers from the garden, and uses their poop as a fertilizer. At the end of a long day in the sun, sweating and working hard wearing nothing but shorts and sandals and threadbare dress socks, he usually showers with the garden hose and a bar of hotel soap that must be over 30 years old as I've never known my grandparents to stay in a hotel ever in my life. He's a funny little tanned man, small and sturdy and unbelievably strong even at 82 years old. Ketch pointed out that my Nonno is exactly like the stubborn resilient donkeys he grew up with, leading them around the rocky hills of his hometown, begrudgingly, instead of being a trumpet player like he really wanted.

It's sad that no one in my family is really interested in honoring these traditions. My Nonno still has to physically go to my mom or Aunt's houses to plant their tiny tomato and herb gardens, as they can't be bothered. My Nonna is now saying she's troppo vecchio, or too old, to make a year's worth of tomato sauce at the end of every summer. It's a process that takes bushels and bushels of tomatoes and numerous days in the sun cutting, salting, and stewing tomatoes in the giant industrial vat - all while fending off bees and other critters that want a piece of the delicious tomato-y action. In many ways, I get it. It's a lot of work and hell I'm too lazy to step up and do it. I want to go to the beach, play on my iPhone, go to shows, and other selfish crap.

It turns out that the vegan queer tattooed grandchild who - ::gasp!:: -moved away (only 2 hours to Philly and hell now I'm in NYC, just 15 miles away from them) - is pretty much the only one who worries about this. I'm the only grandkid to have learned Italian in school, after growing up knowing only bits of Sicilian dialect (mostly profanities and insults, of course). I'm the only grandkid that has been back to Italy numerous times over the years to visit our cousins. Even my mom and Aunts haven't gone back to Italy in over a decade, and just wait for cousins to visit us here. I'm the only one who decided to wear my Nonna's wedding dress, despite the fact that she has 4 daughters.

This isn't meant to shame or put-down my other family members. It makes sense. They are like any other Italian-Americans in North Jersey - they are proud of their heritage but are deeply invested in the comforts and ways of modern American life. That's what the older generations came here for - to work hard and make things better for their children and grandchildren.  That first generation born here continues to honor our legacies in some ways, replicating some of my Nonna's most-beloved dishes, but the truth is that when my grandparents leave this earth their traditions will too.

I actually think that my commitment to radical politics and activism helped me to connect deeper to my Sicilian heritage. Growing your own food at home, making your own furniture, speaking another language - these are all embraced by activists and radicals who seek to divest themselves of Western Capitalism. It just so happens that my grandparents do these things too, because they are immigrants. You have to want to do these things, make yourself learn these things, in our society. Over the past 12 years of adulthood, learning about where my family came from and the struggles they encountered has helped bolster my commitment to anti-capitalism, and helped ground me. They set a precedent, but it was for survival. I have the privilege to choose to partake in these things or not.

Years ago, my Nonno told my mom that he was disappointed in me for 3 reasons - 1. Being a vegetarian, 2. Being a Lesbian, and 3. Having tattoos. I was like, Hey! - He got it wrong - I'm VEGAN and QUEER, psssshh. It didn't really hurt my feelings because I know he's a critical grumpy man and my mom has taught me from day one not to internalize his bullshit. But now, it does make me really happy to see that he's proud of how much I've invested in honoring my heritage, and that it's become important to Ketch too. Him and my Nonna loved hearing about how we grew food in our backyard in Philly, have nurtured the tiny fig tree he gave me a few years ago, that we cook everything from scratch and make tons of Sicilian-inspired foods, that I visit our family in Italy, that I speak the language, and that Ketch has even begun to learn Italian. They flipped their shit when I wore my Nonna's dress to our wedding, when we danced to Ti Amo, and when we tell them about Italian movies or TV shows we've watched.

Even though my grandparents HATE that I'm vegan and STILL have something to say about it, every time, they know that I'm always going to honor and continue their legacy of respecting the earth, honoring the cycles of life, knowing the work that is needed to grow food and feed your family, and respect that all of this takes time and energy.

Living in NYC, in Manhattan, means that right now I can't grow food and making elaborate meals from scratch is a challenge. This is hard for me, but I know it's not forever. One day I hope to have a garden like theirs, with my fig tree that they gave me tall and strong amongst other new trees. That's a long ways off for me right now, and until then I'll do my best to use what I've learned from them and continue to honor their legacies.

I am hoping to one day do a project on Sicilian history and culinary traditions. Luckily, I have a cousin who is also obsessed with this and owns his own restaurant in Italy, where many of my other cousins work as well. He is also super-not-vegan, but we basically share the same viewpoints about the ethics of growing food, cooking food, and respecting the earth. I need to make sense of this all someday, but finding the resources and outlet for this will take some time for sure.

My Nonna and Nonno, last month. May 2013.

More pictures of their garden coming soon!!


  1. Love this Mel! Loved your wedding dress already but its even more awesome that its your Nonna's. :-)

  2. Such a great post. Your family reminds me of my grandparents in Japan. What was it like with your family when you were growing up and first exploring your identity as vegan/queer/feminist?

  3. Thanks, Karin!! Kiriko, thank you! I'm sure other people with families from different countries experience similar stuff. Growing up as a nerd in a family of more guido-types was interesting, to say the least. And of course coming out was a challenge and hard for a while. But after some time everyone's on board, supportive, etc. I'll have to write more about it soon!! Also, feel free to email me your thoughts/experiences: