was well into adulthood before I realized that I was a Canadian. Of
course, I had been born in Canada and had lived here all my life, but
somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of Canada
meant that I was a Canadian. Canadians were people who ate peanut butter
and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of plastic bags. Me? I
For me, as I am sure for most second-generation
Italian-Canadian children who grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s,
there was a definite distinction drawn between “Us” and
“Them.” We were Italians. Everybody else – the English,
French, Irish, Germans, Poles – they were the “Inglesi.”
There was no animosity involved in the distinction, no prejudice,
no hard feelings, just… well… we were sure that our’s
was the better way. For instance, we had a bread man, a fruit and
vegetable man, a chicken man. We even had a man who sharpened knives
and scissors right outside our homes. They were part of the many peddlers
who plied the Italian neighborhoods. We would wait for their call,
their yell, their individual distinctive sounds. We knew them all
and they knew us. The Canadians, they went to the A&P for most
of their food. What a waste.
I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every
morning to find a hot, crisp loaf of Italian bread waiting behind
the screen door. And instead of being able to climb up on the back
of the peddler’s truck a couple of times a week just to hitch
a ride, most of my “inglesi” friends had to be satisfied
with walking with their Mamas to the store.
it came to food it always amazed me that my friends and classmates
only ate turkey on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas. Or rather, that
they only ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.
Now we Italians also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry
sauce, but only after we had finished the antipasto, soup, lasagna,
meatballs, salad and whatever else Mama thought might be appropriate
for that particular holiday.
turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of some kind (this was just
in case somebody walked in who didn’t like turkey) and followed
by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and of course, homemade
cookies sprinkled with little coloured things. No holiday was complete
without some home baking – none of that store-bought stuff for
us. This was where you learned to eat a seven-course meal between
noon and 4pm – how to handle hot chestnuts and put peach wedges
in red wine. My friends ate cornmeal mush. We did too, but only after
Mama covered it with sauce, sausages and meatballs. We called it polenta;
now it’s a gourmet food. Mama must have known all along.
truly believe Italians live a romance with food. Sunday was the big
day of the week. That was the day you’d wake up to the smell
of garlic and onions frying in olive oil, as it dropped into the pan.
Sunday we always had sauce and macaroni. Sunday would not be Sunday
without going to Mass. Of course, you couldn’t eat before Mass
because you had to fast before receiving Communion. But we knew when
we got home we’d find hot meatballs frying; nothing tasted better
than newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of hot
was well into adulthood before I realized that I was a Canadian.
I had been born in Canada, but somehow it never occurred to
me that just being a citizen meant I was a Canadian. Canadians
were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread
that came out of plastic bags. Me? I was Italian."
was another difference between “Us” and “Them.”
We had gardens. Not just flower gardens but huge gardens where we
grew tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them
and jarred them. Of course, we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and
squash. Everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree and in the fall everybody
made homemade wine. Then, when the kegs were opened, everyone argued
over whose wine tasted the best. Those gardens thrived because we
also had something that our Canadian friends didn’t seem to
have – we had grandparents.
course, it’s not that they didn’t have grandparents, it’s
just that they didn’t live in the same house or on the same
block. Their presence wasn’t that noticeable. We ate with our
grandparents and God forbid if we didn’t visit them at least
five times a week. I can still remember my grandfather telling us
about how he came to Canada as a young man on the “boat.”
How the family lived in a tenement and took in boarders in order to
make ends meet. How he decided that he didn’t want his children
– five sons and two daughters – to grow up in that environment.
All of this, of course, in his own version of Italian/English that
I learned to understand quite well.
when my grandparents saved enough money (and I still can’t figure
out how) they bought a house. That house served as the family headquarters
for the next 40 years. I remember how they hated to leave the house
for any reason. They would rather sit on the back porch and watch
their garden grow. When they did leave for some special occasion,
they had to return as quickly as possible. After all, “nobody
is watching the house.”
also remember the holidays when all the relatives would gather at
my grandparents’ house and there would be tables full of food
and homemade wine. The women in the kitchen, the men in the living
room, and the kids… kids everywhere. I must have had a thousand
cousins – first cousins and second and some friends who just
became cousins. Then my grandfather, sitting in the middle of it all,
his pipe in his mouth, his fine mustache trimmed, would smile and
his dark eyes would twinkle as he surveyed his domain. He was so proud
of his family and how well his children had done. One was a cop, another
a fireman, the others had their trades, and of course there was always
the rogue about whom nothing was said. The girls? They had all married
well and had fine husbands, although my grandfather secretly seemed
to suspect the one son-in-law who wasn’t Italian. But out of
all of this, one thing that we all had for each other was respect.
grandparents had achieved their goal in coming to Canada. Now their
children and their children’s children were achieving the goals
available to them in this great country. When my grandparents died a
few years ago things began to change. Family gatherings were fewer and
something seemed to be missing. Although, when we did get together (usually
at my mother’s house) I always had a feeling that they were still
is understandable that things change. Everyone now has families of
their own and grandchildren of their own. Today we visit once or twice
a year, or we meet at wakes or weddings. Other things have also changed.
The old house my grandparents bought is now covered with aluminum
siding. A green lawn covers the soil that grew the tomatoes. There
was no one to cover the fig tree so it died.
holidays have changed too. Yes, we still make the family “rounds,”
but somehow the things have become more formal. The great quantity
of food we once consumed without any ill effects is no good for us
anymore: too much starch, too much cholesterol, too many calories
in the pastries. And nobody bothers to bake anymore – too busy.
differences between “us” and “them” aren’t
so easily defined anymore and I guess that’s a good thing. My
grandparents were Italian-Italians, my parents were Italian-Canadians,
I’m a Canadian-Italian, and my children are Canadian-Canadian.
Oh, I am a Canadian – just as my grandparents would want me to
be. We are all Canadians now: the Irish, Germans, Poles. But somehow,
I still feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture, call it roots, I’m
not sure what it is. All I do know is that my children, my nieces and
my nephews have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of heritage –
they never knew my grandparents.
to the top