Carol and Andrea Dottolo (Authors of the book "Italian American Women, Food, and Identity")

Donne, cibo e identità italoamericana: incontriamo Carol e Andrea Dottolo

Mar 11, 2019 2933 ITA ENG

The topic of the presence of women in the homes of Italian American communities throughout the United States has always been fascinating, fundamental for the survival of the families of our compatriots in America, and somewhat underestimated. The topic of food is similar, equally important and links many other aspects of the life of the Italian Americans in the last century. We talk about it with Carol and Andrea Dottolo, authors of a mother-daughter research contained in the book "Italian American Women, Food, and Identity".

The presentation of your book says it is “about Italian American women, food, identity, and our stories at the table. This mother-daughter research team explores how Italian American working-class women from Syracuse, New York use food as a symbol and vehicle which carries multiple meanings”. Let’s start from the beginning: how did you have the idea of writing the book together? I guess this has something to do with the content of the book, too...

Carol: My daughter’s interests and academic experiences were the inspiration for the book. My involvement began with a conversation around my kitchen table, introduced by Andrea, bringing up the idea for this book. It evolved into the research method that we used, with me doing the majority of the interviews with women of the baby boomer generation. These interviews began with personal friends and expanded to include women referred to us by the initial interviewees. At first I wasn’t sure how these conversations would ever turn into a book, but as I continued talking with the women, I began to see why it is important to tell their stories.   

Andrea: I had been thinking about writing about Italian Americans for years, beginning when I was in graduate school. I was originally inspired by a book called “Hair Matters” by Ingrid Banks, who interviewed African American women by asking them one central question, “Is hair about power in any way?” I knew I wanted to also talk to women about a tangible object as a focal point for a conversation, but wasn’t sure how to proceed. While at our kitchen table, I brought up the idea with my mother, and we thought that food, specifically recipes as a representation of that food, would be an interesting place to start. 

Is the Italian mother-daughter relation different from other ethnic group ones?

Carol: I don’t think so. I think what I believe has impacted my relationship with my daughters is the influence of my family’s immigrant culture. It has shaped my view of family and being a first generation Italian American, I grew up with extended family as my neighbors, my friends, and now my lifelong companions. I think the impact of the familial connection persists strongly in the parent-child relationship. It appears that immigrants band together, sharing neighborhoods, language, culture, and traditions.  This seems to be the important glue that cements close relationships rather than a particular ethnic identity. 

Andrea: I agree with my mother that mother-daughter relationships are not inherently different among women of Italian descent. I think that while culture shapes family relationships in unique and important ways, it cannot be separated from class, race, religion, immigration, and sociohistorical context, to name a few other important dimensions.

The history of the Italian American experience, as it has been told by books and other media, is very unbalanced towards male narrative. Unfairly, it almost seems that Italian American women were not fundamental, perhaps because many of them had a more hidden, though indispensable, role. Am I wrong?

Carol: No, you are not wrong. You are right, but I don’t think it is particular to Italian culture, I think it is part of our generation, before the women’s movement had made an impact on our culture. 

Andrea: Yes and no. You are correct that academic and media representations have historically been told from a masculine perspective, largely about men.  However, Italian and Italian American women have always had important, central, powerful roles in many areas of life, from the family, to social movements like the women’s movement, labor movements, and other political movements. For example, a book called “Living the Revolution: Italian Women's Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945” by Jennifer Guglielmo comes to mind as an important contribution to documenting this kind of activism. 

So, let’s talk about food, family and tradition, from the Italian American female point of view…

Carol: We are the nurturers, the providers of the food, the anchors of the family to gather everyone and foster the common bond that food allows, that connection. Food has always been the centerpiece around which family gathers. The role of food is so deeply embedded in the traditions of the Italian American women we interviewed that it was the perfect starting point for our research. The discussion of food always included mentioning family members, holidays in the Italian American community are invariably associated with specific dishes, prepared and shared. I still feel that holidays are not complete without the traditional foods: cookies prepared at Christmas, Easter breads and meat pizzas, and seafood dishes on Christmas Eve. 

Andrea: I do not believe that there is one Italian American point of view, so I also do not think that Italian American women share any essential quality or perspective. Our book discusses some of the themes and perspectives that our participants discussed, who happened to be baby boomer, working class, from Syracuse, NY, largely the granddaughters of immigrants who emigrated mostly from Southern Italy. Our sample, while very specific, can certainly shed light on similarities among Italian American women, but also between many other groups. We have found this not only while doing research, but when talking about the book with larger audiences. People from all different cultures and regions resonate with the words of the women who spoke with us.

On March 19 the Italian American communities all over the country celebrate the St. Joseph's Table. It maybe is the most famous and celebrated topic regarding the significance of food in the community, with a taste of religion that is definitely part of the familiar tradition, too…

Carol: It used to be part of Italian American communities in Syracuse when I was growing up. It used to be a day that we wore red, and special pastries were made to commemorate the day.  There is still a community in upstate NY that has a feast, but it has really gone by the wayside. It is not part of what we do anymore. 

Andrea: Like my mother said, St. Joseph’s Day feasts and festivals were much more a part of my mother’s generation and those who came before her. I was familiar with St. Joseph’s Day growing up, but my understanding was that it had two cultural purposes in Syracuse, NY. One was to celebrate Italian cultural/religious tradition, but perhaps even more importantly, St. Joseph’s day falls on March 19, two days after St. Patrick’s Day. As we discuss in our book, there were strong sentiments among Italian Americans about the large, neighboring Irish American community in Syracuse, who lived among us. Many Italian Americans viewed them as friends, rivals, and competitors, in part connected to the ways in which their whiteness was constructed in the United States. 

Now that Italian Americans are perfectly integrated in the American society, is there something that still differentiates the women of this community from the American women of other heritage?

Carol: The women that we interviewed shared the common experience of growing up in Syracuse, NY as first or second generation children of immigrants. They all had parents or grandparents born in Italy. The shared this common connection of place and space. 

Andrea: It is certainly true that Italian Americans are considered white in the United States as a whole, and that Italian Americans have achieved high status positions in local, state, and federal political structures, for example, Nancy Pelosi, an Italian American woman, is the Speaker of the House, the third in line as President of the United States. However, there are still dramatic regional differences inside the United States regarding how Italians Americans are perceived and treated. What might also differentiate Italian Americans is their distance from immigration: while some Italians have been in the United States since its founding, a large majority came around the turn of the last century, and many who have relatives who are still alive who were born in Italy, and still have family ties to Italy. 

In 2019, is the tradition of Sunday meals with the family still alive, which for a long time has meant a virtual journey to the motherland for all Italian Americans?

Andrea and Carol: Yes, we experienced Sunday meals in our life time as well, but, as the women we interviewed also expressed, one of the costs of Americanization has been the dwindling of that tradition. As children and grandchildren move further distances away, Sunday dinners become less possible. The women we spoke to in our research reflected our own feelings of sadness and loss at the absence of this ritual in our lives. Of course, some Italian American families still gather every Sunday, but it becomes more difficult as American culture also changes. 

We the Italians is working on a project regarding a tribute from Italy to the Italian American food. We think it’s time Italy truly understands where the Italian American cuisine comes from and why Italy should recognize its value, paying it the respect it deserves. What do you think about this?

Carol: I think Italian American cuisine is often unrecognizable from the food in Italy. However, it has its own merit, and many cooks strive to carry on creating the food of Italy in modern American kitchens. I believe that the hard work, use of local products, and intelligent interpretation of Italian recipes by chefs and home cooks should be recognized and appreciated. I know that I have changed the recipes I learned from by mother and grandmother to accommodate current tastes and health considerations. For example, I do not use lard in my recipes anymore, I use less meat in tomato sauce, and I do not serve “macaroni” (pasta) twice a week as was done when I was growing up on Thursdays and Sundays.

Andrea: I agree. We discuss in our book the ways that Italian food is both similar and different from Italian American food in important ways. As recipes and ingredients have changed through Americanization, sometimes there is the idea that these modifications have made the food inferior to the “original.” However, Italian food in Italy has also not remained static, and what Italian Americans have created represents not only a way to connect to their cultural identities and ancestors, but a new kind of cuisine in and of itself. 

We also believe that learning about the history of cuisine from all over the world is an important way of understanding the unique contributions of different cultures, as well as the ways that we are all interconnected in a global community.


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