How Italian am I?
In my opinion not very much, but my heart is with that side of my family! I at least learn Italian and I do cook Italian food a lot, but ultimately I say my family hasn’t readily been open about our ancestry – or least my mother’s generation hasn’t been.
Why? I am a fourth generation Italian/Brit or as some people call us Britalian. My grandmother’s generation was more ready to acknowledge the Italian ancestry in us, but my mum’s generation fought really hard against all their cultural mixes because they experienced extreme racism in the 50s and 60s growing up in London over it.
My grandmother’s family are a mix of many cultures in the past six generations, Romany, Italian and Greek or Greco-Italian being the strongest bloodline hailing mostly from Naples/Napoli, my grandmother is quite dark skinned and that’s because her great grandmother was mixed race black American and there is Vietnamese in her side of the family too. So there’s a lot to chew on there.
Her husband, my grandad is simpler Jewish and Roman Catholic mixed, Welsh, English with some unknown Slavic origin they believe may be Polish or Romanian but they don’t really know, it’s also rumoured there is Italian there too, but again no one has proved that yet – but we do know his Jewish family are considered to be mostly Levite and Sephardic.
My dad’s family have a very ancient history in Italy, they became mostly English though by 1919 as the family became too poor and too lethargic to keep skipping countries as they used to. Italy, France, England, Italy, France, England, you get the drift, almost every one or two generations the change went on. Once again his Italian ancestry is 2306yr history in Naples and Amalfi and an ancestral home is supposed to be Montalto castle in Chianti which is much farther north of Italy.
Both sides of my family fled Italy almost permanently around 1919 to 1950 because of various problems with fascism, though some started to come to the UK much earlier than that as they were seeking to better themselves outside of Italy as some of the ancestors felt there were better educational opportunities for their children in other places. Particularly my dad’s family, they wanted to spread their genetic legacy to other European aristocracies.
My mother’s Italian ancestors were mostly farmers.
But as a fourth generation Italian Brit, I was very interested in all the culture I am a mix of and so I was always begging information from the oldest members of the family! The most vocal are the Italians, Jews and the Greeks in the family.
Everyone else is shy about their heritage, because hey, we’re British now. So in my mind, my personal culture has been shaped by the most vocal and the most proud of my family.
Unfortunately actually knowing Italian is rare in my family, because nobody sees the point in learning a language unless they are going to move to the country. So only the oldest relatives knew any Italian and my mum forbade most of them to teach me anything!
As an adult I taught myself, because it was safer that way – my grandmother who knew a little bit of Italian was a rude and naughty woman who taught me all the bad things to say first – as she’s a natural imp!
So there’s lots of things I know about the family and their ways, but it is very different to how other non-related Italians do things… for example, I had an ex called Tony who was half Japanese and half Italian, his family love ragu/Bolognese – to them bolognese is meat, onion, salt and pepper, and pasta, nothing else – no tomatoes and the meat is always beef!
My family however we use lamb in almost everything! Our Bolognese has tomatoes, tomato puree, bell pepper, onions, all the Italian herbs, sugar, cinnamon, salt and pepper and minced lamb. Yet it’s not traditional in Naples, some Neapolitans say they either have vegetarian ragu or they have chunks of pork in it.
There’s lots of food traditional in my family, that I don’t even have a name for! Some are Greek and some Italian; sometimes I don’t know which is which!
The confusion of mixed cultures gets me all the time!
Chicken Arribiata is popular in the family; we really spice it up because you’ve got to make that chicken angry! Arribiata means ANGRY! So we put chilis in that dish, cinnamon, onions, tomatoes, salt and pepper, cayenne – but you know so many people in my family they are wimps! You give them that amount of chili and they cry about abuse! But you just want passive chicken then, you don’t want it to be angry… lol
It’s fun in my family, you have the cultural deniers and the hard-core proud – eh what’s this long vegetable that looks like a cucumber but its slimy and bitter? It’s a courgette innit? No it’s a zucchini, that’s American – no not at all I say, nana what’s this vegetable called? Zucchini! See I told you! It’s Italian for courgette! Whatever!
I get served some green leaf vegetable with nice herbal rice inside it like a parcel and I ask my cousin Maria, hey Maria what is this? It’s food innit, she says! No I mean what is it? Why you don’t like it? I didn’t say that I just wanna know what it is! Its vine leaves wrapped around rice and herbs, you know what it is you’ve had it before! But what is it called, I say! Stuffed vine leaves I just said! What is it called in Italy? I am fucked if I know, just eat it!
I ask my older relatives who all say stuffed vine leaves with rice with a shrug – I ask them but what’s it called in Italy? 50% will say it’s Greek not Italian and the other 50% says it’s Italian not Greek!
You can see why I give up!
Ok so next up we have a large style macaroni dish that’s like tomato macaroni and cheese, super cheesy, real big macaroni style pasta – what’s this called? Pasta! No what’s the name of the dish in Italy? I am fucked if I know! Eye rolls, same answer every time!
I go and research and find out its Ziti!
I told my cousin Sabrina, hey that dish you make it’s called Ziti in Italian! Ew that sounds disgusting don’t say things like that at the dinner table, you make people feel sick! No that’s what they call it there – I don’t care it sounds gross in English! You don’t like my cooking? She asks. No I love it, but I went and googled it and found out it has a name – well keep it to yourself will ya that sounds insulting!
There are lots of dishes in my family and I am still trying to find out what the blazes they are – ironically 50% of the dishes my mum makes are Italian, yet she tells me it’s English. Haha – she’s the biggest denier of her heritage in the family, but she won’t stray from their cooking or idioms!
Why am I posting this? Because a lot of my family home cooking has no names, so I don’t bother including them in lists because I am more or less writing the recipe out to describe it, lol.
So with that being said, I was raised in a family that didn’t accept any cultural qualities at all – all of them make shifting a new British ideology and failing miserably whilst still eating traditional family food and shouting typical Greek and Italian idioms everywhere but in English this time, because we’re British now!
For the word, since living with Paul I have thrown myself into learning more about proper Italian and Greek culture, but mostly leaning to Italian as the family seems to be more of that than the Greek it seems. I am slowly learning the names of the dishes my family made and I am trying to learn more traditional ways in making things, instead of doing weird things to the food like adding spices which makes it like some weird Middle Eastern hybrid that happens occasionally in the family!
The things I can name, that I make are…
Homemade ravioli, yes I can home make my own pasta, thank you very much!
Homemade pizzas unfortunately without a traditional pizza oven as of yet! Yes the base and all, I can do that! My dream is to have a dragon shaped pizza oven in the garden which puffs out smoke from the dragons nostrils whenever I bake pizza!
I make focaccias and ciabatta and for the Jewish family I can make sourdough, or at least used to – lost the mother/starter, someone accidentally tipped it away thinking something went off in a bottle!
I do Bolognese or ragu whatever you wanna call it – I am easy going, I don’t care! Lol
Of course people kill for my carbonara
They also kill for my ziti and macaroni and vegetarian ravioli and the pastichio and lasagne…
I make polenta but no one likes it no matter who makes it lol
I make vegetarian and gluten free Bolognese and ravioli!
Now I don’t know where this is from but there is a big debate in my family about vegetable burger pates being Italian or not! But I don’t know!
Eggs in purgatory!
Cesar salad… which I discovered may actually not be an Italian invention lol
And up until recently I found out a family pudding which we called Creamy chocolate fingers is actually Tiramisu only nobody in my family puts espresso in it.
Still trying to work out what other dishes are in the family… we have homemade biscuits like digestive biscuits but we put in chopped glace cherries and other fruit jellies in it in tiny bits.
We make what we call bread pudding, which is wholemeal bread soaked in milk and drained semi dried with sugar, Christmas spices, eggs and raisins and bake it until crispy.
We have chocolate pasta with large half melted chocolate chunk and vanilla ice-cream as a dessert!
Knickerbocker glory desserts!
But there are so many I don’t know the name of – most notably a thing we make which is almost identical to Slovakian goulash with dumplings, only it has lots of tomatoes, more spice, more mushrooms and lots of red wine and it served under mashed potato for some weird reason! Or on some occasions we eat this with beef stuffed ravioli instead! I call it an Italian goulash but everyone rightfully looks sideways at me!
I am trying to sew up the holes of my heritage, I am trying!
Thanks for reading!