If you want to know about my world outside of Pomato Revival, check out www.mariagagliano.com.
Long Story Short
Hi, I’m Maria Gagliano. I’m sort of American. I’m sort of Sicilian. My parents emigrated from Sicily to Brooklyn in the ’60s. They raised my brothers and me somewhere in between. Growing up, we spoke a little Sicilian, a little English, and a lot of something similar to both.
My parents and grandparents are amazing cooks, crafters, builders, and storytellers. They’ve spent their lives passing those qualities down to us—everything they learned in Italy, and everything they worked for here. I’ve picked up some things, but, um, I can use work (see below).
I started Pomato Revival because I’m worried. It hit me recently that my generation—immigrants’ kids—has a big responsibility. We’re the only bridge left to our families’ culture. If we don’t make an effort to pass down the stories, skills, recipes, and traditions, that’s it. They’ll be gone when we are. I don’t mean to sound grim. It’s more exciting than it is worrisome as long as we remember to look back as we look ahead. That’s what Pomato Revival is for. It’s a place to share everything that’s been passed down so we can keep it going.
This blog is not dedicated to being Italian American. In fact, I hope you’ll share your stories with me—wherever they’re from—if you have a tradition, recipe, project (or whatever!) you’d like to keep alive. We’re all part of the revival. I’m at maria(at)slicemagazine.org.
Long Story Long
I am 35 years old. Despite nearly 3 decades of watching my mother—lifetime seamstress that she’s been—whip together everything from baby clothes to Halloween costumes, I don’t know how to sew. Sure, I can sew a straight line to make a pillowcase, but honestly, I cannot sew.
We spent a weekend every August of my childhood slicing bushels of tomatoes in our basement to make sauce for the year. If you asked me to lead the charge on a batch of jars now, I wouldn’t know where to start. I don’t even know where all those tomatoes came from. My dad just pulled up with a dozen bushels in the back of the station wagon every summer and we got to work.
My favorite food growing up was pig’s feet in tomato sauce, preferably eaten on a Sunday afternoon with RAI International humming in the background. These days, on the off chance that I see pig’s feet in the supermarket meat case, my eyes go straight to the toenails and leftover hairs spiking the skin. Hand them over in a pot of sauce and I’m all yours. But if I had to prepare them from scratch—transforming them from pale hairy hooves to a warm dish with garlic, sauce, and olive oil—I’d be pretty useless.
My brothers and I didn’t learn English until Kindergarten. Until then, it was Sicilian all the time, and at home we spoke both languages. Our English teachers were our parents and grandparents; Sicilian immigrants who moved to Brooklyn in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Their grasp of the language was meager, so mispronounced and made-up words were the norm. My grandparents and mother have a particular knack for inventing words, all the while thinking they’re speaking English. With them, Brooklyn is Brookalino. Sandwich is sangwicho. And my favorite, tomato is pomato.
We grew up on their language. It was just as much a part of our America as it was theirs. It’s messy and illogical, but it reflects their effort to create a life for themselves here, and their need to preserve what they brought with them. But once I learned proper Italian in school, I forgot nearly all of the language they taught me.
None of these things are really a big deal. It’s normal to lose some of what our parents taught us. But we are immigrants’ kids. My brothers, cousins, and I grew up living a double life, with one foot in our American reality and another in our foreign family’s alternate universe. We were mostly happy in our little world, if not sometimes a little embarrassed and lonely, but we were never normal American kids. Our parents brought with them an entire nation of language, skills, traditions, and values—and they passed them down for us to continue. Everything they left behind in their native country, and everything they longed for here, is woven into us.
Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or because my parents are getting older, but it hit me recently that our generation has been handed quite the responsibility. We embody an entire culture that can either live on through us, or die completely. Our parents’ and grandparents’ stories and traditions live in us—they’re not a distant memory of generations gone by. If we don’t pass on everything they brought with them, that’s it. It’ll be gone when our parents are. It’s up to us to keep it alive.
And so, this blog. My goal: To revive their American Dream. I’m looking back at every skill, recipe, tradition, story, and lesson that our immigrant parents and grandparents have graced us with, and making sure they live on. I want a garden like my grandfather’s, cupboards of tomato sauce jars like my mother’s, the wherewithal to build something with my hands like my father, and a Sunday table with pig’s feet like my grandmother’s.
It’s not going to be easy. Like I said, I can’t sew, and I don’t know the first thing about cooking a pig’s hoof. But that’s what I’m here to learn and share, in case you’d like to join the revival in your own corner of the world.