Sunday, March 31, 2024

Why My Italian Food Sucks

There are two cuisines I can cook without a foreign accent:

...and Cantonese.

I have a long affinity for both. I can slip into that skin. I once described how I do this, both as a musician and as a food writer. It's not a pose; I never fake it. I feel it! But I'll concede that I do slip it on and off.

Growing up in a 100% Sicilian neighborhood, I didn't realize I wasn't Italian until my friends started going to Catechism. It felt weird that I didn't. Was I not good enough? I asked my parents about it, and they replied (smirking at the absurdity), "We're Jewish!" This response wasn't the least bit helpful. I obviously knew I was Jewish. It didn't explain why I wasn't taking Catechism with my fellow Italians. In fact, to this day, I feel that no one has explained it adequately.

Next door there lived a very old man. Sicilian, naturally. He was dark brown (like my Russian-Jewish grandparents living in Miami Beach), and spoke with an impenetrable accent (again, like my grandparents). My sisters affectionately called him "Grandpa". Both older than me, they'd never bothered to explain that they were simply echoing the girl next door - their friend - who called him that. Me, I thought he was my third grandpa. I bought it. And kind of still do.

To this day, I feel genuinely Italian, regardless of whatever other things I might be. And yet, my Italian cooking is dismayingly inauthentic. It always tastes Jewish. Hilariously so. Tragically so.
Sole exception: Paul Trapani's Pandemic Sauce, which always hits:
I've never understood this...until now.

I never bother to "slip on" an Italian identity, because it feels like what I am. That's my baseline! But I guess it really isn't. As my parents tried to explain, to my agitated noncomprehension, I'm something different. And if I weren't so unshakable about my Italian heritage, I'd have approached the cuisine more like an outsider. I'd have learned to slip into that skin, and probably cooked it well.

But, as-is, Italian feels like my natural state. So I just go cook, following my instincts, which doesn't work. Because how I label my instincts doesn't matter. Instincts are instincts. And I seem to have the instincts of a melodramatic Eastern-European potato eater with curly sideburns*.

* - Don't miss "Jim At Long Last Goes Home", the tale (with photos!) of my first-ever encounter with my actual native cuisine, complete with the indelible image of me snarfing up elemental greasy starch in a disquieting primal frenzy. Not so Italian.

No comments:

Blog Archive