COME ON-A MY HOUSE!


Rosemary Clooney set my heart racing when she sang about all the food she would have ready for me if I came to her house. I had never had any of the stuff she offered, but if she had thrown in a bit of Italian pasta or Mexican enchiladas I would have hopped a freight to go right over.

I grew up on plain American cooking; nothing fancy or exotic. I ate what my New England forebears had eaten, and was glad to get it most of the time. My Grandmother leaned toward casseroles; today we would call her the Casserole Queen. My Dad was a meat and potato man, and the dinner plate always contained two vegetables as well. No salad as we describe it today. Perhaps a slab of iceberg lettuce with a splash of Thousand Island dressing on top. No garlic, olive oil or wine, and salt and pepper were sufficient.

In 1890, about 100,000 Italian immigrants lived in New York. Italians in America were fiercely loyal to the food of their country and its various regions. Unlike eastern European Jews, Poles, or other European immigrants, whose children and grandchildren adopted generic American food as a way of assimilation, Italians saw to it that succeeding generations continued to cook Italian food. Even being teased in school about what you brought for lunch, which is still today a powerful inducement to culinary conformity, failed to force Italian kids to reject their parents cooking.

Nevertheless, immigrant families made a number of adaptations, in many cases all to the good. Food was plentiful, and instead of eating meat on rare occasions, families were able to eat meat whenever they chose. When one woman went back home, her neighbors had difficulty believing that people could eat so much white bread and butter and that she ate meat every day.

Americans began eating what were marketed as ‘Italian’ sausages, while in Italy each region had a different way of making them, and people could rarely afford to eat them. Macaroni (pasta) eaten by the well-to-do in southern Italy, became the emblem of Italian cooking, and meatballs and spaghetti became almost humdrum. Rather like thinking that ‘chop suey’ or ‘tacos’ represented the whole of their particular ethnic cooking.

By 1890, Italian restaurants were the most popular foreign restaurants, and a substantial portion of their patrons were non-Italian. For Italian and other ethnic restaurants, moving out of the enclave of immigrant patronage and catering to the majority of the population was irresistible, both because there were millions of people of all nations in New York, and because the non-Italians were less critical about the food.

The huge variety of Italian food is mind-boggling, as is found in all sorts of ethnic cooking. How many times have you heard someone swear that what they were making was the ONLY way to cook that dish? Recipes even vary wildly between families.

My late son-in-law, of Italian extraction, was a great cook period, but I heard his mother complain that he never put enough water in the pasta water. “I taught him better”, she told me once. A story circulated through the family for years about the time a young man came courting her daughter. After consuming a large plateful of homemade gnocci, he asked for seconds, not realizing that it was a first course before presenting the meat dish. She did make marvelous gnocci, a dish I worked on for a few years and then gave up as a lost cause; I even went so far as to purchase a heavy potato ricer. I envision light fluffy balls of potato and flour, but mine sink to the bottom and stay there in the cooking water. The commercial ones are not much better so I take heart.

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

17 thoughts on “COME ON-A MY HOUSE!”

  1. Lately I have taken to a rare beef Thai salad. It is spicy, has meat and with a great thin vermicelli salad is about as close I will get to a heaven. I suppose many cooks and restaurants now use mixtures of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in food. The pizza now comes with a baffling variety of ingredients. In Australia pine-apple is even used. The grandsons prefer a ‘meat lovers’ pizza.
    A true Italian might well shake his head and sigh.

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    1. Yes, that pineapple/peppeoni pizza seems to be popular these days. Your Thai salad sounds delicious. I have lately taken to cooking an entire package of spaghetti and dividing it into several packages for the freezer. That way I have at least a partial ingredient for whatever, vegetables, or meat or soup.
      I have found that older people’s appetites are not as large as previously, so I have had to downsize some recipes. It is even noticeable in guests. Through the years you become familiar with guests likes and dislikes; then suddenly their tastes change; cream in coffee, no ice in water, no cucumbers in salad, no bean dishes etc. And they all eat less.

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  2. People and their foods are interesting. Many people don’t realize that there was a large contingent of Italians on Galveston Island from the earliest days. They lived in an enclave that was isolated — geographically, not otherwise — and provided the island with its ice cream parlors. They provided other partlors, too, having to do with gambling and such, and that went on for decades. One of the most wonderful tales is how Vic Maceo, Jr., became head of the beach patrol decades after Sam and Vic ran the island as their personal syndicate. In the old days (but not that old) you heard people driving south past Dickinson to go to the beach referring to the Maceo-Dickinson line.

    Presumably, the Maceo clan, from Palermo, had their own cache of recipes. I’ll bet they were good, too.

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    1. Sounds like the Maceo clan gave up on Manhattan Island and took over Galveston Island instead. It’s interesting how the food from Italy varies from region to region. Sicilian .food is miles away from Tuscany in the north. But all delicious in their own way. All no different from each area in our country. Compare the food from Louisiana to Alaska. I look through recipes from my mother-in-law and see a lot of Southern cooking inspiration, yet her forebears were not from that far south. Today we have such access to every cuisine. We are so lucky.

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  3. Laughing about the chunk of iceberg lettuce with a dollop of Thousand Island dressing, Kayti. It was a staple at our house as well. My mother did make a variety of salads, however. I never could get excited about one with peas in them. As for Italian, our next door neighbors were Italian from the old country. Their spaghetti was scrumptious! 🙂 –Curt

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      1. Without knowing any better! 🙂 And egg salad sandwiches… Peggy actually like the canned green beans, and still liked them when I met her. I’ve since convinced her otherwise. 🙂 –Curt

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  4. My mother was and is a terrible cook and freely admits it. In fact she hasn’t cooked for me for years, when I visit I always cook! She has many many other attributes that make up for this shortcoming. I always laugh when people say they learnt cooking at their mothers apron strings. All I learnt was that I better learn to cook quick! 🙂

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    1. My mother was a good plain cook, but I never learned from her or from anyone else in my family. When we married my claim to cooking fame was holding a hot dog over the flame on the stove top. But I DID like to eat! So cooking became a bit of a passion. However as the years go by, what to make for dinner becomes a puzzle. Your mother has escaped that problem. Good for her.

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    1. We DO have a way of taking credit for inventing a lot of things we have borrowed. We are so lucky to be able to share all this wonderful food from everywhere in the world. I can never decide what I like best, but I guess Italian comes toward the top, though a BLT at the first sign of fresh garden tomatoes sounds like heaven right now.

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