Back in high school I ran with a crowd of drama club/chorus geeks, a fringe existence. Today we might have made a splash on Glee. As it was, we huddled together after school, unleashing all the creative energy that couldn’t be contained in class. We worked on musical numbers, comedy skits, even movies. My friend Jeff had a Super-8 camera that could do stop motion — Special Effects!!! We could literally spend sunrise to sunset on a Saturday messing around with trick shots and stop-motion animation, living on Doritos and Cokes.
Fortunately for our nutrition levels, our creative base was often Jeff’s grandma’s house, his mom having banished us in exasperation. Jeff was of Italian heritage and he had a Classic Nonna™. She thought we were beautiful and smart and fretted that the enormous kettle of whatever she was cooking might not be enough to sustain us. She wore neat print aprons over sober dark dresses and I could not get over the matter-of-fact way she piled up quantities of delicious food. I used to worry she would find out my ancestors were Irish and German and cut me off, or worse, think she had to make something that Irish people would like.
I hadn’t thought about Jeff’s grandma and her cooking for years, until I picked up Louise DeSalvo’s memoir, Crazy In The Kitchen (Food, Feuds and Forgiveness in an Italian-American Family). It brought a lot of those memories back while depicting a version of this experience that was tenser, more darkly emotional, but still full of delicious food.
De Salvo’s childhood in 1950s New Jersey unfolded against an intense domestic drama, Italian-American style. Her mother was a second-generation striver whose cuisine was all about canned goods, packaged cakes and TV dinners — a rejection of all she considered old-world and backward.
DeSalvo’s grandmother drove her mother nuts, especially in the kitchen, where she committed such atrocities as homemade pizza and hearty, yeasty bread — “a thick-crusted, coarse-crumbed Italian bread. A peasant bread.” Today it’s called “artisan” and people pay through the nose for it. DeSalvo’s mother rejected it in favor of the puff-white, “real American bread” that DeSalvo and her sister secretly despised. The grandchildren relied upon their grandmother’s bread to offset their mother’s cooking, which, apart from questionable ingredients, was simply awful.
Crazy In The Kitchen doesn’t stay chained to the stove. DeSalvo starts with the food, and writes about it beautifully. But she uses the cooking stories as a clever pathway to considering how immigrants and the families they raised in the United States figured out what “American” meant, and how each of the generations struggled with fitting in while not losing their basic sense of themselves.
In a particularly powerful chapter, “Hunger,” DeSalvo hits the history books to better understand the Italy her grandparents left — Puglia, in the oppressed South. Behind her parents’ simple phrase, “It was hard for them,” DeSalvo discovers a landscape where periodic peasant slaughtering and mindboggling deprivation were pretty much business as usual. “I didn’t know any of these things,” she writes.
One of my favorite food bloggers recently posted about a trip to Puglia, today renowned for its intense food and distinctive, conical-roofed buildings. In her book, DeSalvo, too, makes a pilgrimage to Puglia, reveling in the food and wrestling with her concept of her family’s history. “Without a history, there can be no present,” she writes. “Without a past, there can be no future.”
By that standard, Crazy In The Kitchen is a captivating journey of discovery.