Good Reads: ‘Crazy In The Kitchen’

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.


Links, 6.13.11

Still taking stock of the reports out of the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree — so these are links from other places to tide you over. Not that other places weren’t interesting this week, too. Here ya go.

Identifying: Hope for everyone with un-identifiable old photos in their files: Here’s the story of a mysterious old photo that reclaimed its heritage, thanks to the Internet and some curious descendants.

Returned: More lost and found fun! A Philadelphia genealogist, Sandra Hewlett, stumbled upon the Brooklyn, N.Y. guardianship records from 1830-1852 at a used bookstore. Kings County Surrogate’s Court was thrilled to have them back, as you can imagine. (h/t the NY-BROOKLYN listserve.)

Taking stock: For those who like to follow the investing blow-by-blow analysis, here is a detailed look at how’s stock performed over the past several months. (I’ll admit I think lineage charts are more interesting.)

Emerald Isle-ing: Two bits of Irish genealogy news: (a) Dick Eastman writes about new online Irish genealogy courses by expert John Grenham. At $569, this is not cheap, but looks to be in-depth and interesting. (b) The Irish Family History Foundation has added 95,000 Wicklow marriages to its databases (log-in may be required).

It must be summer vacation for a lot of you out there. How many of you are packing your bags for genealogy road trips? Don’t forget to send a postcard. And have a nice week.

Armchair Genealogy: I Admit Things

How many times have we read about the absurdities  of cut ‘n’ paste genealogy? Yet this weekend I found myself in a situation where I was avidly reading online trees and making copious notes.

I know! But here’s why.

My research has concentrated on my own lines, which have not inspired big repositories of documents at FHL or the county genealogy society. Virgin territory, you might say. But, courtesy of Mr. Archaeologist, I have married into a sprawling Lynch line, descended from William Lynch (1752-1837) of Brunswick County, Virginia, who married four (but maybe three) times and had 34 (they think) children.

I loved talking to my late father-in-law about genealogy, but I feared getting too enthralled with that Lynch line. There were so many Lynch descendants already researching. Plus, I am on a Strict Genealogy Budget (TM) and there is no travel overlap  between those Lynch ancestors and mine — they’re all about Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky; I’m all about Brooklyn and Albany, N.Y.  Why torment myself? So, when Mr. Archaeologist transcribed data into my computer program from a classic book on this Lynch lineage, I sort of winced. And I left it alone.

Still, my daughters are undeniably part Lynch, and recently I decided that I had to face the music and clean up the citations on the Lynch stuff in the database.  At least I could make sure the Lynch lineage book had call numbers instead of “your grandpa’s Lynch book.”  There were also some anecdotes I’d noted, some old letters, an audio interview to transcribe, things like that.

But as an armchair observer of this Lynch line over the years, I fretted. A lot of theorizing has happened since the lineage book was published in 1975.  I have corresponded over the years with Lynch researchers who kindly shared feedback about eternal questions such as whether the first Lynch immigrant in this line has been conclusively identified, and whether it’s possible to definitively sort out which of William’s children were born to which wives (good luck).

And as part of all this I also did a totally unscientific survey of the online family trees on this topic. There were a lot. Many disagreed on basic points. Even trickier, a lot didn’t contain sources for the data.

My problem, as I saw it: I don’t want my Lynch data frozen c. 1975. Yet I do not see myself having the time or resources in the near future to take on the Lynches.

For now, I have compromised. I have left the transcribed data as it is, attributed to the lineage book. I have used the Notes field in my Reunion program to record observations of where the later findings have expanded upon the book’s conclusions, including URLs to sites that seem to be the most detailed and carefully reasoned. I’m also including notes and citations on any later research compilations available in the Family History Library.

The goal is to leave things in such a way that if one of my kids or their cousins ever gets curious about investigating further and they glance at my database, they at least have a decent starting point.

Or so I hope. How would you handle a situation like this?

Links, 6.6.11

Verily, ’twas the week of the Face of Genealogy controversy and righteous kicking of posteriors. Thomas MacEntee called it, the community has responded and the offensive photo in the original LAWeekly post has been taken down. Well done, geneabloggers.

Today in history: You can’t help thinking of D-Day. Here’s how the New York Times handled it. In the Weird Coincidences Department, June 6 also happens to be the day in 1875 when German novelist Thomas Mann was born. (Mann, a notable anti-fascist, spent the World War II years in the United States.) On a completely different note, this is the day (in 1844) that the YMCA was founded in London, ensuring that nobody has any excuses not to exercise.

Switching up: The Irish Times writes an item on Ireland Reaching Out, a genealogy initiative with a twist. It identifies those who left (in this case, southeast Galway) and tracks them, instead of the other way around. Sounds restful.

Freed slaves: The Springfield (Ill.) Journal-Register’s Dave Bakke reports on a state database that can help descendants learn more about freed slaves who may have settled in Illinois. The Servitude and Emancipation Record Database contains what sounds like an impressive array of historical records, including the passes that freed slaves were required to carry by law to prove their status. Twenty counties are included, all in southern Illinois.

Grumpy: A Virginia newspaper columnist alerts us to the fact that he is having a bad day with the title Grumblings From Along The Rapidan. I cannot blame his grumpiness with regard to his recent experience trying to find something on, which, sadly, sounds all too familiar.

Hairy: Dick Eastman mentions the Smithsonian’s Who Had the Best Civil War Facial Hair contest, wherein you may take your pick of muttonchops, chin-only beards and beard-and-mustache combos to your heart’s content. Alas, all I could take away is the fact that I find all those whiskers kind of oppressive. J.E.B. Stuart probably carries it off the best but who am I to judge, really.