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Spring 2011


- R. Baldasty
Beloved Albatross
- D. Bastianutti
From Trã Bãn
- K. Cain
The Current (La Corrente)
- L. Calio
Down with the King
- M. Cirelli
May Mass – 1957
- L. Dolan
- G. Fagiani
Persephone’s Devotion to Her Mother
- M. Fazio
- V. Fazio
- D. Festa
L’Amour, L’Amour on Summer Afternoons (L’Amour, L’Amour D’estati Filuvespiri)
- M. Frasca
- S. Jackson
- W.F. Lantry
Little Swift
- R. León
Since You Asked
- M. Lisella
Dublin 2010
- V. Maher
39 Fifth Avenue
- C. Matos
Sunrise in Sicily
- A. O’Donnell
Watching Monzú at Work
- F. Polizzi
L’incontru (Rendezvous)
- N. Provenzano
Propriu Quannu Sta Scurannu (When the Day Is Almost Over)
- N. Provenzano
Bones (Le Ossa)
- D. Pucciani
- E. Swados
Mount Etna
- G. Syverson
Poet Jack Foley Says, “We’re Not Writing for Eternity
- J. Wells
Lord of Winter
- A. Zanelli

Maria Lisella

Review of Anthony Di Renzo’s, BITTER GREENS: Essays on Food, Politics and Ethnicity from the Imperial Kitchen (SUNY Press)

Exiles in the Lost World of Italian Food in America

Biting into a morsel of Abruzzese soppresatta will never be the same after reading Anthony Di Renzo’s Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics and Ethnicity from the Imperial Kitchen. Despite its compact 193 pages, Di Renzo’s work is a passionate and broad canvas of history, globalization, gastronomy, racism, immigration, and the stratification within “classless” American society through scholarship and his own ethnic experiences.

He traces many of the pleasures of Italian regional cooking to oppression –domestic and foreign – with precision, Di Renzo dispelling romantic notions about why people left Italy at all. The Risorgimento, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, brought a new Italian government that taxed livestock, produce and draft animals thus destroying Southern Italy’s agriculture, spurring riots, starvation and mass emigration.

Ironically, at presstime, newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo was pondering proposals from state lawmakers to designate an official state vegetable (like they do not have enough on their plates?). Sen. David Carlucci of Rockland County supports the onion, while Sweet Corn is the choice of Senator Michael Nozzolio. According to a rueful proverb from Di Renzo’s Nonna, “Life is an onion, you can’t peel it without tears,” a philosophy Cuomo might want to contemplate.

The mucklands of Canastota in New York State, located between Syracuse and Utica, which produced most of the onions in the Northeast, were primarily cultivated by Sicilians who recognized “the onion is the herb of both stability and change.” The first muck farmers were Americans who saw the work as dirty and degrading, but the Southern Italians were a proud yet practical people who embraced the New Promised Land, rolled up their sleeves and inhaled. Di Renzo writes “in my case, onions enhance recollection ... one whiff brings back more memories than Proust’s madelienes.” Eventually Sicilians thrived on this crop. Not surprisingly, restless and ambitious, the next generation detested onion farming and abandoned acres of opalescent bulbs of all types – chives, shallots, scallions and leeks – to become real Americans.

Organized into six essays, or major courses – antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolce and caffè, he skips the fruit but there you have it, a Southern Italian meal at its most robust. At the outset, the author makes it clear that for the poor of the Mezzogiorno food and death are linked. “Even in heaven, one proverb states, meals must be stretched.” Their thrift matched only by creativity and local resources with recipes sprinkled throughout the book but make no mistake this is not a cookbook.

Published by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of the State University of New York Press, Bitter Greens heightens the serious choices behind quotidian tasks of shopping in local grocery stores or in a salumeria (if you are lucky enough to have one) or, your big-box airline hangar warehouse.

From the start, Di Renzo’s polished Madison Avenue writing style belies the layers of knowledge, analysis, in-depth research and the vast panorama of references that slip from his pen with ease not to mention his downright banquet of obsessions to which readers will happily dine on even if they are much too full.

‘Aperitif,’ the first essay begins with a reference to Horace, the Roman satirist assuring readers that roast peacock tastes exactly like chicken, as does crow, which Horace ate for 30 years and in the end, Di Renzo writes, “That is the price of success: Sooner or later, we all eat our words.” Let us hope not.

“Coffeehouse Philosophy,” the essay on caffè, Di Renzo writes, “For the Arabs, coffee symbolized contemplation and mystic rapture.” To compensate for the colonization by the Bourbons, the Neopolitans developed “phenomenal coffeehouses,” which also pioneered al fresco seating. The metal miniature Vesuvius was invented – the macchinetta napolitana – “a reminder to espresso lovers that disaster lurks in the middle of domesticity, but even in the shadow of squalor and extermination one can achieve serenity and contentment.”

But back to that soppressatta because in the end what does an Italian American die for, will travel hours for – naturally, some mythological component of his grandmother’s kitchen born of a tiny corner of Calabria or Abruzzo or Puglia.

Of the Christmas gift he had forgotten at his parents’ house 300 miles away, Di Renzo writes: “Swaddled in cheesecloth and wrapped in two layers of foil, three Italian sausages...arrived by UPS in Syracuse, New York, on the last day of the year.” He treats them with joy and reverence, purchased as they were from Fretta Brothers in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Recalling that all the salumerias, Italian delis in the Metropolitan area once carried such products, in a desperate act, he devours the sausages in less than 48 hours.

Perhaps the key passage to the entire collection is: “Italian Americans can learn more about the heartbreak and horror of assimilation from soppressata than from any book...This particular sausage has gone from being a staple, to a treat, to a delicacy, to a swindle in less than thirty years. The phenomenon is a minor tragedy in our history – a minor tragedy, but a telling one.”

Di Renzo reports what he observes: consumers drop in at Pizza Huts, with walls decorated with bogus immigrants, forgeries from our family albums, “...order a three-cheese pizza topped with sausages...we pretend soft drinks are wine and toast Roger Enrico, the former CEO of Pepsi Cola, the real thing.” Thus, we have the farce of dining in America and seeing Italian American traditions co-opted in the malls of America, practically invented by of one of our own, Manny De Bartolo.

And this Italian American believes all of his ancestors, and before you know it, the reader does too. Did that food really taste that much better in the old days? Well, yes, most likely it did and how do we know that—well in a word, “faith” and superb research from writers like Di Renzo.

It would be hard to argue with Di Renzo’s stark realities, yet in the Hollywood happy ending impulse, readers may nervously search for a silver lining, or abandon all hope surrendering in gastronomic despair to a Big Mac, “Like the sword of the angel, those Golden Arches forever bar our way back to Eden.”

After consulting all the WASP cookbooks – from Fannie Farmer to Martha Stewart, Di Renzo knows who to believe -- “I am forever crying at my cutting board, much to the chagrin of wife and friends who sometimes catch me stifling a sob,” repeating his Nonna’s proverb through his tears. Italian American Governor Cuomo would do well to take heed.