“Oh, God, your professor is going to think I’m some old, fat Italian lady in a muumuu,” is the first thing my mom says when I tell her that I want to interview her about Italian food and her cooking. “Make sure you tell him that I’m not — I don’t even eat my food.” So, for her peace of mind, let me just say that Laura Ciccone is far from a stereotypical Italian lady who can cook: she is 95 pounds, never leaves the house without a pair of heels on, and is desperately struggling through quarantine because she can’t get her nails or hair done.
My mom is not the type of woman you would look at and assume she makes gravy from scratch twice a week, a different homemade meal the other five nights of the week, and at least fifteen different appetizers for our maximum-ten guests on Christmas Day (in addition to pre-appetizers like pizza and pepperoni bread and wet mozzarella, antipasto, soup, and manicotti) — nonetheless, she does.
Laura Marie Olivo was born in 1968 in Newark, New Jersey, to a half-Italian, half-Polish mother and first-generation-American Italian father. Neither of my grandparents spoke Italian, neither did my grandma’s mother who was first generation American; my grandpa’s mother and father, who were from Naples and Sicily, respectively, refused to teach their children Italian when they came to America because they truly wanted their children to be American — so much so, they gave them names like Donald and Patricia.
It was fitting that my grandparents (and my great-grandparents) lived in Newark for the first few years of my mom’s life, as “Italians make up the largest single ethnic group in New Jersey” and “many settled in large urban centers such as Trenton, Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City” (Italian Immigration to New Jersey, 1890). Both my grandparents and my great-grandparents soon moved to Union, New Jersey, though, and that’s where my mom grew up.
Although my family is quite separated from traditional Italian culture, with no one speaking the language, no known family members living in Italy, and our diversion from well-known Italian traditions (such as Christmas Eve’s “seven fishes” and the like), food is the main way we have always connected with our heritage. It is most common that “in the Italian-American home of the first generation, the family spoke Italian, cooked Italian, married Italian and acted Italian” — first generations like my great-grandma and grandpa did all of the above except speak it, and even all of us much-more-Americanized grandchildren do the same today (Hall). It is precisely this “acting Italian,” this cherished value of family (and, don’t forget, talking with *Jersey accent* AH HANDS!) that we have always shared and enjoyed by “cooking Italian” and eating together.
“Every Sunday we would be there for macaroni,” my mom says when I ask about how, as a young girl, she used to go to my great-grandma’s for Sunday dinner. My family adheres to a traditional Italian Sunday dinner: macaroni and gravy.
To clarify, macaroni and gravy is what my family calls pasta and tomato sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, or any other variation of what that dish has come to be known as in America. For anyone that is from outside of North Jersey listening to myself or any member of my family talk about Italian food, it almost sounds like a joke — like we are right out of every mob movie ever made or mimicking the Sopranos-popularized Jersey dialects. But, no, we really call it macaroni and gravy. And we’re “mutzadel” and “gabagool” and “rigawt” people as well (a challenge for you: try to decipher which real words I’m referencing there). Anyone that isn’t Italian or isn’t from Jersey is usually keen to turn their nose up at us and tell us those aren’t real words, but in fact they are, as “Italian-American Italian is a construction of the frozen shards left over from languages that don’t even really exist any more” (Nosowitz).
No matter what, if my mom says it’s gravy, it’s gravy.
My mom started cooking as a teenager, coming home from classes or work and taking over dinner for my grandma. God bless her, but my grandma was never the best cook in the world — still isn’t — so both of my grandparents (especially my grandpa) and my aunt were more than happy to let my mom do the cooking.
“I always loved it,” my mom says. “I liked the challenge.”
However, my mom didn’t start cooking or formulating her own recipes until she was married — and creating those recipes was her favorite part of cooking.
“My thing was, I would never follow a recipe, I would just take bits and pieces of different recipes and put it together to create my own.” And if you ever look at what my mom refers to as her recipe book, which is more accurately tattered and torn pieces of paper with indecipherable scribbles on them stuck under the cover of a random notebook, this philosophy towards recipe creation is abundantly clear. I tasked myself with counting these recipes that I’ve spent my whole life eating, finding 80 total, not counting those that had multiple recipes on one sheet of paper. And, not to mention, the most important recipes — our “regulars” or “usuals” like gravy, vodka sauce, even Christmas manicotti and rice balls — are not written down.
When I ask my mom what her go-to recipe to make for my dad and my sister and I when we were little, without even a thought, she says, “It was macaroni with gravy. Everyone loved it, everyone was pleased with it, that’s why we have it twice a week.”
Gravy is the meal that has shaped my understanding of family, has been part of my life from childhood to adulthood, and has shown me what good food truly is. It seems silly to say that something so simple and something so widely available and well-loved across so many different cultures has had such a big impact on my life, but it has. Like pizza and other well-known Italian dishes (and, comparably, many Mexican dishes like chili con carne as Gustavo Arellano discusses in Taco USA), macaroni and gravy “was [an Italian] dish, made by [Italians] for [Italians], but it was [Americans] who made the dish a national sensation, who pushed it far beyond its ancestral lands, who adapted it to their tastes, who created companies for large-scale production, and who ultimately became its largest consumer” (Arellano 37).
And the influential and undeniably life-changing implication of gravy was the same for my mom as it is for me, too: Sunday dinners having gravy at my great-grandma’s house all throughout her childhood solidified in her head that, when she was married, when she had a family of her own, that is exactly the meal she would make for her children — to show us love, to nurture and care for us through food in a way that not many people may understand.
It is because it is so simple and so well known that gravy means so much to my family. Macaroni and gravy is the type of dish that “does not need to be elevated or made more sophisticated — it is and has been enough all by itself” (Galvez 199). When my mom places a plate of macaroni in front of me, I know I’m home.
Unlike many Italian families, my mom’s gravy recipe has not been passed down by anyone — it is uniquely her own. As I said, my grandma isn’t the best cook and my dad’s mother’s recipe was not on-par according to my mom, so she took it on herself to develop and perfect her own gravy. Our cultural heritage is, in this way, very different from many other families’: the foodways we participate in as Italian-Americans, although originally inspired by my great-grandma, truly start with my mom.
Although I am technically third generation American, I consider myself only second generation in the Italian culture that I have grown up to understand and love. I’ve never spoken a word of Italian (and probably never will), I’ve never visited Italy (but hopefully I will), but I know for a fact that I will be making my mom’s gravy for my children one day. So, ultimately, we are not the most culturally in touch or traditionally Italian people in the world — as I’ve said a million times, we’re more accurately Jersey-Italians — but is through food that we have always and will always connect as a family.