Setting the Record Straight

This is a post I wrote in 2011 but hadn’t yet published…

blog-1A while ago I went to the comune (city hall) in Torino to pick up a document for my sister, but it wasn’t available. I didn’t leave empty-handed though. I picked up my certificate of Italian citizenship and a transcription of my birth record. When I was about to leave, I realized that my mother’s last name was spelled incorrectly on the birth record transcription.

These kinds of errors are so easy to make, and they happen all the time. The reason the transcription contained a misspelling is because when I was born, someone recorded my mother’s name wrong on my birth certificate. Stapled to the original certificate was a correction, but the clerk in the comune didn’t bother to turn the page and thus copied down the erroneous name.

I wanted to go home so I almost let it slide, but something inside of me just wouldn’t let me leave without correcting the mistake. A little voice inside my head told me that it was important to fix it, and I understand where it was coming from.

I learned firsthand that such mistakes can make genealogy research much more convoluted than it might otherwise be.

I got a generous dose of this while researching my roots in Philadelphia in preparation for applying for dual citizenship. A lot of inaccuracies occurred when non-English speaking immigrants and American officials had to communicate during the years of mass immigration at the turn of the century, and my family was no exception. I ended up doing a lot more work than would have been necessary had all the records been correct.

Just performing an index search in an archives became several times more time-consuming because along with searching for the correct spelling of a surname, I had to search for its known (and possible) variations. This makes a difference when you’re scrolling through microfilm.

Finding information for one of my great-great grandfathers is a good example of what I experienced. The first time I went to Philadelphia City Hall, prepared with the names and marriage date of my great-great grandparents, the clerk was unable to locate their last name in the ancient index for that year in the late 1800s. That might not have been a problem as the records were also recorded under the bride’s maiden name, but there was no sign of her either. I found out later that this was because both names were misspelled!

The thoroughly nice and helpful clerk found a clue on the only document I actually had for that great-great grandfather (the clue was the address of the priest who married them in the 1800s), and he told me what to do to start finding more information about them. His tip led me on a long and emotional hunt all over the city. In the end, I pieced together enough clues to identify my ancestors in a different way, and the clerk then found their (misspelled) names in the index of the exact same dusty old book he had looked through earlier.

Inaccuracies are not allowed in the documents used to apply for dual citizenship, which meant that several of my family’s records had to be corrected. This was a time-consuming and expensive process. To correct the bride and groom’s last names on the marriage certificate, my sister and I studied booklets of court rules to learn how to change a record, and we successfully petitioned the court ourselves.

I don’t mind all of this now, since playing detective was fun and I learned a lot of information about these ancestors that has great personal value for my family, but at the time it was frustrating not knowing whether I would be able to find the necessary documentation to reach my goal.

Over a year later, with experiences like this behind me, something just wouldn’t let me leave the comune without correcting my mother’s misspelled name.

Researching my roots has helped me feel more connected to where I come from, and part of a larger reality that has existed long before I was born and will continue to exist long after I’m gone. What we do and who we are have implications that reach far beyond what we will experience in our lifetimes.

The correction was a simple process that took about five minutes, but who knows? It may save more time and frustration for a distant descendant trying to set the record straight.

Posted in Genealogy | 2 Comments

You’re Laughing at Them, but They’re Laughing at You… Kids’ Version

Fontanarossa-1One of my ancestral towns, Fontanarossa, where my great-great grandfather lived in Liguria

When I was in the US over the holidays, my sister asked me to give a presentation about the search for my Italian ancestors to my niece’s 3rd grade Brownie girl scout troop. I agreed and prepared a little talk about immigration to the US at the turn of the century, my search for my ancestors in Philadelphia and Italy, visiting my ancestral towns, and life in Italy in general.

Fontanarossa-71,000 year old church in Fontanarossa

The kids seemed interested in what I said and they asked a lot of questions and contributed their own family stories. They enjoyed looking at the photocopies of old immigration documents I passed around, the photos I printed of some of the towns my great and great-great grandparents lived in in Italy, and my two passports, Italian ID card, and colorful Euro money (the whole twelve Euros and twelve cents I was able to find in my purse).

Fontanarossa-16Chickens in a yard in Fontanarossa… the kids’ favorite picture

The best part was at the end when I talked about some of the ways people do things differently in Italy and the United States. I wanted the kids to understand that there are many ways of doing things in different parts of the world, and those things are not better or worse than other ways, but just different.

I started by telling them that there are many things Italian people do that might seem strange or funny to us. For example:

-Italian parents say to wait four hours after eating lunch on the beach before going swimming (instead of the twenty or thirty minutes we hear about in the US).
-Italians eat an entire pizza by themselves and they eat it with a fork and a knife.
-Italians say not to take a shower after you eat, not to sit under an open window, and to wear a scarf if it’s windy even if it’s not cold.
-Italians hang up all their laundry on a line outside or on a drying rack.
-Children finish school at different times each day, for example at 4:30pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and at 12:30pm on Tuesday and Thursday, and they don’t eat lunch at school every day.

The laughter was increasing with each item on the list and I had a lot of fun watching them laugh and learn something about life in another country.

However, their laughter turned even louder and was mixed with howls of incredulity when I turned the list around and told them that, while Italians do things that seem funny to them, we Americans also do things that seem strange or funny to Italians. Such as:

-Wearing flip flops in the summer time when you’re not actually on the beach or at the pool
-Eating salad before the main course instead of after it
-Putting salad dressing on your salad instead of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper
-Putting ice in your drinks
-Eating lots of ketchup
-Going outside with wet hair after a shower
-And… putting meatballs on top of your spaghetti

I hope the kids went away with the perspective that if they are laughing because they think an Italian (or whoever) is doing something weird or funny, the Italian (or whoever) is also probably laughing because they think they are doing something weird or funny too. And that different isn’t bad or good, but different.

I gave the kids a little project to work on before their parents picked them up and they drew pictures and wrote about special food they eat with their families that comes from the country their ancestors came from. They had great answers and they all earned their ancestry patch by the end of the afternoon.

I had to do my best to deliver my presentation in a way eight-year-olds could understand. The part I won’t forget was when I started talking and tried to explain to the kids that I went to Italy to look for information about my long-dead relatives.

What I said in reality was, “I went to Italy to search for my ancestors.”

Once child piped up and sweetly asked, “Did you find them?”

IMG_4471  IMG_4477These two pictures show people who lived in Fontanarossa at the time.

Posted in Genealogy, Italian Life | 8 Comments

Carpenter at Work

IMG_6444-2My friend and I stopped by her father’s carpentry studio one day, and since her father was out we chatted with his colleague. He was working on some cabinet doors in the front room of the studio, which opens directly onto the street and is well lit with natural light coming in the front door and windows.

This scene made an impression on me and, while I almost went away without asking because I didn’t want to bother him, in the end I asked the carpenter if I could take a quick photo.

This man reminds me of my grandfather who loved to work with wood as well as draw and paint, take photographs, and play music. I love how the man is working with his hands with the tools he’s used for decades. He’s wearing an old white tee shirt with a hole in it and his pants are splattered with paint. The saw horses the cabinets are resting upon are covered with years and years of accumulated paint.

Artistic, artisanal, and creative work in general holds special meaning to me, and I think it’s important to pass this kind of knowledge down to kids and younger generations and give them time to create (without the distraction of modern electronic devices).

For me, the carpenter at work was a timeless and multi-layered scene, and I tried to capture some of that in this environmental portrait.

 

Posted in Simple Photo | 4 Comments

Italy Magazine’s 2015 Blog Awards – Vote for Me!

Untitled-1I was pleased to find out this morning that I have been nominated for an Italy Magazine 2015 Blog Award in the “Best Photography in a Blog” category.

So exciting and I’m very grateful!

If you’d like to vote for me, you can do so here.

Thanks!

Feel free to check out Turin mamma’s blog, she writes informative articles about Italian food and their backstory and was nominated for Best New Blog and Best Food Blog.

 

 

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Palle di Neve – Snowball Cookies

1Yesterday I made my first holiday cookies of the season! They are called palle di neve (snowballs) and are one of many types of traditional Italian Christmas desserts.

2Palle di neve are small, softish cookies flavored with ground almonds and orange peel. They sure fit the season. The powdered sugar sprinkled on top looks like a fluffy dusting of snow. Oranges/tangerines/clementines and nuts of any kind never fail to remind me of the holidays, since they both were always on the table after dinners with my Italian-American extended family.

3The recipe has only six ingredients and I like how it uses actual almonds and orange peel; I feel better cooking with whole foods whenever possible. The resulting flavor is subtle and pleasing, and the powdered sugar adds the right amount of sweetness.

I’m interested in simple, traditional recipes like this one. I like the idea of getting back to the basics, appreciating purer flavors, and carrying on historical traditions.

4I found this recipe online and you can see it here if you wish to see the original Italian. I’ve translated it for my English-speaking readers and added more detail. The recipe calls for butter. I used margarine instead, but if you’re not vegan you can use butter if you prefer.

Palle di neve (Snowballs)

Ingredients:
-100g (about 7 tbsp) butter/margarine
-75 grams (about 9.5 tbsp) powdered sugar
-150 grams (about 1 cup + 1 tbsp) flour
-100 grams (1 cup) ground almonds*
-1/2 tsp baking powder**
-Grated peel of one orange***

*I threw whole, shelled almonds in the food processor for a few seconds.
**The original recipe calls for vanilla-flavored baking powder, which is sold in Italy. If you can find it, use it, otherwise the regular stuff is fine.
***Organic or at least with a non-treated surface

Method:
1. Place flour, almonds, baking powder, and orange peel in a bowl and mix well.
2. Cut/separate the butter/margarine into small chunks and lay them on the counter (or a wooden pasta board) with the powdered sugar.
3. Start pinching the butter/margarine and sugar together with your fingers until the mixture starts sticking together and forming chunks. Keep doing that while the heat from your hands melts the butter/margarine slightly. When the dough starts to come together more (be patient), add the other ingredients and keep pinching and pushing the dough together with your hands until you are able to form a single ball of dough. Work quickly because if the butter/margarine melts too much, it will be a sticky mess.
4. Wrap the dough ball in plastic wrap and let it chill and harden in the refrigerator for at least a half an hour (the longer the better so it will be easier to form the small cookie balls).
5. Preheat oven to 180° C (350° F). Line a baking sheet with oven paper.
6. Pinch off small pieces of dough and form balls about 2 cm (about 3/4″) in diameter. The size can vary but make sure they are all roughly the same.
7. Lay the balls on the baking sheet. You don’t have to leave a lot of space between them because they don’t melt and flatten out that much like I expected.
8. Bake for about ten minutes.
9. Let cool and cover with powdered sugar.

Try not to eat them all at once. They are even better the next day!

5What they look like before covering them with powdered sugar

6Buon appetito!

Posted in Photography, Recipes | 10 Comments

Italian Scene

IMG_0015I was shooting a wedding at Lago d’Orta last summer when I took this picture with my long lens. The bride and groom and the guests had come out of the church and we were taking pictures in the piazza in front of the church. These two signore were looking out of an upper-story window of a building that looked down on the piazza, watching the wedding festivities. It struck me as such an Italian scene.

Posted in Italian Life, Simple Photo | Leave a comment

Pasta Shapes and Schiaffoni

schiaffoni-001I love pasta shapes. I get excited at the thought of trying out new shapes of pasta and seeing if they become my new favorite.

It’s true, my favorite keeps changing. It used to be linguine, then penne, then rotini, then ruote (wagon wheels), then radiatori (yes, radiators), then risone (which means “big rice” and is what we call orzo in the US), then napellini, and then other exotic and strange names I have forgotten. Who knows what it will be tomorrow.

You can imagine my delight when I came to Italy and discovered that there is a whole aisle dedicated to pasta in the supermarket, and after all these years in Italy, I am still discovering new kinds of pasta.

Back when I lived with my family in the US of A, for some reason we usually referred to all pasta as spaghetti. A sacrilege here in Italy, I’m sure!

-What’s for dinner?

-Spaghetti

… but it was rigatoni.

We did make a distinction between the two major pasta types using the classy names “shorts” and “longs”.

I know my great-aunt referred to all pasta as macaroni just like my family used the word spaghetti. My grandparents called pasta pasta, and I thought that sounded funny.

As Shakespeare wrote, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Spaghetti, macaroni (the Italian word is maccheroni) or pasta…. it all tastes great.

I suppose I should make one confession: I don’t like bucatini. If you don’t know what they are, just picture spaghetti on steroids. They are very, very thick strands of dry pasta with a hole in the center that hollows them out.

They are too big to easily wind around your fork, and they are quite robust, especially when cooked al dente. Therefore when eaten with any kind of sauce, they never fail to splatter you and your surroundings before you get any in your mouth.

Thankfully my doghouse list of pasta is short- just bucatini (also known as perciatelli).

You’d think that since different shapes of pasta are made out of the same ingredients, they would all taste exactly the same. Maybe the physical taste is the same, but in my opinion, the whole experience influences the taste, and different shapes create different experiences.

I’m usually in the mood for different kinds of pasta at different times, irregardless of the sauce, which is probably another sacrilege here in Italy, since Italians will not tire of telling you that certain kinds of pasta must be eaten with certain kinds of sauce.

I agree with their reasoning, which has to do with the sauce sticking to the pasta and not pooling at the bottom of the dish, for example, but it’s not important enough of a rule for me personally to always follow. Besides (cover your eyes, Italians), I eat my pasta with a spoon (even the “shorts”), which solves the pooling problem.

All of the above was supposed to be a short introduction to telling you that I discovered a new shape of pasta. It is called schiaffoni.

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schiaffoni-002It belongs in the “shorts” category, but I would put it in a category of its own called “comically gigantic”.

Schiaffoni means “big slaps” (yes, like slaps to the face). How could I not try it?

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Schiaffoni originate in the Campania and Calabria regions of Italy and are associated with Neopolitan cuisine. The name comes from the word schiaffo (slap), and they are also called paccheri because pacchero is the Neopolitan dialect word for “slap”.

I looked online for the meaning of this name. I found two theories:

-When these large pieces of pasta are mixed with abundant liquid-y sauce, they make a noise that sounds like a slap when they are poured onto someone’s dish (I hope that someone is wearing a bib).

-The special characteristics of this pasta make it especially delicious when paired with a good sauce, and as a result the taster is stunned when they taste it, as if they were slapped.

Most importantly, how do they taste? I ate them the first time with a garlic, broccoli, and fresh cherry tomato sauce and the second time with red sauce. I wasn’t sure whether to dig right in or cut them in half. I did a little of both. I like them- they really are a mouthful and take longer to eat, so you experience the pasta and sauce coming together for longer. It was a different experience from eating regular smaller pasta. They remain firm and substantial even when properly cooked, and they have a nice feel to them- smooth but textured at the same time.

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This pasta is full of opportunity. If people don’t behave themselves I’ll tell them they can expect a slap or two at dinner time.

Posted in Food | 8 Comments

Roasted Chestnuts and Memories of an Autumn Farm

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chestnuts-005I took the above photos a long time ago when I spent a week helping out on a family’s small farm near Rome in exchange for room and board and cultural exchange. One of the things I did that week was gather chestnuts. It was fall and the family’s huge chestnut tree was dropping more chestnuts every day. I think I gathered them every other day to keep up with it.

Gathering chestnuts is an excellent lower body workout- I was basically doing continuous squats to get them off the ground and into the basket. I remember the seed cases were really sharp so I had to watch out for my hands as well. I enjoyed that physical work outside.

Afterwards, we sorted the chestnuts and tossed the ones with holes in the shells, because they hosted worms.

I’ve never been a big fan of chestnuts but I think I’ve just never given them a chance. I bought some chestnut flour once and made a castagnaccio (a kind of simple Italian chestnut cake) and it wasn’t good at all. I think the flour had gone bad. But once my friend gave me some boiled chestnuts to taste and they were sweet and oh-so-delicious.

Last night I ate some roasted chestnuts after dinner and they were so tasty. I know roasted chestnuts are a popular food but somehow I’ve only tried them once or twice in my life. I have a feeling that that is about to change. I felt a little holiday spirit too, with “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” playing in my head on repeat.

I took a few photos of the roasted chestnuts:

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chestnuts-002Eating chestnuts reminded me of my experience on the farm that I was talking about at the beginning of this post. I dug up some photos that I took at that time and I’m sharing them here on my blog. It was around this time of year. The family made an impression on me because of all the foods they grew themselves and the way they preserved them and made them into tasty things to eat and drink.

I enjoyed space and fresh air and outdoor work when I was there, and I admired their level of self-sufficiency. I live in a city apartment and not a farm, but I still enjoy preserving foods and making things from scratch. These photos are a reminder to me to learn more ways of doing so, which I’m sure I’ll share on my blog as they happen.

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Posted in Food, Italian Life, Slowing Down | Leave a comment

Melanzane sott’olio

1This is a post I wrote two years ago that I’m finally posting. But eggplant never goes out of style.

I first discovered this melanzane sott’olio (eggplant preserved in oil) when a few jars of it arrived for my boyfriend in Torino in one of the regular boxes of food sent from his mother down South.

It was love at first bite. I remember I ate the slices of eggplant on bread as an appetizer before dinner and also used bread to mop up the remaining olive oil.

R’s mother regularly jars a variety of her own food, and when she found out how much I liked the eggplant, she offered to teach me how to make it when I was in Matera on vacation.

The recipe is not difficult, but the eggplant is prepared in stages with long waits in between steps, so it ends up taking a couple a days to finish everything. But while you’re waiting, you just leave it out on the counter and can go do other things.

I’ll tell you now that once you’ve finished, you then have to wait one week for the eggplant to be ready to eat. (Before you can eat another kind of preserved eggplant I learned how to make, in which the eggplant is cut into strips, you have to wait one month.) But I don’t mind. I value deliberate processes that produce homemade staples, rather than buying everything from the store.

We started with about 2.5 kilos of medium-sized eggplant (about 5.5 pounds).

melanzane-001The first step is to wash all of the eggplant, cut off the stems, and peel them with a vegetable peeler. You may not like to waste the skin, but if you leave it on the end result is hard and bitter.

melanzane-002Slice the peeled eggplant into about quarter inch (slightly less than one centimeter) slices. We used the slicer in the picture, but a knife works fine too.

melanzane-003Place the slices in a big bowl of generously salted water.

melanzane-004Continue until all of the eggplant is sliced and in the bowl. Cover the eggplant with a large upside down pot lid and put something heavy on top to press the eggplant down (we use a pot with something else inside).

melanzane-005  melanzane-006Let sit for at least five hours. We did that in the morning and finished around noon. Then we let it sit for a few hours until the late afternoon after lunch and a nap :) So it sat for around six hours.

Back to work. Pour about 2/3 of a liter of white wine vinegar and 1/3 of a liter of water in a large pot. That’s about three cups of vinegar and 1 1/2 cups of water- it doesn’t have to be exact. Add (what seemed like) a couple tablespoons of salt and bring to a boil.

Drain a large handful of eggplant slices (that were soaking in the bowl) in a colander and put them in the pot. When the mixture comes back to a boil, wait one minute and then take them out with a slotted spoon.

melanzane-008*n.b. If you plan to eat the eggplant right away, you can cook them longer- about a minute and half, but no longer than two minutes, and the final result will be softer. If you are planning to make a lot and conserve the jars for longer, just cook them for thirty seconds after the re-boil and they will last longer.

Spread them in a single layer on a cotton towel in a big pan or large baking sheet. Use a cotton towel because it absorbs the liquid- otherwise the eggplant will be too watery.

melanzane-009Continue the process of boiling batches of eggplant and spreading them out on the towel. When you use up one towel, put another one on top and make another layer of eggplant. We ended up with three layers. Cover the top with a final towel (or paper towels) and let cool about an hour.

melanzane-010 Take glass jars and put a little extra virgin olive oil in the bottom. Start placing the slices in the jars, layering them as best you can without spaces in between and keeping the level flat. Pushing them down every so often with a wooden spoon helps.

melanzane-011  melanzane-012Add a few fresh parsley leaves at intervals. (n.b. The parsely is optional and can be left out. I didn’t notice any change of taste with the addition of parsley.)

melanzane-013When you fill the jars half way, add some more oil.

melanzane-014You can use your fingers, too, to really get in there and eliminate the air spaces between the slices. It won’t be perfect.

When the jars are full, cover with more oil.

melanzane-015Then take a long thin knife and slide it in the jars between the eggplant and the wall of the jar- press it inward to get rid of air pockets. You will see air bubbles appearing and rising up and then the liquid will be still. Do that all around the jar. It’s necessary to get rid of the air or the eggplant will go bad.

melanzane-016Keep filling jars this way, the number will depend on how much eggplant you started with and how large the jars are. We filled two large jars.

Leave the jars open and let them sit for a few hours. This will let them settle a little more. Then top with oil to completely cover, wipe the rims with a clean damp cloth, let dry, and put on the lids (we let them sit overnight and put the lids on the next morning).

melanzane-017  melanzane-018Let them sit for at least a week and then they will be ready to eat.

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***

I’ll end with a few notes about the process:

You don’t need to seal the jars with pressure or heat, and you don’t need to refrigerate the jars after opening. The oil is enough to preserve the eggplant.

-Only use a clean fork or other utensil in the jar to avoid contamination. After you eat some of the eggplant, push the remaining eggplant in the jar down with a clean fork or spoon until it is completely submerged in the remaining oil. It might be necessary to add more oil to cover them.

We used extra virgin olive oil to cover the eggplant in all of the steps of this recipe. In Italy, this type of oil is affordable. Your cost will go up in a place like the US where extra virgin olive oil is more expensive. You can use regular olive oil (instead of extra virgin) or seed oil (like sunflower) to save money. Just know that the taste will be different (R’s mom says it won’t be as good).

However, while a lot of oil is used in the recipe, it is not wasted. The oil comes out with the eggplant slices and is eaten along with it. If you add the eggplant to salad, the oil on the slices can be used to dress the salad. If you eat it with bread, the oil flavors the bread, or you can mop up the excess on your plate with bread. When you finish all the eggplant, the remaining oil in the jar can be used for anything you would normally use olive oil for.

As always, buon appetito!

Posted in Food, Matera, Slowing Down | 4 Comments

The Basilicata Landscape Never Fails to Impress

1Rivello, as seen from the road driving back to Matera from Maratea

Well I sure haven’t posted in awhile. I hope these pretty pictures from this summer in Basilicata will make up for it :) Basilicata, in southern Italy, is a very beautiful region. The flat countryside alternates with hills and mountains, and the ancient towns built on hilltops make for a striking landscape. If you look out from one of those towns, you can see the surrounding towns dotting the landscape in the distance at the tops of their own hills. Basilicata also has two coasts, on the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas in the Mediterranean. Warm water… gorgeous scenery… it’s quite a place.

2Maratea, on the Tyrrhenian (western) coast of Basilicata

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Spiaggia Nera (Black Beach), one of the beaches of Maratea

4Sant’Ilario, a tiny hilltop town surrounded by characteristic countryside

5Classic Basilicata countryside, which is yellow and brown in the hot summer

5aLago di Monticchio (Monticchio Lake)

6A view of San Fele, one of the many many many small and ancient towns perched at the top of mountains/hills.

6aA view from near Carlo Levi’s house in Aliano.

6bDusk on one of the beaches in Maratea

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The sea at Maratea, as seen from the road

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Night falls on Aliano.

11Maratea twilight

Posted in Photography, Travel | 4 Comments