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Petite Madeleine

The Curtain Tape RecipesRecettes de rubans pour rideau

  • Linda Morra

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In the autumn of 2002, after my maternal grandmother died, my sister found a cache of my grandmother’s recipes ensconced in a black leather purse and stashed in the back of her closet. Even as she sifted through my grandmother’s belongings, a part of the process to consider what family members would preserve and discard, my sister knew it was odd to have unearthed these recipes in the specific place she discovered them and in the form they assumed—most scrawled in my grandmother’s characteristic script on the back of curtain tape or bits of curtain fabric.

Eventually, my aunt made copies of the recipes, framing them with photos from various parts of the life of Maria Altobelli, my grandmother, and placing them in a notebook for each of her six grandchildren, including me. Over time, I returned to read and to puzzle over them. Some of the recipes I recognized: panettone, a light sponge cake that I loved dipping in espresso and celli pieni (literally translated as “stuffed birds”), traditional Abruzzi biscuits made in the shape of little birds to honour the Festival of St. Antonio in Aquila. Filled with a tart jam, at one time made from local Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes, celli pieni were my favourite.

She baked these with only some assistance from my sister and me: we ate as much of the dough as went into the cookies. She baked without recourse to the recipes in her closet, which meant that she worked from memory. Some of the recipes were written in shorthand. Others missed key information related, for example, to the temperature of the oven. A few had measurements I could not calculate (two bicchieri or “glasses” of an ingredient made me wonder which glass from her kitchen was the one to be used). Still others did not cite the cooking time. She developed an intuitive sense of how long to bake certain desserts, what ingredients were needed, and at what temperature she needed to bake them. I have since learned that this form of cooking is typical of Abruzzi women. However, perhaps my grandmother also baked so often for her grandchildren that it became part of her memory’s repertoire.

But what were they doing in her closet, and in her black purse in the first place? And why were they written on the back of curtain tape or curtain fabric? As I mused over these questions, the answers I found were rich and interesting, bearing witness to facets of my grandmother’s life of which I had previously only had glimpses. The recipes thus offered what Marlene Kadar has elsewhere referred to as an unconventional form of autobiography. They not only tell the story of my grandmother’s life, but also showcase the “larger story” of the “life” of a community.[1]

When I initially approached my mother about the recipes, she explained that she too had been surprised to learn of their existence. When I pressed her for more information about why my grandmother used curtain tape or fabric, she offered greater insight. My grandmother, she explained, worked for almost her entire life in Canada in a curtain factory for Eaton’s. I knew that working outside the home was not entirely unusual for Italian women in postwar Canada. These income-earning roles, however, have customarily been seen as supplementary to the role of husbands, the real breadwinners. Women were assigned (or confined) to the domestic sphere, and were more greatly appreciated for advancing spiritual and cultural matters within the family and for their reproductive value. It should be noted that this view about Italian women extended beyond their ethnicity, since Canadian welfare policies of the day generally “assigned economic primacy and final authority to the man.”[2]

Canadian conventions dovetailed with Italian customs in this respect. Mid-twentieth century wives were involved in child rearing and cooking, and generally ensuring the domestic stability of their families, rather than in being economic providers. My grandmother’s existence as mediated through these recipes may initially seem to support this perception of women in the period, for she was indeed instrumental to baking and preparing meals. Yet my grandmother’s life also defies these easy generalizations. To view her exclusively in these terms is, paradoxically, to limit how much her life purpose extended well beyond the domestic sphere and how integral she was as an economic provider.

When she and her family arrived in Canada in December 1959, they confronted their first winter after spending balmy months in Argentina. It was typical after the Second World War for Italians to immigrate to Buenos Aires, Argentina, as my mother’s family had; or to Chicago and New York, United States; or to Toronto, Canada. In Canada, the “enemy alien” status ascribed to Italians was laid aside by 1951, after which time they were actively recruited.[3] My mother’s family was a part of this recruitment process. These immigrants represented approximately seventy percent of the Italians who were to arrive in Canada before the 1980s. My mother recalls that she and her family were ill prepared for the climate. She had only light clothes and wore leather shoes without a proper sole, which landed her in snow banks on more than one occasion.

Since the weather systems were significantly different from those to which they had been acclimatized, it also meant that my grandfather was unable to work: in Italy, he had been habituated to working outdoors, in agriculture. Although he laboured in factories in Argentina, he was unable to find such work in Canada. In wintertime Canada, therefore, there was little he was able to do and so it became incumbent upon my grandmother to keep the family afloat economically. This could have caused strain between them, but it didn’t. In spite of the critical discussion about how such role reversals in this period occasioned tensions between Italian husbands and wives, this does not appear to have been the case with my grandparents.[4]

Through her nephew, my grandmother found her first position in a factory where she made children’s snowsuits. This work was quite typical for Canadian immigrant women in the period. By 1961, Clifford Jansen notes, over forty percent of Italian females between fifteen and sixty-five were part of the labour force.[5] Jansen also observes that these jobs were reserved for “the female ghetto,” because it was work that “employers would never offer to male heads of household.”[6] However, husbands were not always able to earn enough to support their respective families, as was the case with my grandfather.[7]

On her initial salary, my grandmother and her family could only afford a small attic apartment, which they rented from her brother for thirty-four dollars a month—more than reasonable for the period. My great-uncle was responsible for initiating the chain of migration that involved sponsoring and then settling his immediate and extended family in Canada. Calling upon such kin networks allowed my grandmother and her family to get the grounding they needed in Canada, although their accommodations were scanty at best. The apartment was comprised of two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom, scarcely commodious for a family of five. At night, my uncle slept in the kitchen, and my grandparents and their two daughters slept in the only other room, where three beds had been placed side by side. The aeration was poor, my mother recalls, especially in the summer. There were no cupboards or storage closets. They had to make a dash down two flights of stairs in the sometimes-vain hope of finding the bathroom available.

Those living conditions offered incentive to find a better paying position. After working for three years in that first factory, my grandmother left for a new job. This time, she worked for Eaton’s, in a factory where she made curtains. On the strength of the increase in her salary, the most substantial salary in the family that was also supplemented by that of my grandfather, my grandparents purchased a house on Upwood Avenue, in North York, where they both lived for the rest of their lives. Among other things, it was a house with storage closets and two bathrooms. She insisted that her children complete their high school education before they took paying jobs—another highly unusual practice for Italian immigrant families in the period, since statistically most Italian immigrant parents urged their children to work as soon as possible to help support the family.[8]

The factory building in which she worked was located around Spadina Avenue, what is now identified as Chinatown in Toronto. She would get up every day at five in the morning to catch a bus downtown and start work at 7 am. At four in the afternoon, she returned home to help my grandfather prepare supper. She did this every day until she took her retirement at the age of sixty-five. But she was then invited to return to work part-time, about two days a week, in order to do specialty work because of her attention to detail. Eventually, the two days turned into five days a week, and she remained there full-time again until the age of seventy. Yet the working conditions of the factory, my mother tells me, were uncomfortable. It was apparently extremely hot in summers, there was no air-conditioner, and the ventilation was poor. The door was propped open in summers to provide some aeration. Her wages weren’t impressive, yet it was clear to my mother even then that my grandmother did not continue to work there out of financial need. There were other reasons for the appeal of returning to labour there.

What were these reasons? The curtain tape recipes here serve as a portal to this part of her life, of which my family and I still only have the occasional glimpse. Apparently, she worked with a group of Italian and Greek female immigrants. Not entirely a culturally cohesive group, they yet enjoyed easy banter and friendly exchanges during the work period, and this was sustained for a period of approximately twenty-five years. Clearly, these women were expressing some degree of freedom and agency in that workspace.

Although ties of kinship are often seen as crucial to the forging of stability in Canada, ties of friendship in this case held as strong. And that’s in part what the existence of the recipes also suggests: they were an extension of the cross-cultural exchanges in which these immigrant women engaged, many of whom worked in the Eaton’s factory from mid-century Canada to at least the 1980s. The recipes highlight that, far from being socially alienated,[9] these women were a supportive community, which used a language that was not strictly Italian, although that was what my grandmother used to copy down these recipes. Employing strips of curtain tape or scrap bits of fabric, these women jotted down how to prepare their favourite meals or baked goods, and tested these out in their respective families. “Peperoni of Pina,” “Torrini de Domenica,” and “Taralo of Emma” suggest that the woman identified was as important as the recipe itself. These were the ones my grandmother tucked in her purse, which my sister later found in her closet. One of these recipes, for cookies that had almonds inside them and that were lightly dusted with icing sugar, was actually Greek in origin, as I came to learn later on in life. I had always assumed these were part of our own Abruzzi culinary traditions.

Familial kinship and ties by virtue of coming from the same hometown in Italy—more typical ways of forging connections in Canada—were not the only ways, at least, not for these immigrant women. Kinship ties have often been remarked upon in immigrant literature as the primary stabilizing forces.[10] First-generation Italians were believed to stick with their own family members or members of their former hometowns. Fellow paesani, however, were not as crucial to my grandmother’s supportive network after her initial settlement period in Canada. In fact, sometimes she saw paesani as jealous, working to undermine each other. Instead, the community she enjoyed at work was extended on weekends, when these women visited with each other. They gossiped, joked, and supported each other. The evidence in my grandmother’s life, grounded particularly (although not exclusively) in the recipes, thus proves her status as economic provider; testifies to her openness to other immigrant cultures; and points to her friendships as being crucial in terms of locating support, cultural nourishment, and community.