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Last night I decided to open a bottle of homemade red wine. I wanted to have a glass with my penne al pomodoro e basilico, one of my favourite dishes and recipes. As soon as I pulled the cork, the aroma of the homemade wine wafted to my nose like a genie coming out of its lamp. In a heartbeat I was back in my uncles’ cantina as a young child. It was a magical place, underground, that you would access using a ramp, as if going into the launching pad for a space shuttle hidden in the ground. The room was big, lined with huge wooden barrels that almost touched the ceiling and that I used to climb as a child; they are now a play-scape for my two nephews. In the middle of the room is the press that still does its job of squeezing the good stuff out of the oblivious grapes. The distinctive smell of this special place, where wine has been made using traditional methods from the beginning of the process to the end for many, many decades, welcomes me every time I open a bottle of homemade wine.
This specific bottle of homemade wine, however, does not come from my uncles’ cantina, but from Leo’s cellar. Two places that are thousands and thousands of kilometers away from each other. My uncles and Leo have never met—they live in different continents—but they share the same passion for homemade wine. It is the aroma that I smell every time I uncork one of their bottles that unites them, bringing their worlds together.
Leo lives in Dominion, on Cape Breton Island, a small community of about 2,000 inhabitants that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Once part of a dynamic system of mining towns that played a crucial role in the development of the Canadian economy, industrial Cape Breton became the home of many immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Dominion attracted many Italians arriving from the province of Treviso in northern Italy. The Italian community that formed and developed there during the 1920s and 1930s is still visible in Dominion, and has its physical manifestation in the Italian Hall built in 1936 as a social and cultural meeting point for the members of the Italian community.
I have known Leo and the rest of the community since 2009, when I began conducting fieldwork with the purpose of documenting and writing their history, which I believe has been overlooked for too long.
Speaking with the members of this community, either formally during taped interviews, or in a more relaxed setting with a meal and a glass of wine, I discovered that discussing food is an excellent way to break the ice. Coming from the same geographical area left by the immigrant parents or grandparents of the current generation of Italian-Canadians, I feel we share a common background of knowledge and memories despite belonging to different generations. My very first interview with a member of this community was also the funniest I have probably ever conducted. Gino Scattolon was born and raised in Dominion by his parents, who came from Albaredo, Treviso. Gino is now in his eighties and lives in Antigonish, on mainland Nova Scotia. After asking him about his personal memories of growing up in Dominion, we spent the rest of the interview listing names of dishes we both knew and that were part of our everyday eating habits. Gino would laugh with surprise at the name of each dish I listed. Everything was familiar to the both of us: polenta, tocio, radici. He had a particular passion for risotto con i funghi, another favourite of mine. It was natural to compare recipes and cooking methods, to ask how difficult it was for the first Italians in Dominion to find radici. When he left, after almost two hours of talking, laughing, giggling, I felt elated. That was the beginning of my fieldwork with the Italians of Dominion and this first interview blew away all the fears and doubts I had previously had.
After that first summer in 2009, I went back to visit and continue my fieldwork. Friendship has blossomed and strengthened and food has remained not only a topic of conversation but also something to share. Leo has always welcomed me back to the island and said farewell when it was time to leave with beautiful dinners consisting of traditional dishes from the Veneto region. Growing up in Dominion, Leo spent a lot of time with his grandparents, originally from Riese Pio X, Treviso. From them, and from his mother and neighbours, who kept many Old World traditions alive, Leo learned how to prepare many dishes, but also how to make homemade wine, and how to raise, kill and butcher a pig and make sausages and salami out of its meat. In the years I have known him, he has always prepared dishes the old-fashioned way, often dishes that I am familiar with only in their new versions, using the modern—may I say lazy?—recipes. One time at his house I had pasta al ragù, but none of that ground meat; instead, following the old rule that nothing is wasted, Leo used leftover steak from the evening before, like my grandparents and his grandparents used to do. I had never had ragù prepared in that way before. I can only remember ground meat based ragù. Needless to say, it was a mouthwatering experience.
Leo also makes homemade ravioli, a menu request he gets every time his two children come home to visit, reminding me of my own endless lists of requests when I visit my family in Italy.
One afternoon Leo and I put aprons on and became cooks preparing together fegato alla veneziana con polenta. I have to admit that when I was growing up I hated liver. Tell me of a kid, any kid, who truly loves liver. My mom forced me to eat it because, she said, it was good for me. Minestrone and liver were two dishes I just could not stand. The thought of them in front of me made me shiver. Worse when they appeared at the same meal. I would sit in front of the plate and refuse with all my stubbornness to eat. I was the last one to leave the table, sometimes late at night. My mother would not give up, and neither would I, but my father, once we were alone, would let me go to bed with something else in my tummy. Things have considerably changed since those days. I have grown up to realize that minestrone and liver are more than just good for you, that they are indeed good. Now I prepare my own minestrone, cutting and chopping up all the vegetables, using whatever is available where I am at that moment. I also developed a general nostalgia for everything Italian that is typical of emigrants. And so it happens that things you didn’t like to eat and things you weren’t really interested in all of a sudden mean everything to you, and define you as an Italian abroad. That is what is happening to me and that is why food and cooking are becoming an important part of my life and of my identity.
The day Leo and I cooked fegato alla veneziana was a special day for me. In the basement where he does most of his cooking, the tape recorder was on: we were listening to an old tape of Eros Ramazzotti; on the wall hung a picture of the old farm house in Riese where his family came from. We cooked, slicing liver, chopping onions, adding tomato paste, mixing polenta, and we talked about our lives, our families, our memories. It was a defining moment for me. Everything that surrounded me that afternoon had Italian written all over it. I was amazed that I could feel at home so far away from home. The connection I feel with Leo is a strong one, and I think the act of cooking together that day made our worlds come even closer. After everything was ready we sat and ate our masterpiece, drinking with it a glass (well more than one) of his homemade wine.
This summer my visit to Dominion was shorter than usual. My goodbye meal this time was one I won’t easily forget. At noon my partner and I were invited to the Italian Hall to taste the chickens that were getting cooked for the chicken supper that was happening the following evening. But it was not just chicken that was waiting for us on the table. Leo had prepared a few of my favourite dishes: insalata, fagioli, polenta in umido, pollo in umido, patate arrosto, pollo arrosto, and of course wine. Sitting around the table with some of our closest friends, I felt I was home, in Italy. Only the language we spoke and the foreign and consistent use of ketchup poured abundantly over the roasted potatoes brought me back to where I really was. The meal was phenomenal. Everyone was complimenting Leo for his cooking. I could not tell you which dish was my favourite. It was pure bliss. The potatoes were crunchy the way I like them and the polenta with the tocio, as we call jus in my dialect and as they still refer to it in Dominion, was to die for. One of the people at the table had always told me he did not like polenta, but he had some that day and loved it and said he will eat it again from now on.
Food does bring people together. It can be a discovery of something unknown and unfamiliar, a moment of sharing and coming together, the first flavours and aromas we learn of a new culture, but it can also represent a common ground, the surprise of a mutual culture people did not know they had, people generations and oceans of water apart.
I came back from my quick visit to Dominion knowing I have another family of dear friends that I am looking forward to visiting and cooking with next year. I also made my way back to Prince Edward Island with less abstract manifestations of their love for me: a few bottles of homemade wine, a beautiful picnic which included, among other things, pane e salame and a small container of olives, a form of cheese and a big chunk of Leo’s homemade capocollo. I will savour it, one thin slice after the other, and maybe next year I will ask Leo to share with me his secret recipes for that and homemade wine.
Giulia De Gasperi, from Treviso, currently lives in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where she is an Adjunct Professor in the Departments of Modern Languages and Celtic Studies at Saint Francis Xavier University. Her research involves Italians in the Maritimes and oral narratives about farming life in the Trevigian Province. You can read some of her creative writing at www.apanera.com.
Originaire de Trévise, Giulia De Gaspari vit présentement en Écosse où elle a complété un post-doctorat en ethnologie à l’Université d’Édimbourg. Ses recherches portent notamment sur les italiens qui habitent les provinces maritimes et les récits oraux de la vie fermière dans la province de Trévise. Certains de ses textes de fiction sont disponibles à l’adresse suivante : www.apanera.com.