Typically American, what I know of my maternal and fraternal backgrounds is that it’s mixed. Mongrel, I’d guess you’d say. Dad’s parents came from Poland a few years before they met here, apparently with some German and Russian blood in them (constant division of Polish lands over centuries having resulted in annexations and divesting of territory dependent upon which wars were lost or won) – one more German-blooded, one more Russian, I was told. Mom’s family smacked of sturdy German stock from way back, but there’s Dutch in us somewhere too. Living in an area settled by the Dutch, I guess that might be expected of roots stretching back any distance into the New Amsterdam area. You’d think I’d be more enamored of these cuisines than I am. But no, while I savor a few recipes Mom learned from Dad or his Polish mother (to be posted at future dates), Italian food is my uncontested favorite.
Because we spent so much time at Aunt Mary’s and Uncle Champ’s house when I was a kid – they lived mere blocks from us, as did all my father’s brothers and family – and since cousin Mary (then called Mary Fran) and I became closer as teenagers (even double-dating for a while), I like to think of myself as an Honorary Italian. Nobody dubbed me with this designation. It’s self-endowed and cherished. Perhaps this happens when one indulges in lots of Italian food, watches Mario Batali often enough on the Food Network, and owns 20+ cookbooks on the cuisine. This feeling is enhanced by an Italian fest once in a while, whenever I can get to one.
When I recently spotted a sign for the “first annual” Italian Fest in Cook Park in Colonie, a suburb of Albany, I wanted to fit it into our weekend. Bill and I were in the middle of trying to pack for our annual fall retreat at Still Point Retreat Center, and we debated about the wisdom of trying to get to a festival on the day before we were to leave. My rationale won out: if we ate there, I wouldn’t get bogged down in having to cook and clean up afterward – time saved for packing. Off we went.
Back in the early 1980s, our family – my mother, Bill, the two kids (Ade was 5 then; Kris was 7) and I – visited my cousin Jim in New York City. At the time, he lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in an old three-block-square area that remained mostly Italian despite massive migrations to the suburbs of Long Island. In fact, once when I’d stayed with Jim while in NYC on business, he took me to a restaurant a block from his apartment for an amazing meal. While dining, he whispered that the place didn’t open on Sundays but fairly regularly, on Sunday mornings, you’d see a dozen or so limos outside – an inference that a meeting of a few unsavory characters happened here, back on old home territory. Visions of the first “Godfather” movie swirled in my head as I dug into my lasagna.
Our family sojourn to Brooklyn was scheduled, per Jim’s suggestion, for the week of a huge annual Italian festival. And we were smack in the middle of it because my cousin’s apartment sat directly across from the neighborhood Catholic Church. That festival was no little first-time, in-the-park party. It was huge, fun and delicious. All kinds of food booths, Italian-made items for sale, lively music, rides for kids, gambling and more. Jim surmised that the weeklong event brought in about half that church’s income for the year— in gambling revenue alone! As for me, I was more interested in the yummies. Calzone, meatballs, sausage and peppers, pasta, pastries… Local festivals such as last week’s in Cook Park, one held every year at St. Anthony’s in Schenectady, and an annual weekend Fest at the Italian-American Community Center in Albany/Guilderland all pale beside Williamsburg’s happening (and a few other NYC Italians festivals, I understand); but there’s always the food to keep me happy. And we happened to run into a couple of Bill’s veteran friends at the Cook Park event too- with last names like Pollicino and Marinello, that shouldn’t have surprised me!
In addition to the usual foodie reasons, I was also drawn to an Italian fest this time because my curiosity had been piqued about an Italian myth I’d not heard about before: La Befana, Italian “Witch of the Epiphany.” The story of Befana played an important part in a novel I’d read recently, written by local writer Barbara Chepaitis, and I had begun to research the “Santa Claus witch” while writing what I call a Goddess Journal Entry, one of many I’ve created (and share with friends who’ve requested them) in conjunction with an interest in strong feminine archetypes. I’d learned that there are still major fests in Italy and around the world celebrating this figure. I thought perhaps I might find a cookbook with a recipe for the ceci cookies mentioned by one of the characters in Chepaitis’ book. Already, I’d discovered Befana Christmas Cookies but also determined that “ceci” would indicate they contain garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and no sign of that ingredient exists in that recipe. Unfortunately the book purchased at the festival, while a nice community mélange of recipes, was devoid of clues about such treats. Eventually I discovered a recipe for Italian Sweet Ravioli Cookies on the internet which, even if it’s not Chepaitis’ cookies, it sure looks tasty-sweet. I expect to make them come January, around the Epiphany (yup, garbanzo beans included)… and I’ll post the results! In the meantime, I finished the Befana entry (11 pages’ worth!) and we managed to get to Still Point next day, toting along supplies for my planned soup-making for lunches (that’s my next planned posting!), along with plenty of art supplies and reading to keep me content for the next five days.
So I got to eat some pretty good pasta that Sunday afternoon at the Italian Festival, and Bill enjoyed his sausage and peppers. And one special memory flashed back, as it always does at any festival where I indulge in a simple popular pastry. Biting into the gargantuan fried dough, heavily sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, I was back in Aunt Mary’s kitchen on Sheridan Avenue in Albany. Mary Fran and I watched as oil bubbled in the electric frying pan (olive oil [not likely]? canola? corn? I’ve no clue…) and my aunt slipped blobs of stretched dough into it, checking its progress as yeasty pieces crisped up. The resulting pizza fritta, considerably smaller in size compared to what’s served at street fairs around here nowadays, reigns as oh-so-much-more delicious than any devoured in recent years, enhanced as it is by memory. I don’t even know if Aunt Mary made her own dough or bought it somewhere (at the Polish bakery on Lexington?). Does it matter? She was creating a treat her mother (who had arrived on these shores from Italy decades before) had made time and again for her, if not exactly in the same manner then certainly in the same tradition and with just as much love.
Is it any wonder I adore Italian festivals and food?