Tag Archives: Italian-American



Informant: For Christmas, ever since I was a kid, my mom would make, uh… Rigatoni… It was two dishes. One was Rigatoni alla Norma which is like, uh, an eggplant dish. It’s Sicilian and her dad like passed down the recipe. Um… And then she would also cook sausage and peppers? Which is kind of like a stew, almost… I don’t know if it originated anywhere or if it was like Sicilian or Italian at all. It was just something that like, at Christmas we knew we were gonna have that.


Informant: I think it’s nostalgic. Um… I think especially those dishes, I remember my mom talking about the Rigatoni alla Norma, her mom and dad would make that for holidays when she was a kid. She never, like, ate it on her own. It was only when she had kids and a family that she wanted a tradition. My mom’s really big on traditions, like having certain things that we as a family do for the holiday. And food is a big part of that… I think it’s definitely nostalgic. I don’t think it’s just because of the holiday ‘cause my family’s not religious… It’s just like we know that on this day we will all have this meal together. It’s really about togetherness. 

Interviewer: Do you think when you have kids you’ll do the same thing?

Informant: I don’t know if I’ll stick to those dishes. Because, like, even though I’m Italian… I don’t like pasta… Um… But even if I didn’t like the pasta, those meals still have a special place in my heart. Just because my mom would slave in the kitchen all day just so we could all sit down and have time together, and it was always really like… Sweet. And I want that for my family. The appreciation. The coming together gratefully with food on the table. 


In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: an Introduction, Elliott Oring writes, “Eating is one of the earliest interactive behaviors of a newborn, persisting as a situation for intimate human interaction throughout life… [W]e are likely to bring a great fund of emotion to the behavior of eating” (34). There is an emotional quality surrounding food, and eating is a highly social activity. The informant does not enjoy the taste of Rigatoni alla Norma, yet she has an emotional attachment to the dish because it is part of her family tradition. However, she does not plan to make this dish a staple of Christmas dinner with her future family. Instead, her focus will be continuing the tradition of coming together to share a meal. The informant does not seem to feel that the tradition is diminished if the dish changes. To her family, the Christmas dinner tradition is primarily about “coming together gratefully with food on the table.” If her children do not like the dish the informant prepares, perhaps they will change the dish too. And so the tradition would continue to vary, and yet, the heart of it––the togetherness––would remain intact. This demonstrates how traditions can change overtime (adhering to Alan Dundes’ definition of folklore as demonstrating multiplicity and variation), and also that foodways are concerned, not only with specific ingredients, dishes, and food preparation, but with why and how people eat.


Source cited above:

Oring, Elliott. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: an Introduction. Utah State University Press, 1986. 

Italian-American holiday meals

Before every holiday meal, which is several courses, the informant’s grandmother will make lasagna with meatballs in it, then wedding soup which has lentils and meatballs in it, then the full meal itself with has the “random staples of each holiday,” but there will always be pizza bread (cheese and sauce on toasted bread) and spinach bread. Each family member has their own favorite desserts too, like ice cream cake rolls, a “gross-tasting” checkered cheesecake that they all eat to appease his grandmother. The only one who still cares about saying grace at the table is his grandmother now.

His favorite meal is a gnocchi, which has to be specially requested for a meal — he loves shaking parmesan cheese over them. He also loves “a good ham,” with some pineapple and maraschino cherries, and apple kuchen (a golden cake and a hard bottom layer of coconut).

Though the informant’s family is several generations removed from their initial immigration from Italy, the family’s still kept up many food traditions, even as other traditions, such as saying grace, have fallen by the wayside. The informant also mentioned that the meal courses were generally set around a core menu, and these satellite dishes may not be as “traditional” as those core items.

The informant shared this with me in conversation.

I really like the idea of carrying on food traditions but leaving room for them to expand and grow, as they do here. Additionally, the informant’s recounting of the meal clearly brought a smile to his face — it’s always cool to see how people you may not know too well, as in the case with the informant, react when they engage with their heritage in a previously unknown way.