Baby Boy and I have been baking cookies every weekend for a month straight now. The house constantly smells of dough and sugar, which is much better than the usual dirty diapers. And boy does that cookie perfume go a long way to putting you in the Christmas spirit. The cookies also serve a more practical purpose. Here in Italy, people don’t exchange too many gifts. A few little somethings for family members and a couple of toys for the tikes are about all the present giving you are expected to do. But Italians – at least here in the south – give each other food, often wrapped up beautifully in a basket. This season I have already received a homemade after-dinner liqueur made of the nespola fruit, chocolate-covered peanuts (tastes almost like the Baci chocolate), and a bag of lemons and other citrus fruits. I have given out homemade honey roasted peanuts, traditional American cookies, and candy (mostly M&Ms, Hershey bars, and Reese’s). Here is a scrapbook of the sweet treats Baby Boy and I have shared with our Italian friends and family:
The holidays are a wonderful time to pay homage to your heritage. I enjoy participating in both American and Italian traditions. You can be sure that I’ll be baking up lots of holiday cookies like my American friends and family. And I’ll also be taking in the various presepi (nativity scenes) around Ischia this year. Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without fish, which would be the case in the United States or Italy. So, what about you? What Italian holiday traditions will you be featuring in your celebrations? Take our poll to the right of this blog post.
All it takes is one little hand to color a house a home. It’s easy for me to be sad right now on this Italian island far from my friends and family. It’s easy to get down when you have to keep American hours (which means working nights) to keep your American job that you need to support your family. It’s easy to moan and complain about how hard you have it when you’re not resting comfortably in your own king-sized bed with the Egyptian cotton sheets and fluffy pillows you bought when you wed. It’s even easier to lose your cool while hanging one more stinking towel you’ve just washed on the line outside while Baby Boy throws yet another fit because you told him to get his hands out of the dirty, standing water that piled up in the planter overnight.
Others hear that you’re on an island in Italy and think you are on one long vacation, even if you’re working every day pretty much, even if every household chore is 10 times harder here, even if you mostly hate it. You walk into the house and think, “This is not my space. This is not my home. This is God’s punishment for whatever I’ve done wrong in this life and others.” Your home is in New Jersey, where you picked the paint color and the flooring, where you snuggled with your newborn when you brought him home from the hospital, where your cousins gather for pumpkin decorating parties at Halloween and cookie devouring parties at Christmas, where your father serves you tomatoes and bread like he did when you were little, where your mother helps you with your son when you’re working long hours or have the flu, where your niece and nephew join your son in building forts and pretending to be pirates, princesses, and dragons.
While New Jersey will always be my home sweet home like no other, when I walked into the house in Ischia this morning, while my son continued to throw a tantrum about leaving his bath of dirty water in the garden where it belongs, I noticed the artwork he had colored on the wall in his playroom/our living room shortly after we arrived in April. The magic eraser takes off the paint that my brother-in-law painstakingly put on the wall before our arrival, so I haven’t touched it.
I saw Baby Boy’s scribbles in a different light today. I thought, “Home is wherever my son is dawdling and doodling.” In fact, I’m writing this as he takes breaks from pushing his toy cars along the tile and kitchen chairs to gently tug at my hair and squeeze me with all his surprising might. Even if he is getting drool all over my face with his wet, wet kisses (which he has pretty much reserved exclusively for mommy), Baby Boy is my true home for the moment and nothing else should matter. Nothing.
I long for an Ischia that I never knew. My father, a native of the Neapolitan island in Italy, regaled me with story after story of a paradise filled with loving family and neighbors who tended to one another in the difficult times, made sure no one had to go without during war, and celebrated all of life’s small joys – from saint feast days to Natale (Christmas). He spoke of his youth playing soccer when he should have been at school, working as an altar boy in the local church, and the pretty girls who caught his eye at 13 just before he headed off to America with his parents and two sisters. Reminiscing, he would tell us how he – the youngest child – would play chaperone to his sisters on Sunday afternoons in the piazza. It was his job to kick the shins of the young men who wanted to speak to his sisters for more than five minutes at a time. After all, their reputations were at stake.
The people of Ischia didn’t have much back then, in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, some relatives recall being short on food during World War II. My father has no recollection of this. As the baby of the family and having been born just as the war ended, he missed that. Certainly, however, he can admit that he and his siblings never would have achieved the depths of success in Ischia that they have in America. They can boast having run their own businesses, owning multiple homes, and sending children to college and off to tackle their own accomplishments. These are things many an islander can only dream of, even, and perhaps especially, today.
Still, what Ischia lacked in wealth it made up for in nature and the character of its people. Known as L’Isola Verde (the Green Island), this place has one lush landscape and with the mountains as a backdrop for the sea, one can hardly turn around without bumping into beauty. There’s no question that there are still elements of this sparkle in Ischia’s modern landscape. True, gas guzzling cars, construction, and gruff tourists detract from it once in a while, but the mountains and the sea, the flowers and the plants, the woods and the vegetation are still here. One walk down the street and you can catch glimpses of it.
What I think I’m missing from Ischia of yesteryear are the people. My own Nonna (Grandma) delivered her nine children on her own in her humble home and as a mid-wife, she helped others – even someone who gave birth to triplets – bring life into the world. Nonno (Grandpa) would harvest grapes, make wine, and sell vegetables to keep the family afloat. He was a great saver to boot and instilled a sense of planning for the future in all of us. And no matter how grueling the work under the scorching hot sun in the summer and even fall, Nonno would take it on like a superhero. His wife and kids did, too. They’d also have their fun. No matter how tough times were, La Befana would fill the kids’ stockings with tangerines, walnuts, and No. 2 pencils for school. My Nonno would head to the local bar, play cards with his friends, and participate in the folk troupe as the clarinet player. Nonna would make bread from scratch and chat up the neighbors.
When they had the chance to move to America, even though they were in their 50s, and had created a full life in Ischia, they seized the opportunity without hesitation and without looking back. They did it for me (and my father and aunts and uncles and cousins). But I was part of the equation. They didn’t know me yet for my father was only 13 at the time, but they were thinking about his future and the future of his unborn kids. They knew we could do better if we got off the island.
Unexpectedly, I have returned to their island home. I look all around me and wonder if there are people here today with the same kind of character as my grandparents. I wonder if anyone has the same gumption, the same drive, the same commitment to their family. Who would be willing to give up their three-hour afternoon siesta and nights playing scopa with Gianpiero in the piazza to break their ass working seven days a week in America, so their children and future grandchildren could do better than they did? While I know there are hard workers tucked into every corner of the Earth, I don’t know that anyone is willing to make the same sacrifices that immigrants such as my grandparents did, at least not from this neck of the woods. Truly, I’m not sure such people exist anywhere anymore.
So, I cry and cry at the injustice of it all. I want to know people like my grandparents. I want to support them and break bread with them. I want them to inspire me. I’m nostalgic for the times I could share with these people I don’t know, who may or may not exist. I want a simpler Ischia, an Ischia where everyone knows your name but rather than judge you, they embrace you. Rather than seeking the latest Ralph Lauren shirts, they are seeking a greater good. Rather than defiling the paradise in which they were born, they aim to keep it pristine. Rather than being obsessed with putting on a good show (hello bella figura), they are obsessed with being good people. Those were the days that maybe never were, but to which I’d like to cling if but for a moment.
Italians don’t know of cupcakes. They are simply not among the menu of desserts that Italian mammas whip up in their kitchen. But who doesn’t like a cupcake, right? So, on the 4th of July I introduced my Italian relatives to the wonders of biting into an icing-laden, moist funfetti cupcake. And last weekend – oops – I did it again. Only this time around, I made some with vanilla icing, some with chocolate icing, and all with way more decoration. I used rainbow sprinkles, Oreos for Mickey Mouse ears, and white chocolate shavings (those are not in the photo). Since this was my third attempt at making cupcakes and icing from scratch, I had gotten significantly better at it. No one in the house seemed able to resist ’em, least of all me. (I used the same confetti cupcake recipe as last time, the same chocolate frosting recipe, and this super easy vanilla frosting recipe.)
Cupcakes are every American moms go-to treat. It is what you make for your kids’ birthdays and holidays. And there’s something about cupcakes – tiny individual cakes – that makes you feel special and cozy and loved. Well, I was happy to share this bit of Americana with my Italian family. I owe them; after all, they provide me with authentic Neapolitan pizza, homemade tomato sauce, and all the home-grown fruits and veggies I can eat. Indeed, my favorite cultural exchanges are the kind I can bite into. And boy, I could go for a cultural exchange right now. How ’bout you?
Now is the time of year when Italians the world over insist that their tomatoes are redder and bigger than yours. My father will bring relatives in his New Jersey garden, show off his tomatoes, and take down anyone who puts down his pomodori. He is certain to harvest his treasures before every chance of rain to ensure none of them split or rot. And he’s even hidden them from guests, who might want to take a bite out of one of his tomatoes. The eggplant and zucchini he is happy to give away. But the tomatoes are his pride and joy. Italians reading this are thinking, “So what? Doesn’t everyone act like this?”
At the moment, I’m living in Ischia, where this competition is almost an art form. Giving someone tomatoes from your garden is a way of both demonstrating that you should win the contest, but it is also a great honor for the recipient. Since I don’t grow tomatoes myself, I often get to be a judge. This means that people bring me their tomatoes, and I have to make the sacrifice of eating them. Boo-hoo, I know. My husband and I have decided that we could live on only tomatoes and bread (bathed in great olive oil and basil fresh from the garden, of course). This is our way of saying to the tomato growers of Ischia and elsewhere, “Bring on the competition, baby! Yes, we’d love to help you discover if indeed your tomatoes are redder and bigger than everyone else’s.”
I’ve spent many a 4th of July in Italy, but this was by far the best one ever. I turned my Italian relatives into patriots for the day, had them drape the American flag in every corner of their kitchen, fed them American food (which you will see below), and forced them all to proudly wear – yes, I insisted they wear them proudly – Old Navy tees with the American flag on them (and yes, all 13 of them and one friend obliged). Rather than just describe what we ate (since that’s all real Italians will care about anyway), I decided to share the photos with you.
Confession: I did make one Italian dessert, strawberry tiramisu (in the photo above), but I dressed it in red, white, and blue. If you like the sound of the tiramisu (you’ll like the taste even better), then click here for the recipe by Giada De Laurentiis. Although my cousins in the States can’t get enough of her version with Cointreau, I replace the one-third of a cup of liquor with one-third of a cup of orange juice (so you’re doubling the amount of orange juice) and leave the rest of the Cointreau out, so the kiddies can enjoy it, too.
For the main course, I made chicken wings. I know tradition calls for hamburgers and hot dogs. But the hot dogs aren’t beef in Italy; they are wurstel, which is pork and the burgers just aren’t American enough. They have this weird after taste. Chicken, on the other hand, is delicious here. Recently, you’ve been able to special order wings (Italians don’t usually eat ’em). My Italian relatives beg for this dish. This is another old recipe I picked up from Giada De Laurentiis. It’s like American-Chinese food adapted for Italian people because it includes balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Since my mom sent me brown sugar (which is not available in Italy as you know if you read my blog entry about chocolate chip cookies), this was the best version of the dish I’ve ever made for them.
The corn on the cob wasn’t the winner I was hoping it would be. Unfortunately, nothing beats fresh New Jersey corn. Although my in-laws were able to find a place from which we could order it, the kernels were huge and no matter how long they boiled, they remained pretty tough. Still, taking my mom’s advice to put sugar and butter in the water and add more butter afterward, made the flavor good.
Caesar salad is an Italian American dish. Most real Italians don’t know of it. When I made this for my relatives for the first time last year, they screamed with pleasure. So, I knew it had to be on the 4th of July menu. I was happy to serve it in the punch bowl my husband and I received when we wed in Ischia nearly five years ago. It made a beautiful presentation (as did all the wedding gifts we got to put on display). I used a Ceasar dressing recipe from Once Upon a Chef, but I eliminated the anchovies. Most recipes call for raw eggs, but this one doesn’t, which is appealing to me because I’m afraid we could all end up in the hospital for salmonella poisoning.
Decorations are always on hand for 4th of July because I’m always here in Italy for the holiday. I had tons of stuff from years past, and my mom sent some more in a package. We decked ourselves and the dining area in red, white, and blue.
My nieces don’t all like strawberries, so chocolate-covered confetti cupcakes were my back-up dessert. Of course, the flag had to be featured on top of each one. I’ve only made cupcakes from scratch one other time, and my two-year-old niece and 18-month-old son had to help me the first time. So, these, which I did solo, were infinitely better. (For starters, the icing ended up on top of the cupcakes instead of into the mouths of babes.) I used Baking Bites’ recipe for the cupcakes (minus the almond extract because I couldn’t find any in Ischia), and About.com’s Guide to Southern Food’s icing recipe, which is so simple that I’ll probably never buy pre-packaged icing again.
A 4th of July party – or any summer get together – is incomplete without watermelon. Rather than just cut it into wedges, I had my husband slice half a watermelon and then use a star cookie cutter to make shapes. Whatever melon was left after he cut out the stars was cut into chunks and eaten as well. Of course, those flags made yet another appearance. Wouldn’t be 4th of July without the red, white, and blue!
We are officially back in Italy, and we’ll be here for a long, long time. It feels like an eternity to me. It’s only been a few days, but I already missed New Jersey and nearby New York as the plane was taking off from JFK Airport. In fact, it’s not an understatement to say that my heart aches for the sights and sounds of the tri-state area.
So, I’m putting a much-needed smile on my face by remembering some of the ways I bid farewell to my home sweet home. Thanks to a friend from Ischia, who was in New York on business and was kind enough to take Antonio and I aboard the Bateaux dining cruise, I was able to take in the lights of NYC one last time before leaving for Italy. Aboard the cruise, I ate yummy lobster bisque, crab cake, seafood-stuffed crepes and cheesecake (New York style, of course). The crepes were delicious, but dripping in cream sauce and paired with the bisque and the cheesecake, it was a bit of a heavy dinner. While the price is steep – our friend gave the experience to us as a gift to thank us for letting him stay at our place – I would recommend the Bateaux to out of towners and locals alike because it is a new and fun way to take in the New York skyline. It also is quite romantic, and makes for an extra-special way to celebrate an anniversary or birthday.
The highlight of the trip is not the food, by the way. It is the ambiance. I was even able to wave arriverderci to Miss Liberty herself. Being the child of an immigrant and a sucker for the American dream and all it represents, I get choked up just at the sight of THE Statue. It felt fitting to see her up close, in all her glory one last time before I set out an adventure in reverse; whereas my ancestors greeted her at their arrival to the new world, I was heading back to their old world for what is sure to be a life-changing experience.
Baby Boy and I are preparing to leave for a very long stay in Ischia, Italy, home of my ancestors and my husband. So, Easter is the last holiday we’re going to be spending with our American loved ones for some time. We are probably going to miss some of our favorite occasions, including Halloween and Thanksgiving. After all, the Italians think of them as Oct. 31 and any ol’ Thursday. I’m crying just thinking about it.
So, it was important to savor every moment of our Easter celebration. It started with our annual cookie decorating and egg dying party at my mom’s house (see photo above). We invited so many people this year that we didn’t fit into our house, and my mom who started this time-honored feast back when her great nieces and nephews were toddlers, hopped to party planning and cookie baking.
Although my niece (far left) and Baby Boy (far right) look like they are happily painting their egg-shaped cookies with icing, they were just faking. They mostly just ate their art (sometimes right off the paint brush). We later had to hide the cookies and icing from them. Sneaky, sneaky grown ups!
On Easter morning, Baby Boy found a lovely basket of goodies – and more – from the Easter bunny. His treats included a big picture book of his favorite Jake and the Neverland Pirates, bunny ears, a Peter Pan T-shirt, and a fishing rod for the tub. Some books and bubbles, purchased from local dollar stores, which are the bunny’s best friend, rounded out the offerings.
Lucky for Baby Boy, the Easter Bunny left us a batch of yummy pancakes, which Papa’ brilliantly smothered in nutella and whipped cream. Of course, Baby Boy needed two forks to inhale this delectable breakfast.
Post-pancakes Baby Boy was up to his usual mischief at Nonna’s Easter party.
Silly Baby Boy got himself stuck in the basket that Nonna uses to corral books for the grandkids. But I, his mamma, prefer to think that this is what the Easter Bunny left for me – his sweet self in a basket. There is, after all, no better gift. And it was a happy Easter for all.
Although our stay at Florida’s Walt Disney World Resorts only lasted one week, we spent an extra two weeks at my sister’s house in the area. As a result, we snuck in some extra Disney time over the weekends when I wasn’t locked in the closet working. (I literally had to work in my sister’s walk-in closet, so Baby Boy would actually let me do my writing and editing.) Since we had already doled out major cash to stay at the Disney resort, All-Star Music, visit the parks, and use the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan, I opted for more affordable options during the rest of our stay in the Sunshine State.
Downtown Disney costs nothing to enter. Even though there’s no admission fee, you have to stick to your guns to have a free or nearly free day there. The place is loaded with charming Disney-centric shops. The kids will be wooed by the Disney toys and gear, so expect some whining and begging for you to buy things. I admit I gave in and bought my son an Izzy (from Jake and the Neverland Pirates) doll. If you are in the market for Disney souvenirs, Downtown Disney is the best place for them because there’s a very wide selection. There are also restaurants and small eateries if you are hungry. But you’ll have to pay for those.
Still, walking around and browsing costs you nothing. Each shop has an interesting display out front, which makes for fabulous photo ops. In addition to the beautiful Mickey fountain and garden scene out front, you’ll find Cinderella, Buzz Lightyear, and Mr. Potato Head statues to name a few. There are free concerts galore if you want to take in some music or a brief theatrical performance. Nearby, there’s a little train and a Merry-go-round, both of which will cost you $2 each per child. Baby boy had a blast on both. Although not free, these two rides are pretty affordable.
Finally, there’s the Lego store, which is a gold mine for free fun. Outside there are large Lego structures of a dragon fighting a knight, a gigantic sea creature that is in an actual lake, Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, and Buzz and Woody on a rocket. My favorite one is of a family of tourists – replete with daughter dressed like princess, son dressed like pirate, and mom and dad with Disney-inspired hats – walking their dogs. In addition, outside the store, there are little tables for the kids to create their own Lego art and even race Lego cars that they put together. You pay no money for it, but some parents seemed to be paying with their patience. Their kids didn’t want to leave. Can you blame them?