Publisher’s Note: The Gazette has published a number of articles over the past few weeks on the history of Bedford County in connection with this year’s 250th anniversary celebration. Mix with this series, with another series 13 days a year called Bedford County Ethnic Holidays. Next is Polish-American Day on Monday October 11th.
The American Community Survey, which was conducted between 2008 and 2012 and is the most recent analysis, identified 3% of Bedford County’s total population as being descended from Italian ancestors.
Italian-Americans in the United States celebrate Columbus Day as the day of national pride for their ancestors. Despite the fact that Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic under the auspices of Spain, he was born in Genoa, Italy. Columbus Day was traditionally celebrated by Italians on October 12th. That was the date in 1492 (according to the Julian calendar) that Columbus landed in America. In the Gregorian calendar, it would have fallen on land on October 31st. For many years it was claimed that Columbus discovered the North American continent, and for Europeans that was a fact. But the truth of the matter, as later archaeological finds revealed, was that other individuals prior to Columbus had landed on both the North and South American continents. In relation to the Eurasian immigrants who came to North America over the Beringia Land Bridge about thirteen thousand years ago and gave birth to generations of Indigenous Indians, the continent was never lost and therefore had no need to be discovered. This detail should not deny the fact that Columbus really discovered a land the Europeans were ignorant of.
Columbus Day was celebrated by the Tammany Society in New York City as early as 1792. President Benjamin Harrison declared October 21 a public holiday in honor of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America, in 1892. There had been anti-Italian sentiments for many years before his declaration. Harrison hoped to end this period of discontent. But the anti-Italian sentiment persisted into the 20th century. This feeling did not discourage Italians; In fact, it encouraged them to work harder to have the day declared a state holiday. In 1934, lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order, resulted in Congress passing a bill requiring the President of the United States to make a statement for the holiday. The statement was then made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The law does not make the public holiday an annual event. Every year the president had to make a similar statement to keep the holiday active. The National Columbus Day Committee was founded in 1966 and its leader, Mariano A. Lucca, managed to make compliance a federal holiday in 1968.
Basil M. Russo, National President of the Order of Italian Sons and Daughters of America, recently stated that Columbus Day is not a day dedicated to honoring a person, but rather a day dedicated to recognition and honor monumental historical event that started the process of over 500 years of worldwide immigration to America by oppressed people who were looking for a better life for their families … “
Italian-Americans celebrate holidays like Columbus Day with community meetings and meals. The meals where each family brings a favorite dish to share with everyone else are called potlucks. Sometimes they are referred to as covered dinner, which suggests that the food is casseroles or other oven-baked foods.
There are two things that need to be said about Italian cuisine before describing each dish. Many Italian dishes are based on one of 180 different types of pasta and one of fifteen types of sauces. Italian cuisine, considered “traditional”, has its origins on the Italian peninsula, but its current form owes its diversity to its worldwide distribution and the influences of local methods and ingredients.
Perhaps the most famous and popular Italian dish, spaghetti, is made from thin, firm pasta. The diameter of a single strand of spaghetti (which happens to be called “spaghetto”) is about a sixteenth of an inch. A normal serving per person would be a bundle about an inch in diameter. The spaghetti strands are boiled in a pot of water for between eight and ten minutes in order to achieve the state “al dente”, which translates as “to the tooth” and means that they are soft enough to be easily chewed, but always still tight enough that it’s not mushy. Even if al dente is the desired firmness, when you cook spaghetti for eight to ten minutes, the threads sometimes get sticky and stick together. One trick some people use when cooking spaghetti is to add just a little (say, a tablespoon) of cooking oil to the saucepan. Salt is also added to the water in which spaghetti is cooked, as noodles absorb salt and give the noodles a salty taste.
Like other pasta dishes, spaghetti can be made with or without sauce, and the types of sauces vary widely depending on whether other ingredients such as meatballs, mushrooms, and peppers are added. Salsa fi pomodoro, or traditional tomato sauce for spaghetti, is a mixture of tomatoes with roux (a combination of pork fat and flour) along with any number of spices that is simmered for hours until it becomes a thick sauce. Marinara sauce consists of cooked tomatoes with garlic, crushed red pepper, basil, and oregano. Marinara is therefore thinner than real tomato sauce. Allium, such as garlic, onion, leek, shallots, and chives, can be used to flavor spaghetti and other pasta dishes. Spices that go well with tomatoes, such as basil and oregano, are often added to the sauce of spaghetti. Some people, especially children, like spaghetti only with melted butter. Spaghetti can be prepared with a tomato sauce for ragu alla bolognese or with bechamel, a creamy white sauce made from flour, butter and milk, for rigatoni. Baked spaghetti is enjoyed by many when the sauce is alfredo, which is made with cream cheese, whipped cream, butter, garlic, and parmesan. Speaking of parmesan cheese, grated parmesan is sprinkled over spaghetti by many in the United States.
One cannot speak of Italian food and one cannot mention pizza. Okay, but first to treat the 5,000 pound elephant in the room – is the pizza actually from China and not Italy? The answer is, “Maybe yes, maybe no, who knows?” Pizza-like dishes were eaten in ancient Egypt, ancient China, ancient Greece, and even ancient Rome. All forms of the dish used a flatbread with a topping. The only difference in the dish from one region to another has, since ancient times, been the ingredients that are placed on it. Traditional Italian pizza consists of a flattened pastry base on which diced tomatoes, crumbled cheeses such as feta and olives are placed, and everything is dusted with oregano, basil and other herbs. Italian-Americans tend to follow their ancestors’ recipes. Commercial pizza companies have chosen a pizza sauce that covers the flatbread with cheese (usually mozzarella) and tightly covers the sauce. And right at the top are all the toppings the customer wants, including meat like hot peppers, sausage, bacon, chicken, and ham; Vegetables such as mushrooms, onions, peppers, and olives; and even seafood like shrimp, oysters, and anchovies. Pizza companies are constantly trying to “outbid” their competition, and a number of variations on the basic recipe have come to the fore. These variations include varying the thickness of the crust and filling cheese and even hot peppers in the crust. Two variations of pizza that deserve their own name are calzone and stromboli. Both dishes can be thought of as a folded-over pizza. Calzone is simply folded in a semicircle. Calzones can only have ricotta cheese with marinara sauce on the dipping side. Stromboli is rolled in a spiral and often contains mozzarella and sauce baked in it along with other ingredients such as peppers, onions, and all kinds of meat. Calzone originated in Naples, Italy in the 18th century, while Stromboli originated in Philadelphia in the 1950s.
Italian-Americans are not known to favor beer like their German or Irish neighbors. Your pasta dishes go better with wines and mixed alcoholic drinks. Wines like Chianti and Barbera are very popular with both Italians and Italians. Aperitifs or mixed alcoholic drinks that are drunk before a meal stimulate the appetite. Certain liqueurs used in both cooking and cocktails, such as Campari and Amaretto, evoke the spirit of Italy like no other. Campari’s main flavor is bittersweet orange while Amaretto’s is almond. Sambuca is an anise-based liqueur with a strong liquorice flavor. Certain liqueurs, such as Vespetro, are made from a variety of spices and therefore have exotic flavors.
(Note: More information can be found on the website at: bedford250.com/EthnicItalian.htm)