“Mom, tell them about the antipasto,” exclaimed Mary Lou Sanelli, her straight, brown hair grazing her shoulders. I sat with the rest of the audience at the Tenement Museum on New York City’s Lower East Side, waving my paper fan in the hot, stuffy room, trying to keep cool.
“No, I can’t,” said the smiling, wide-faced woman in a strong Italian accent, her hair swept up into a bun. But after a bit more cajoling, Mary Lou Sanelli’s Barese “mamma” (played by actress Jackie Leone) discussed her recipe for pomodori all’olio (tomatoes in oil) with the audience. After this quick cooking lesson, Sanelli paged through her book, The Immigrant’s Table, and dove into a reading of her poem “Antipasto,” described as “a meal in and of itself.” She spoke of mozzarella, olives, pickled eggplants and peppers, procured by her mother after a long drive to the city, and served on approved Roman Catholic holidays.
I first came to know this book of poems and recipes when my cousin in Port Townsend, Washington, sent it to me a few months ago; the author is based in the same town. Sanelli’s poems, with titles such as “Minestrone” and “Finocchio,” illustrate her Italian immigrant family and their cultural struggles, as well as the author’s own coming of age as a first-generation American. Each poem is paired with at least one family recipe, and photographs of Sanelli’s family are scattered throughout the book.
Born on the Lower East Side of New York City and then raised on the East Coast, Sanelli eventually moved to the West Coast in attempt to break free from her family’s Old World traditions. But after a period of time, she realized that leaving the past behind was impossible. Instead of trying to escape her history, Sanelli decided to embrace and understand it by exploring her mother’s cherished recipes. She realized that food shaped many of her childhood memories, as seen in the poem “Veal Scaloppine.” Sanelli’s protests against eating meat, framed in a poem about this traditional Italian dish, pitted her directly against her parents and their beliefs, causing true conflict between two distinct generations.
By exploring her family’s culinary traditions and writing about them, Sanelli gained the understanding about her own identity that she was looking for. This was obvious from the lively and light-hearted reading I witnessed last week between the author and her “mamma” at the Tenement Museum. Throughout the evening, Sanelli added and subtracted from her poems, creating dialogue about the recipes, her memories, and her mother’s own struggles as an immigrant. We were all family for an evening, and it was a wonderful way to experience the book again.
I enjoyed this book for many reasons: The writing is simple and evocative, the format intimate and personal. But I also identified very strongly with the poems themselves, which inspired memories of my own Sicilian grandmother, and our visits to her home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn when I was a child. Our gatherings around her lace-clad dining room table, always surrounded with platters of finocchio, spaghetti, and meatballs, are forever embedded in my mind and my soul. Sanelli’s book reinforced my belief that food, whether it’s gnocchi or manicotti or any other traditional family dish, has the power to shape us all.