I learned to cook out of necessity. I grew up as an indentured servant in Puglia's Delicatessen, a mom-and-pop deli on Pitman Avenue in the Bronx.
A typical day's fare would be lasagna, manicotti, and sausage-and-peppers. We made everything fresh, including the pasta, and sold the best bread known to the civilized world. The La Scala Brothers, our suppliers, credited their bread to old brick ovens, the New York water and an ancient Sicilian recipe.
I learned many recipes from my great uncle Sal. Uncle Sal could sing an Italian aria and at the same time take three guys apart in a bar fight. He won Italy's Medal of Honor for bravery in World War l and then pilfered the Allied Commissary, sending supplies to his family in Sicily. He had a strange duality.
Each week we'd watch the Friday-night fights. During any typical brawl between Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson, Uncle Sal would stir up such delicacies as calamari and pasta. I watched how he'd orchestrate his creations. I can still hear him exclaim as he nimbly massaged the dough to create the perfect texture for pasta, "Joey boy, the way to a woman's heart is through cooking."
Years later while partying with my fellow officers in the Marines, I would find myself sitting in a kitchen surrounded by their wives and girlfriends giving explicit instruction on making homemade pastas and sharing Italian recopies. I'd laugh as I thought of Uncle Sal's proclamations about winning a woman's heart via cooking.
However, I realized that the conduit to culture is food.
Last week I participated in the Multi-Culture Fair at La Cañada Elementary. I was part of the Italian team with Lisa Redmon, Francesca and Jeff Del Gobbo, Sheryl Madonna and Angela Piangenti. I was making pasta and trying to get the children to enunciate a typical Italian-American greeting, with an East Bronx feel: "How you doing?"
Many of the ladies representing Korea, Japan, China, Tunisia, Mexico, Philippines and Armenia, along with the children's chaperons, were curious about the logistics of fresh pasta.
"Can I have the recipe?," they would inquire.
"Does Macy's tell Gimbals?" I'd reply. "Yeah, of course I'd be glad to share."
This is what you need: a food processor, a pasta machine (the kind you crank), six large eggs, two tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt, two cups of semolina and two cups of flour. Tipo '00' flour, commonly called "Farina di grano tenero" in the Italian neighborhoods, is recommended. If you can't get Tipo, all-purpose unbleached will do.
Combine the flour, semolina and salt in the processor and blend. Beat the eggs separately. Gradually add the eggs into the processor until the mixture looks a bit like breadcrumbs. Turn the dough on a floured surface, sprinkle with olive oil and knead for about five minutes. The trick is getting the perfect consistency.
Roll the dough balls through the machine at the various settings and then cut. Toss the pasta into boiling water and in less than a minute, it's done. Bada bing! If you are having problems, send me a note.
No shortcuts on the sauce! Uncle Sal used to say, "La salsa è tutto" (the sauce is everything).
The message of the Multi-Culture Fair at LCE goes beyond pogo gee, horchata, lumpia and pasta. What solidifies American culture is the interchange of diversity. This exchange is inherent and is defined as Americanism. The attractions and diversions of cultures are the alchemy of multiplicity. Life is plurality. The exclusion of any particular culture diminishes the possibility of Americanism. Celebrating difference enhances America.
I hope one day the children will realize that the food, costumes, and traditions of cultures are incidental to the Great American Experiment. However, they do bring us together.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.