The ethnic composition of many Americans resembles a patchwork quilt – I have friends whose children are Colombian and Algerian; Korean, German and Welsh; Dominican, Cuban and Irish. They have (mostly) affectionate anecdotes about the clash of cultures and the challenges of adapting to the customs of the families into which they married.
When I was growing up, my home wasn’t a battlefield of countries, but of Italian regions. My Abruzzese father and Siciliana mother immigrated to the US with their respective families and met in Astoria, Queens in the early 1970s. When they married and had me, I benefited from exposure to the rich traditions of both regions and was fortunate to have learned from them true Italian rather than dialect. On the flip side, my parents were fiercely proud – and more than occasionally competitive – of where they came from. After an argument, they’d mutter politically incorrect stereotypes under their breaths and disparage each other’s dialects (Abruzzese was declared “rough” and Sicilian “un-Italian”).
Their lowest blows were directed at the regional cuisine of the other. From my father: “Non mi piace tutta quella roba dolce che fanno loro” – “I don’t like all that sweet stuff they make.” And from my mother: “Ma cosa cucinano loro? Solo carne arrostita e pasta – niente particolare” “What do they even cook? Only roasted meat and pasta. Nothing special.”
Even now, after nearly 50 years of living outside of Italy and 40 years of marriage, they still instinctively side with their own. Just last month, when I purchased a few good bottles of Italian olive oil and conducted a little taste-testing, the stuff barely made it to their lips before each proclaimed the oil from his and her respective region the winner.
Because my family has a house in my dad’s village, I’ve spent a lot more time in Abruzzo than I have in Sicily. Although she’d never admit it, I know it ever-so-slightly irritates my mom that my days are now spent with La Majella on the brain at every pass. I can sense it in her subtle suggestions of Sicilian dishes for my catering menus and in her overly-enthusiastic praise of my caponata (a dish my father, of course, deems “troppo dolce” – too sweet).
My parents’ regional tensions somehow followed me to the Let’s Blog Abruzzo conference earlier this month. In a village perched high in the mountains of Abruzzo, after telling a new acquaintance where my parents were born, she nodded knowingly in response, and said, “Ah, si, sembri molto Siciliana” – “Yes, you seem very Sicilian.” I could literally feel my mother’s beam of smug satisfaction projecting across the Atlantic (and when I posted the woman’s observation to my mom’s Facebook wall, my dad commented in reply, “E’ impossibile” – “It’s impossible”). The very next day, while enjoying a quintessentially Abruzzese lunch of timballo and arrosticini with the brilliant and charming journalist, Judith Harris, I found myself jotting down Judith’s beautiful recipe for mandorlata di peperoni, a Sicilian chutney of sweet peppers and almonds.
So just as mothers have a way of following you wherever you go, Sicily – and by association, my mother – found me in Abruzzo. I know how desperately she wishes my grandfather had never sold her family’s parcel of land that was blanketed in olive, almond and apricot trees and I, too, wish we had a family home in Sicily like we do in Abruzzo. I haven’t been to Sicily during my adult life and lately, I feel as if my mother’s native island is calling me to come and discover my other half. Hopefully, my mom and I will take a trip together next spring, but for now, I’ll have to settle for this Sicilian mandorlata di peperoni, which somehow made its way to me via Abruzzo.
Mandorlata di Peperoni
Recipe by Majella Home Cooking © as adapted from Judith Harris
- 8 mixed red, yellow and orange bell peppers, left whole
- 1/3 cup almonds, roasted and coarsely chopped
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup tomato sauce
- ¼ cup golden raisins
- A few leaves of torn basil
Preheat a broiler or light a grill. Place the peppers, skin and stems left intact, on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Roast or grill, turning occasionally, until the peppers are shriveled and their skins are completely blackened and charred. Remove the peppers to a paper bag and seal the bag until the peppers cool. Peel and clean the peppers, discarding the skins, seeds, stems, and inner white membranes. Cut the cleaned peppers into ½ inch strips.
To a saucepan, add the peppers, almonds, sugar, vinegar, salt, tomato sauce and raisins. Turn the heat to medium-low, and allow to simmer, stirring frequently, until the sauce and vinegar have evaporated, about 5-7 minutes. Remove to a glass or ceramic bowl and allow them to cool. Cover and let the peppers sit for at least 8 hours, or overnight in the refrigerator, so that the flavors meld together. Return to room temperature prior to serving. Garnish with torn basil and a drizzle of good olive oil and serve with crusty bread. Buon appetito!