Five generations ago, my great-great-grandparents on my father’s side of the family immigrated from Italy to America, working as grape farmers near Buffalo.
My great-great-grandpa, Frank Balducci, died of a sudden heart attack in the family vineyard. My grandma (Nonna) remembers her grandmother, Great-Great-Grandma Balducci, for growing the best peaches despite the Buffalo snows. My Nonna grew up with her own garden, growing tomatoes, onions and garlic. She fondly remembers going into the garden with her sister Marylin, a loaf of bread and a jar of miracle whip to make the best tomato sandwiches straight off the vine.
My grandpa (Papa) on my mother’s side has a similar story. My grandpa’s mother, Great Grandma Ziccardi, always had chickens in her backyard garden. It was at Great Grandma Ziccardi’s home that my Mom was introduced to my Dad’s family, and also I tried my first homemade chocolate chip cookie. However, after my great grandma passed away, my grandparents didn’t keep big gardens or chickens of their own.
Western New York, like much of the Great Lakes region, transformed from fields to suburbia during the World Wars and the steel boom. Gardens and farms became the things you did with your grandparents, and then they became memories.
This past week, I called my grandparents in the hope of learning more about their history of home-grown foods and medicines. The extent of their knowledge was as much as I’ve just said, aside from some other tricks: Chicken soup for colds, tea and honey for sore throats and a clove of garlic hung around the neck to alleviate congestion. Adding lots of garlic to any recipe helps the sick heal faster. Anything else was treated with Tylenol or Advil – you could get it at the store easily enough.
Another part of staying healthy was nutrition, in which key vegetables are now regarded as “weeds.” Among Italian immigrants, it was common to eat raw dandelion leaves in salads — straight from the lawn. (Italian dandelions, that is, with smooth leaves, not like spiky American dandelion leaves). Dandelions are known to be a tasty source of iron for Italian immigrants and would often be eaten as salads. Burdock is another iron-rich lawn weed, whose thick stems are tasty when fried like asparagus or cooked into a frittata. Lemonweed and mint plants are still prized in my family, and we often pluck out the undesirable weeds around these prized ones in order to ensure our summer supply of flavored water. We even split the plants and share them with our relatives. I asked my Papa why we don’t eat dandelions anymore, or grow them in the lawn for fun. He said, “They sell it at Wegmans now, we can just get it there.”
After all, why grow something if you can get it at the store? This brought our old ravioli tradition into our conversation. For several years, our big family had a tradition of making ravioli together. Each person would take a role, such as mixing dough, flattening it in a hand-crank machine, making the ricotta and sauce or sealing the raviolis shut. The kids would always get whichever job was the most idiot-proof. At the end, we’d boil them fresh for dinner and freeze the rest. They didn’t always turn out perfect, but in my grandma’s words, “It was never about the ravioli – it was about coming together to make something.” We eventually started making other things for big family dinners because the ravioli was too much of a production — but still, that extra step of coming together became another fond memory, another thing we “did with our grandparents.”
Why make ravioli? Why grow weeds in your lawn? Why hang garlic around your neck? Why grow organic food and raise chickens if you can “get it from the store?” That attitude seems to be the transition that my grandparents and their generation underwent, even though processed food from the store wasn’t as healthy as home-grown food.
About six years ago, my grandparents started their own garden again, which inspired my own family and my aunts and uncles as well. Three years ago, my grandparents went on plant-based diets, and their health improved tremendously. My grandma is a big fan of Hippocrates’ maxim: “Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.” Having a garden is nice, and both my grandparents and my own family have small gardens where we grow an excess of zucchini and pumpkins, too few tomatoes and squash and just the right amount of peppers and cucumbers — although nowhere near as many tomatoes and yams as my great grandparents grew. Despite that, my Aunt and Uncle’s pickles and homemade jellies, called “Ziccles” (Ziccardi Pickles) and UJJ (Uncle Joe Jelly) are as much a treat as my Nonna and Papa’s homemade cumbost, a spicy Italian pepper sauce, and my own family’s zucchini bread.
Why, then, should we have a garden? Maybe to give us an excuse to meet up with friends we haven’t seen in a while. Maybe to share vegetables by giving them away after church. But the reason why we don’t buy all our food from the store, despite our health-oriented goals, is because food isn’t just food — it’s a reason to connect and engage with others, and to make our labour a part of our remedies. You can eat totally organic, but still miss out on something if the food doesn’t enrich and expand your social life.
With everyone being stuck indoors, I see lots of my friends making bread, a fun and meaningful process which I’ve written about before. This springtime, quarantine might be a hopeful opportunity to start a garden at your own home, despite all the difficulties for everyone. If there’s one thing I know from my own family’s traditions with food, it’s that it was never about the ravioli, the gardens were never about eating healthy. Because of the social meaning our traditions bring us, I know my family will be gardening for years to come.