Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives

By McMahon, Felicia | Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives


McMahon, Felicia, Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore


Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives, edited by Joseph Sciorra. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011. 257 pages, black-and-white photographs, index, $28.00 paper.

Masterfully arranged by the editor, the articles in this book comprise a sterling collection of Italian American folklore research. The organization of the work provides seamless transitions from essays on foodways to material culture, cultural landscape to explicit art forms, and large-scale ceremonial events to religious belief, all situated in diverse locales from New York to California. By "listening with an accent" (10), the authors provide fresh insights about everyday creativity and ethnic identity formation.

In the first section, Simone Cinotto's "'Sunday Dinner? You Had to Be There!': The Social Significance of Food in Italian Harlem, 1920-40" is followed by John Allan Cicala's "Cuscuszu in Detroit, July 18, 1993: Memory, Conflict, and Bella Figura during a Sicilian American Meal." The complexities of collective food consumption are not given short shrift in these two essays, which consider food and food rituals as contested narrative space, where individual and group identities are negotiated, reexamined, and refined.

Lara Pascali's "The Italian Immigrant Basement Kitchen in North America," an outstanding analysis of Italian American indoor vernacular space as "dream space," provides a smooth segue from the home to outdoor vernacular environs. In "Creative Responses to Italian Immigrant Experience in California: Baldassare Forestiere's Underground Gardens and Simon Rodie's Watts Towers," literary scholar Kenneth Scambray compares the work of two Italian American "grassroots artists." Using building skills acquired in the United States, the artists create outdoor "architectural narratives" that "express the conflicted and often bifurcating experience of Italian immigration to America" (63). Art historian Joseph J. Inguanti's "Landscapes of Order, Landscapes of Memory: Residential Landscapes of the New York Metropolitan Region" couples formal analysis with interviews with gardeners to compare urban and suburban vernacular spaces. His focus on "landscapes of memory" and "landscapes of order" reveals the crucial role vernacular landscape plays in the construction of Italian American ethnic identity. I found the author's description of vegetable gardens in cemeteries intriguing, especially his conclusion: "Domesticating their graves by tending grave gardens, Italian Americans make clear an ongoing relationship between the living and the dead" (87). At one time, however, the tomato plant was grown for purely decorative purposes. By the eighteenth century, the tomato was used as a food, but it was still listed among poisonous plants. Is the planting of vegetables like tomatoes and squash primarily ornamental? Inguanti never reveals if he asked Italian American gardeners this question and others about practical cemetery logistics, such as who controls the plot, and what happens if more space is needed for burials. In other words, how do practical concerns mesh with practices that yield a "harvest of memories, some less pleasant than others" (97)?

The connection of place to memory, both nostalgic and conflicted, is also explored in Joseph Sciorra's essay, "Locating Memory: Longing, Place, and Autobiography in Vincenzo Ancona's Sicilian Poetry. …

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