Last updated on February 9th, 2015
Danielle Oteri has been an integral voice on GFS ever since the two of us started this site almost three years ago. Now she’s taking her wealth of Italian culinary knowledge to a higher level with a new venture that digs deep into food history and culture (don’t worry, she’ll still pop in here now and then with illuminating stories and bons mots, or however you say that in Italian). Let’s all raise a glass of Prosecco to Danielle and wish her well as she launches a project near and dear to her heart—and stomach.
In second grade, we were given an in-class assignment to write a paragraph about our favorite food. Though I was praised at home for being a “good eater,” I had no idea how to spell out the name of my favorite food, which I pronounced “manna-got.” I asked the student teacher, who looked at me as though I were speaking in tonal click language. Mrs. Ali, our regular teacher, joined in and we eventually figured out that a) I was referring to manicotti—pasta crepes stuffed with ricotta cheese and then baked—and b) neither this word nor my pronunciation were English. I had no idea that I spoke Italian.
When I was 24 and moved to Italy, I discovered I spoke Italian only when it came to food, and with a Neapolitan accent at that. Living in Florence and traveling around the boot, I expanded my culinary vocabulary enormously, learning that no regional red sauce is the same, local ingredients usually reflect all the groups that once conquered and ruled that particular area, and that there was a big difference between restaurant Italian food and cucina alla nonna, or “grandma’s cooking.”
The memories of Italian-Americans often revolve around that cucina alla nonna, which can be hard to preserve because Italian recipes weren’t often written down. They were passed down, observed, and practiced at home—usually by women. They were also named with dialect words or spoken with regional accents like “manna-got,” and so without a deep knowledge of Italian regional cooking, one is not likely to find them in a cookbook or on the latest episode of “The Chew.”
But these dishes are like rare manuscripts that contain hundreds of years of stories. Ask any Italian-American about their favorite childhood memories and they will inevitably focus on food. These recipes are our greatest inheritance and legacy. Jewelry, photographs, and other keepsakes can be lost in floods or divorces, but with just a few ingredients purchased at the grocery store, we can cook exactly like our ancestors did, and draw a continuous line from the past into the future.
For all these reasons, I founded Culinary Ancestry, where I work with Italian-Americans to recover and decode lost recipes, preserve and document them, and pass them down to future generations. The end product is a custom-made cookbook, and not just because I love books—their smell, feel, the way you can discover pieces of paper slipped inside and dog-ear the pages of your favorite things—but because books are still our best method of preservation. The average life of a digital file is only five years. By all means, if you have your grandmother’s recipes, you should scan them and save them on an external hard drive or in the cloud. But you should also print them out, because the paper will ultimately outlast the digital files.
The idea for Culinary Ancestry has probably been growing since the second-grade “manna-got” essay, but it truly came into focus because of the comments and searches made by readers of this very site. “Why do Italians eat pasta on Sunday?” is one of the most common search terms used to find Good. Food. Stories. Every year, new visitors click over looking for Italian Easter bread, sanguinaccio, and even “boobs for Saint Agatha“—telling me that other Italian-Americans out there are searching for their culinary ancestry, and are hungry for the answers.