Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 5

day5_1I went on a pilgrimage of sorts this weekend.

Breakfast

On Saturday, I woke up at a Bed & Breakfast near Rochester. I was speaking at a conference that afternoon, and part of the deal was my room and board. So when I wandered downstairs to the quaint dining room, I didn’t stick to my diet. I ate what they gave me. I had a cup of black tea, which I had really missed this week, as well as a homemade jelly donut, a slice of apple cake, yogurt, and a ham and cheese souffle.

Before I went to the conference, I wanted to make a special stop: I was close to Mt. Hope Cemetery, the final resting place of Susan B. Anthony. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, but her grave site was recently in the news because hundreds of women stopped by to stick their “I Voted” stickers on her grave. The cemetery decided to stay open late on Tuesday to give women the chance to do so. Check out this PBS article to see incredible photos of her gravestone covered in stickers, and the long line of women waiting to add their badge.

I had preserved my “I Voted” sticker, because I felt I wanted some physical reminder of what had happened Tuesday. When I realized I would be near her grave site this weekend, I knew this was a pilgrimage I had to make. After driving to the cemetery, the trees in high-fall colors, I walked up to silent grave and dutifully stuck my sticker to the grave. The other stickers had been cleared away; mine was the lone reminder.

Before too long, a young woman walked up, probably from the nearby University of Rochester, wearing a camera around her neck and a shirt that said “Women Belong in the House and the Senate”.  She commented she was sad the stickers were gone; I told her I had traveled from NYC to add mine.

“Frederick Douglass is here too, do you know that? His grave-site is amazing.”

“Yes, I passed him on the way here. I noticed he has a big plaque. But I’ve been wondering where Susan’s plaque is.” The sight of Douglass’ grave had made my heart sing, but feel a little confused when I approached Anthony’s. Other than a few signs to direct visitors to her grave, there was no other information or fanfare.

“Yeah. It shows even now how we treat men and women differently, even though they fought for the same things,” she answered, then added hesitantly: “…I’m sorry, I’m a feminist.”

“Anyone standing at this grave site at 9am on a Saturday is a feminist.” I responded.

Before I left, a mother and her grown daughter joined us in front of the grave. We all stood there silently, looking at the head stone. Then I walked back to my car and sobbed in the front seat.

If I could write Susan B Anthony’s plaque, here’s what it would say: “I think she would be proud of how far we’ve come, but perhaps she would be sad at how far we have left to go.”

I also visited the grave site of Lillian Wald. Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurses service, a group of young, college educated women that were the first organization to provide affordable health care, in this case to new immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Wald was also a lesbian. Settlement Houses and social work were considered a socially acceptable job for women with a college education who wanted to delay, or defer, marriage. If you weren’t taking care of your own husband and children, then it was seen as honorable to “sacrifice” those goals to help the children of the world. But Settlement Houses also became a place for any women who wanted to escape traditional gender roles and sexual expectations. It was a safe place for women who wanted to be with women, whether as colleagues or lovers.

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In her 1915 book, The House on Henry StreetWald described her awakening to the cause of social justice; sentences in bold are my own added emphasis:

I had spent two years in a New York training school for nurses; strenuous years for an undisciplined, untrained girl, but a wonderful human experience… I had little more than an inspiration to be of use in some way or somehow, and going to the hospital [on the Lower East Side] seemed the readiest means of realizing my desire…The Lower East Side then reflected the popular indifference—it almost seemed contempt—for the living conditions of a huge population. And the possibility of improvement seemed, when my inexperience was startled into thought, the more remote because of the dumb acceptance of these conditions by the East Side itself. Like the rest of the world I had known little of it, when friends of a philanthropic institution asked me to do something for that quarter…

From the schoolroom where I had been giving a lesson in bed making, [ed note–a lesson in nursing for local families on the LES] a little girl led me one drizzling March morning. She had told me of her sick mother, and gathering from her incoherent account that a child had been born, I caught up the paraphernalia of the bed making lesson and carried it with me.

The family to which the child led me was neither criminal nor vicious. Although the husband was a cripple, one of those who stand on street corners exhibiting deformities to enlist compassion, and masking the begging of alms by a pretense at selling; although the family of seven shared their two rooms with boarder— who were literally boarders since a piece of timber was placed over the floor for them to sleep on,— and although the sick woman lay on a wretched, unclean, bed soiled with a hemorrhage two days old, they were not degraded human beings judged by any measure of moral values…Indeed my subsequent acquaintance with them revealed the fact that, miserable as their state was, they were not without ideals for the family life and for society of which they were so unloved and unlovely a part.

That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire.

I hope this election is our country’s baptism of fire. It has been an awakening to me that I need to do more, everyday, to fight for the disenfranchised. I hope, as a country, these feelings don’t fade after a few weeks. I hope they build steam over the next few years.

Luncheon

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Saturday afternoon, I spoke at the Domestic Skills Symposium at Genesee County Village on the topic of the history of funeral food traditions. I started my talk by saying I felt this topic was fitting, because I had been grieving since Tuesday. And that I had watched my fellow mourner’s Instagram feeds fill up with photos of carby comfort food.

Have you turned to a particular food to nourish and comfort this week?

After my talk, there was a luncheon of mourning foods from the past and present, including funeral cakes flavored with caraway seed, sweet and lemony pan de muerte, stewed prunes–served in the Middle Ages, mostly for their dark color; there were Jell-o molds and Mormon funeral potatoes, and fried chicken. I stuffed myself.

Dinner

Lima beans with celery, onions and tomatoes.
Stuffed artichokes.
Bread. Coffee. Fruit.

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By the evening, I was back on the road to drive to NYC. And I was back on my Italian diet. I made the mix of lima beans, celery onions and tomatoes in advance, gently sauteing them all together. I was bummed I didn’t have time make the recipe for stuffed artichokes, but here is a recipe from Gentile’s Italian cookbook:

STEWED ARTICHOKES
(Carciofi in stufato)

Wash the artichokes and cut the hard part of the leaves (the top). Widen the leaves and insert a hash composed of bread crumbs, parsely, salt, pepper and oil. Place the artichokes in the saucepan standing on their stalk, one touching the other. Cover them with water and let them cook for two hours or more. When the leaves are easily detached they are cooked.

I had a sweet roll and a plum with my dinner.

6 Responses to “Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 5”


  • The interweaving of the past & present in this series is very poetic & you had me weeping at the comment about how far we’ve come & how far we still have to go. Reading your personal story has made me feel less alone during these times,but also strangely hopeful.

  • Samantha, thank you so much for the kind words!

  • Susan B. Anthony did say that, once suffrage had been won, it would be normalized to the point that nobody would remember they’d had to fight for it. The cynic in me thinks that the majority of white women voting for a known sexual predator and unapologetic misogynist last week is evidence of her prediction coming true.

    I think it’s also compelling evidence that we should all stop apologizing for our feminism. And our femininity, for that matter.

    As for food, I’m métis. When we have a funeral, we eat frybread, which is probably the perfect mourning carb, but it’s also a bittersweet reminder of how American conquest has changed us.

    • I coincidentally listened to a podcast on the drive up to to Rochester, Radiolab on stories where one vote mattered. One of the stories they told was about the ratification of women’s suffrage; and it was a reminder that there was not only a pro-suffrage movement, but an ANTI suffrage movement, also run by women.

      This is also the second time in a week I’ve heard about fry bread! Gastropod released a podcast about Native American foods, and also addressed they idea of conquest and how to changes native diets. I think you would be interested to hear it!

  • Wow. What a post. I landed here from the New York Times. What you said about your visit to the cemetery was very moving. Thank you for sharing your experience there.

    I am curious about your visit to the Domestic Skills Symposium. I’ll have to look into that to find out more. And not only where you were speaking, but the topic of your lecture…the history of funeral food traditions. I coordinate a guild at my church wherein members of the church prepare food for others in the church during times of need; it’s called St. Martha’s Guild. Times of need include after a stay in the hospital, times of illness, the birth of a baby, and bereavement. For bereavement we sometimes take a meal to the house or host a reception after services at the church. So, very interesting to me that you find something like that interesting! I’m going to browse around your blog and check into your book.

    • Thank you, Allison, for reading and responding. Yes, I’m very fascinating by the food tradition surrounding grieving, and their hasn’t been a lot of good research done on it, particularly on American history! Thank you for sharing your story.

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