Embracing Your Heritage [Or trying to escape it]


I always knew that I was Italian.... Italians, as it turns out, have a tendency to scream from every rooftop about their culture and it’s many, many benefits. Being Italian is like a badge of honor, and my family gave me that distinct feeling. But then there was something sort of out of place that I began to notice.

When I would proudly tell people that I was Italian, they would ask me one question, “What’s your last name?” Everyone was curious about my Italian last name--why hadn’t they caught it when I introduced myself? They didn’t hear it because I didn’t have one. My last name was a disappointing “Nichols.”

When I was a child, we would ride by businesses bearing that same name, Nichols, and I would exclaim, “Mom! Are we related to those people?” She would always give me the same reply, “No sweetie.” I was persistent, “How do you know?” I would ask through squinty eyes. “I just do,” she would say.

For a while, this worked... but as I got older, and people began to ask me about my last name, I pressed my mom harder for answers. As it turned out, my name had been changed when I was a child, by my biological father who wanted to conceal our Italian heritage.

Suddenly the game had changed. Was I supposed to be proud that I was Italian, or was I supposed to be ashamed of being Italian? Were we trying to hide it or not? As it turned out, this would be an ongoing struggle for me as I came into my teen years and even into adulthood.

I began to see the Italian heritage as something different than I initially thought it was... I would hear as my mother would identify certain negative behaviors (like yelling and guilting) in herself and others as being innately “Italian,” and I didn’t like that portion of it. But then again, there was the food... which was so intoxicating, and I did like that. I became aware of the stereotypes and the  negative connotations that came along with it...

It made me feel confused, at times, as to whether or not I wanted to identify with the heritage that was such a double edged sword.

So what, you ask, was responsible for my turn around on the heritage issue? What made me want to embrace my bossy, Italian heritage and even turn it into a blog wherein I professed myself to be such??? Two people, Buddy Valastro, and my husband.

You probably know Buddy Valastro from TLC’s Cake Boss, but it wasn’t until I started watching his other cooking show Kitchen Boss that I began to feel differently about my heritage... and that was, like, last year. I know that my grandmother would be aghast to learn this (but luckily she hasn’t learned to use the internet yet.)

Like many adults who have written about being saved by food, I am among them. Italian cooking saved me.... or at least it salvaged my somewhat shattered image about Italians in general. Not that generalizations are a rule or thumb or anything, but I think the rule goes something like: I am allowed to make fun of my heritage, but you aren’t unless you share it.

One day I was watching Kitchen Boss, trying to catch up on some staple recipes, when my Scotch-Irish husband walked into the living room and started watching the show with me. He started saying things like, “that looks so good,” and “this guy is so cool.” And I started to think to myself, “yea, he is cool isn’t he??” And then it hit me:

There was nothing wrong with Italian people in general--just the Italian people that I personally know!!! [Sorry guys]

This revelation allowed me to embrace my heritage more fully and become proud of who I was again. I also have to say, that my husband practically lapping up my new recipes really helped, too. I found that food was a great way to connect with the portions of my culture that I really loved, and sort of shove away the ones I didn’t. Italian cooking brought me back to who I was, at my core, which is not just an Italian American woman, but a woman who is rich in culture and family and has a deep love for food.

So here’s to you, Italian-American community at large! I’m sure we all know a bunch of Italians a la Jersey Shore who embarrass the hell out of us... but when we really think about it, there are all kinds of people out there who are pretty stupid.

So be proud, stand tall, and make your brethren proud too!

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