The Malocchio – What it meant to an Italian-American Kid
As an Italian American kid growing up in Brooklyn and living in a two-family house on the second floor above my grandparents, I was surrounded by all things Italian. Things I took as normal everyday rituals and eating Italian foods were the subject of ridicule by friends and classmates. Why did kids in school make fun of my peppers and egg frittata sandwich?
Every Sunday, my grandmother would drag my brother and me to church. My parents were not religious so it was my grandmother who took on the ritual of churchgoing. At that time, the mass was said in Latin. So, spending an hour listening to a language I did not understand and watching strange rituals by the priest on the altar was strange to a kid of 7 years old. What were those beads my grandmother clutched in her hand? Why was she mumbling while rolling the beads between her fingers? At this point in my life, I had no idea what these rituals of the Catholic Church meant. All I knew was that there were a lot of objects being used in this weekly ritual; beads, medals, statues, incense, candles, holy water and crosses to name a few. I wondered what the symbolism of these objects all meant. At home, my grandmother had a picture of Jesus in her bedroom. She said that Jesus follows you everywhere and if you look at the picture, his eyes will move to follow you. I was so frightened by these moving eyes that I would avoid going near that bedroom at all costs. All of this symbolism was just too much for a young kid.
After church, we would walk home, open the back door and we were greeted by the wonderful aroma of garlic and tomato sauce that would hit you hard. My stomach would growl. My grandfather would always have a meatball to offer us to “hold us over” until our Sunday dinner in the basement apartment of my grandparents with relatives.
When the relatives started arriving they would speak a strange language I did not understand. Why weren’t they speaking English I would wonder? My grandparents used these strange words to describe the food we were eating and so my love for Italian food was born during these formative years of my life.
We ate different things than my friends down the block did; pig skin, pig’s feet, tripe with peas, meatballs with peas or raisins and pignoli inside. Everything was in tomato sauce. Bracciole stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese again in tomato sauce. Sometimes a hard-boiled egg inside the meatball! There were also vegetables called “carduna” and “caccociuli”. The tastiest meal I can remember was eating “babbaluci” using toothpicks to pry the dead snail out of his shell. Sometimes my grandfather would make eels! I ate it all and never for a minute did I think it was strange or disgusting. Then for dessert, my grandmother would serve delicious things like cannolu and cassata cake. She worked in a bakery so we always had plenty of cookies, cakes and pastries. Everything we ate was so delicious and the memories of these meals are as vivid today as they were when I was a kid.
One Sunday, I noticed that my great-uncle had this tiny, gold squiggly thing hanging from the band of his watch. What was that? Why did he wear it? What did it mean? Why I never asked him remains a mystery but I was intrigued.
Then one day, he picked us up in his car to take us to his house. I noticed on the rear-view mirror of his car was another one of those squiggly things. Only this one was bigger and it was red, like a pepper. It was hanging from a red ribbon. What was this strange object he seemed to like? I asked him,
‘Uncle Jimmy, what is that red thing?” and he replied in his thick Sicilian accent, “itsa goooda luck”.
It was a good luck. Hmmmm? The shape of that thing scared me. It was a weird charm of some kind but I never gave it another thought as we soon left Brooklyn after my father died and we moved out to Long Island.
On Long Island, they didn’t have the foods we ate and red pepper good luck charms. I was raised with Jewish and Irish kids who didn’t eat the foods my mother would still make me take to school! How I dreaded opening my sandwiches in the school cafeteria never knowing what things my mother packed. No doubt, the contents of my lunch bag would certainly draw attention and comments from my classmates. There were Italian-American kids but they didn’t have accents like my relatives in Brooklyn nor did most of the kids wear medals and crosses and have those red pepper things hanging in their parents’ cars. It was different on Long Island.
Fast forward to 2014. I had planned a 14-day escorted tour to the land of my ancestors. I was going to Sicily. Since I became an Italian citizen a few years earlier thanks to ”Jure Sanguinis”, the Italian right to citizenship, I was determined to seek out my ancestral home in the Agrigento province and walk the streets my ancestors walked before coming to America. I only had one free day upon my arrival. The experience in this small town in the mountains was so amazing and offered much to write about perhaps in a future article. It was life-changing.
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[…] Philip Cabibi […]
Thank you for sharing. I loved your commentary. I remember like it was yesterday. I miss those days so much. My grandparents and my dad are gone. What a wonderful generation. We grew up blessed.
Good one! Mirrors my upbringing exactly!
[…] here is today’s frittata. Potato, zucchini, onion and Parmesan cheese. I devoured half of it. Am I ashamed of frittatas anymore? Absolutely not! Bring ‘em on and don’t forget, share your recipes for your favorite and show us […]
[…] In fact, it would seem that if hung in front of the door in braids it would protect the house from dark powers, or if kept in the pocket along with salt it would keep away the evil eye, il malocchio! […]