There is a certain stigma to being a first-generation American kid growing up in a small town, especially when your parents speak broken English and struggle to give you what the other kids have.
Sound familiar? It was that way in Sag Harbor when my mom went to school in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the population of Sag Harbor swelled with first-generation Italians whose parents had come to the tiny village to live with cousins and find work.
She remembers the other kids saying their ancestors came over on the Mayflower. “I always wondered how so many people fit on such a little boat,” she said. It was their way of saying the newcomers had no taste, no social standing, no class.
Lattanzios, Trunzos, Schiavonis, and many others set anchor here and eventually prospered, and those names are prominent today. But we were the lower class back in the day, in a strange country we didn’t understand.
My grandparents, Fillipi and Enrico Forcucci, were proud, hardworking people, and my mom was pretty and smart. But she saw firsthand how cruel the other kids could be to the Italians. One boy, charged with cleaning out the family barn before school, was a constant target of ridicule. The local girls made fun of the immigrant girls, many of whom wore dresses their mother or grandmother sewed together from whatever fabric was on sale at Montgomery Ward.
That was low class.
Papa remembers being called an animal because the Italians could only afford the cheap cuts of meat.
My mother’s most vivid memory of those days were the weeks after Papa slaughtered a pig and butchered it, freezing as much as he could for the coming winter. He would use most of it: roasts, chops, sausage. We still have the sausage grinder.
He would carefully slice the meat behind the pig’s hind legs and begin the arduous process of curing it, salting it, and aging it. That’s where the embarrassment would come in — it hung on ropes attached to the rafters in the big upstairs bedroom his three daughters shared, because that was the best place for the hams to age.
We know it as prosciutto, a delicacy that has become quite popular. To a little girl, it was pig flesh, pervading her every breath, a symbol of the crude, uneducated, filthy immigrants some in the village called animals. It sickened her, literally. More than once she begged Papa to throw it out, which infuriated him and strengthened his resolve.
My mother and her sisters would try to keep friends from coming over but they invariably did, and the word spread of the pig slaughter house on Howard Street.
Two years ago, my mom, who is now 98, was in an Italian Pork Store on Avenue U in Brooklyn, when her eye caught a familiar sight: prosciutto. It was $27.99 a pound. She experienced a revelation — this peasant food which she never tasted was a sought-after luxury. Papa knew what he was doing the whole time.
Here’s my recipe pairing prosciutto with another strong-smelling food Mom hated, Gorgonzola cheese.
Brown about three-quarters of a pound of prosciutto slice by slice, turning once, until it is firm and crusty. Remove from pan and chop coarsely.
Sauté a chopped garlic clove and a couple of chopped shallots in olive oil until soft and add a pint of half and half and a cup of peas. Cook until tender.
Meanwhile, have a pot of linguine going. Place a stainless steel bowl on top of a pot of boiling water.
Drop a glob of the Gorgonzola into the bowl and it will begin to melt. Add a helping of linguine, using tongs, and mix. Add a ladle of the liquid. Toss in a pasta bowl and add a heaping tablespoon of the chopped prosciutto and some chopped parsley and pepper. Serve steaming hot with a robust Italian wine, like Barolo, and garlic bread.
If you really want to be decadent, pick up a tartufo or sfogliatella for dessert.
This is a dish enjoyed in the finest restaurants in the world. Yet a century ago, it was peasant food, and new arrivals to America were embarrassed to be seen eating it because the locals made fun of the smelly concoction. Animals.
But weren’t the smart ones the ones who served it before it started costing $27.99 a pound? They knew what was enduring and good, not what was trendy or popular.
When you think of it, that’s the definition of class.
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.