Vermont now has three–count’em three–specialty food magazines. Each focuses on a different nuance. One glamorizes the sensuous beauty of food (a recent cover was devoted to a immense close-up of a single bean). Another emphasizes the community aspects of food, while a third explores the ever-stronger connection (and diminishing distance) of farm-to-table. While not yet a threat to Tuscany or Provence, Vermont is now a food region of distinction.
At first glance Sandra Levesque’s “Under a Fig Tree: A Family Memoir” might seem a disconnect for a magazine published for “friends of the environment.” A closer look, however, provides delightful and instructive examples of how our green future might take many of its cues from the not-too-distant past.
Levesque’s story chronicles the meeting of her grandfather, Francesco Scafidi, and her grandmother, Antoinette delPopulo, their emigration to America, and the family’s assimilation in Rutland, an ongoing process now in its fourth generation. They meet in a vineyard, under a fig tree, outside the town of Randazzo, a town at the northern base of Mt. Etna, the highest point in Sicily and, then and now, one of the world’s most active volcanos.
The proximity to Etna is a mixed blessing. Randazzo is surrounded by boulder-strewn fields that testify to the volcano’s destructive capabilities. The lava-enriched soil, however, in combination with Sicily’s sunny, temperate climate, make it a mecca of food production with grapes, lemons, pistachios, almonds, and other edible exotica in bountiful supply. There’s even an Etna mushroom found locally that is featured in local dishes.
The Scafidi/delPopulo romance is brief, decisive, and productive. In less than a year the couple is married, pregnant, and on a steam ship taking them to Ellis Island and, hence, to a new and very different life in Rutland, Vermont. There is a rich background to this story.
The Sicilian/Vermont and Randazzo/Rutland connections seem unlikely. Author Levesque, however, skillfully connects the dots. Sicily’s reputation as a breadbasket, but even more importantly its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean, have historically made it a target of invasion. The Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Moors, and even the Normans have all occupied the island, each group helping itself to the island’s bounty while leaving their cultural marks on the architecture, language, and even the cuisine. While the invaders left enriched, it was always at the expense of the natives. When Francesco and Antoinette met under that fateful fig tree in the days following the First World War, Sicily was the poorest country in the world and the most active source of immigration to the United States.
The young couple were attracted to Rutland for two reasons: jobs associated either directly or indirectly with the marble quarries, but also the strong community of Randazzo ex-patriots. More than two dozen other young men and their families had already settled in Rutland, creating a familiar core that compensated for the differences in climate and culture.
Up to this point there is nothing unique about the Scafidi story. Millions of other Europeans passed through the portals of Ellis Island during this same period. It is Levesque’s richly-detailed description of Italian-American life in the New World that gives this book both its personality, but also its relevance. Filled with recollections that revolve around her “Nana’s Cucina” this book portrays a world that is a complex mixture of Sicilian attitudes and traditions, the spiritual boundaries of Catholicism, and the physical boundaries of neighborhood streets in the Italian enclave.
Food, always, is the glue. The dishes served by Levesque’s “Nana” were simple, hearty, flavorful, and healthy, stellar examples of what is today fashionably called the Mediterranean Diet. The book contains sixteen traditional Sicilian recipes. The vino that was served at Sunday dinner was made by Francesco. The vegetables came mostly from one of the four gardens that Francesco (now increasingly called “Frank”) maintained. And the men who gathered for a smoke under a street lamp spoke a language that blended Randazzo and Rutland.
Nana left her kitchen primarily to indulge another passion for sun-dried laundry. What little was needed to purchase could be secured from the small, local markets run by community members, who often offered credit and co-operative purchase options, such as for the baccala (dried codfish) that is an Sicilian institution for Christmas dinner. There was no need for a car, and Frank never owned one.
The lifestyle portrayed is “green” by today’s standards. Unfortunately, with the Scafidi clan as with immigrant families everywhere, the desire to assimilate was accompanied by the rejection of customs, practices, and habits from the motherland. A metaphor for this is the is the name of the author’s mother (who was in utero when the Scafidis arrived at Ellis Island). Named “Venera” in honor of Francesco’s mother, this was mutated by her parish priest at baptism to “Veronica,” then later by her schoolmates to “Ronnie” and eventually just “V.”
This rush to assimilation is demonstrated in the Rutland of today as well as well as in other ethnic enclaves across America. Gone are the small shops, the unlocked doors, and many of the children who were raised by community and extended family. In their stead Rutland has a Wal-Mart, a cineplex 7, and a giant Price Chopper that is trying hard to recreate the illusion of street market.
But there are hopeful signs. On Saturday morning, right in front of Wal-Mart is a real market put on by the farmers and specialty food producers, the same ones you are likely to see on the pages of Vermont’s three–count ‘em three–new food magazines. If we can get the other pistons of the culture–energy, shelter, commerce, and the arts–headed in a similar direction, then the Rutland of 2059 might be a great place to be.
“Under a Fig Tree.” is a rich and detailed document. With over a hundred photos, recipes, maps, documents, and personal letters it shows a place and lifestyle that “was,” but also a tantalyzing glimpse at what a future green life might be.
(“Under a Fig Tree” is available from The Public Press, 100 Gilead Brook Road, Randolph, VT 05060. $24.95 plus $4.00 shipping.)