Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ravioli--Culture or Just Good Food?

Introducing a culture to one's family is a bit tricky, especially when you weren't raised in the culture yourself.  Yet most everyone agrees that for a child adopted across cultures her family celebrating her culture is important.  Also important is letting the child see that there are many cultures represented within her family not just her versus everyone else.  This sounds great and fun, but I am finding it so hard.  I don't even know all the different heritages on my side of the family.  I grew up thinking my mom was 100% Italian and my dad 100% German.  Now my sister says we are Sicilian not Italian and looking at my mom's maternal side they are British or Welsh.  My dad says he isn't all German, but he doesn't know what else he is. To add to the confusion his family insists that if we were still in Germany we would be Jews except we don't have a Jewish name and my grandparents came from Wisconsin and were German Lutheran.  I know one can convert from Judaism to Lutheranism, but I find I am skeptical of the story.  

Then the next question becomes what aspects of my family culture comes from which cultural heritage.   Really I can only come up with one thing from my childhood that was from my ancestor's culture--Italian food.  Now I know I'm Sicilian, but does anyone call spaghetti, lasagna, and ravioli Sicilian?  Also, while it came from my mom's background it still doesn't mean we lived the Italian or Sicilian culture.  However, after reading Dim Sum, Bagels and Grits we decided to at least try to be more intentional at introducing our cultural heritages.  Here is the story of one attempt.

Growing up we always had Italian food for Christmas Eve dinner and other special occasions our family hosted.  My dad was a meat and potatoes man and allergic to tomatoes and dairy, so it was usually limited to company coming over.  I loved having company over because I loved everything Italian and despised hamburgers.  My absolute favorite dish my mom made was her home-made ravioli though her lasagna was a close second until she discovered an eggplant recipe and ruined it.  I always asked for ravioli as my birthday meal and I remember "helping" in the kitchen with a little ball of dough, or stirring the cheese mixture, or pinching down the edges of the ravioli.  I remember being astounded in college and beyond that all of a sudden I didn't like spaghetti when it used to be my third most favorite dish and not realizing until 6 years ago it was because no one else's tasted like my mom's spaghetti.   

The first time I read Dim Sum, Bagels, and Grit was right before Christmas Eve 2005.  We decided to have a traditional, according to my upbringing, Christmas Eve dinner.  We bought all we would need to make ravioli with a meat sauce with the usual sides--green beans and Italian bread sliced, buttered, and heated in the oven.  It was a disappointing experience.
Christmas Eve 2005
The food was good, but no one was happy.  The boys were sick with 102 degree fevers and had no interesting in playing with the dough, putting the filling in, or pinching the ravioli shut.  We would have eaten their germ infested ravioli if they were just willing to try.  As it was they had no energy and SnapDragon is naked in the picture because he was just that hot and miserable.  In retrospect my Mother-in-law's disappointing and continual disapproving response to the project can also be attributed to her being ill, but at the time it only made all the hard work seem fruitless.  We made ravioli, ate (or at least my husband and I did), read Luke 2, skipped Christmas Eve service, and all went to bed early.  It was not the introduction of a new tradition that I was anticipating.  

In the following years we had Italian food for Christmas Eve dinner when were home together, but always store bought lasagna, manicotti or ravioli.  This year I decided we were going to try again.  At Thanksgiving we told family we were staying home for Christmas Eve dinner and having ravioli.  People were welcome to join us if they wanted but we were staying home.  However, as Christmas Eve crept closer Oak's side of the family wanted to spend Christmas Eve together at his sister's house and they wanted us to come.  We talked about it and decided the tradition we were really introducing was making ravioli together as a family so it didn't matter where we ate it.  We told the family we were coming but we would bring our ravioli as a side dish to the ham and cheesy potatoes.

So Christmas Eve day, while Sunflower was napping, we gathered the boys and made ravioli.  It was a great success.  Exactly the fun family working together event I did want.
I chopped the onions and peppers for the sauce while Oak made the cheese filling.  The wine glass is in the picture because my mom insisted one was supposed to drink wine while cooking Italian food.  She never actually did but she drummed the expectation into me.  However, I don't drink wine, so there is coke in the glass.  Pretty sure I'm blurring the line between culture and stereotyping fairly badly here.  However, it felt quite festive to drink coke out of my crystal.
The boys did an incredible job helping Oak assemble the ravioli while I cooked the sauce.  They didn't give up until the entire batch was done--44 fairly large ravioli.
We cheated a little this time because we did not make the dough from scratch.  The first time we did but we also bought fresh flour spring-roll wraps to try.  We found we couldn't taste the difference but the store bought wraps were much easier to use.  My cousin remembers my mom's noodles being something different and special, but the plain noodle recipe we found didn't stand out as unique.  We might try other recipes eventually, but in the meantime we bought flour gyoza wraps and were satisfied.  (My husband bought gyoza instead of spring-roll because they were round and in his mind ravioli are round.  My mom's ravioli were always square.)
It took me the entire time the guys were making the ravioli to cook the sauce.  The onions took forever to cook.  We chose to make a pumpkin sauce because my mind could not accept ham coordinating with any red sauce (unless it is Hawaiian pizza).  It was already stretching to combine the two meals, but pumpkin seemed like a way more acceptable side sauce than anything with a tomato base.  According to the internet pumpkin is a common pasta topping and filling in Italian dishes but not one I had as a child.  It turned out pretty good, except the left over ravioli were more satisfactory with red sauce.
Here are some of the ingredients.  Yes, we always have this much olive oil (or EVOO) in the house.  It is way less expensive to buy it in this quantity and we do our best to use it all.  According to Rachael Ray this is proof I am Italian, but I think it just shows I am a Rachael Ray fan (or was; I haven't seen her show since t.v. went digital to give all Americans better picture quality and taking away my ability to get steady over the air reception).

The final product:

We cooked the ravioli at my sister-in-laws and reheated the sauce and served it with the ham, cheesy potatoes, and grated Parmesan.  The traditional green beans became a green bean casserole and the Italian bread became rolls.  Everyone tried a little and a few of them liked them.  Overall, it worked well as a fun family tradition.  As far as introducing Sicilian culture to my family maybe not so much.  At minimum, based on my one meal with my maternal great-grandparents, we didn't serve enough food.  My family traveled to the East Coast to visit when I was in 5th grade and they didn't choose between ravioli, lasagna, spaghetti, and fried chicken for dinner--they served them all.

I have no problem believing my child from China will have sorrow over the loss of her cultural heritage.  I feel a little of that sorrow for myself.  However, we will make attempts.  Some will succeed; some will fail.  None will be adequate for us to be considered Chinese or Sicilian, but all of it will be interesting to explore and we will rejoice in enjoying whatever depth we can reach.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

LOVE the pictures. is your family like mine, snickering every time you take a pic while simultaneously cooking? We have Mex food/homemade tamales, for Christmas Eve dinner every year! I might need to come to your house for those raviolis. They look YUMMY!