The rooftops of Lucca. (Photo by Mark Micheli)
The word Tuscan is tossed about very loosely these days by designers, marketing executives and pitchmen to describe products that often have very little or nothing to do with that northern region of Italy . They do it with the hope of adding class, style, and good taste to their wares to make them more desirable to the buying public and I have to believe it works because each year, more and more products are being sold with the Tuscan label.
Some of the more outrageous claims include Smirnoff’s “Tuscan Lemonade,” and Fancy Feast cat food’s “Tuscan recipe” line. But even the proliferation of real Tuscan specialties in the US has made me laugh.
My cousin Anna's husband, Edmundo, with my two boys in Filecchio, the small village where my father was born. (Photo by Mark Micheli)
I grew up surrounded by all things Tuscan. My father was born in a small town northwest of Lucca (which is north of Florence) and my mother’s older brother and sister were born in Carrara (just a little more northwest than that), the place where Michelangelo got his marble.
You can see the marble quarries high up in the mountains from the town of Carrara. (Photo by Mark Micheli)
As a child I took for granted things like polenta, espresso, and having my grandmother give me a new leather belt, wallet, or bookmark from the flea market in Florence after her yearly visit to the homeland.
In third grade, I was the only child in school wearing Italian loafers: a most comfortable souvenir from my first trip to Florence. And I grew tired of eating spaghetti every week, made with my mother’s home-made red sauce. When I would complain about it she would say, “You don’t like spaghetti? What kind of Italian are you?” And I would quickly and sharply reply, “I am not Italian. I am American!”
This rejection of my Italian heritage had roots in the great immigration wave that took place at the turn of the 20th century when everyone was trying to fit in so they wouldn’t stick out and be persecuted in American society. My father must have felt this when he came over from Italy at the age of five. His family settled in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, populated mainly by the Irish, and he told me how he was often beat up after school because he was different and stuck out. The experience, he said, toughened him up, as he learned quickly how to defend himself.
My family in Filecchio all live within a few blocks of each other. That's me standing and turning left, with my boys on each side. (Photo by Patricia Micheli)
Although he never rejected his Italian roots and in fact was quite proud of them, he did change the way we pronounce our last name. The correct way to pronounce Micheli is “Mi-Caley,” with the “C” almost being pronounced as a hard “G”. But my father always pronounced it, “Mi-Shelley,” in an attempt to make it easier for others to spell and understand. My brother and I took this Americanization a step further and pronounced it “Mi-Chelly,” probably because that’s how our school teachers would read it from the roster.
Growing up in the 60s and even the 70s, it wasn’t cool to be ethnic. The melting pot didn’t start being described as a stew (where everyone’s ethnic integrity was preserved and celebrated) until the late 80s or early 90s. And that’s when the popularity of all things Tuscan started to soar.
My first revelation of this came about 15 years ago when people I just met started correcting me on how I pronounced my name. They’d say, “Oh, the correct way to say your name is “Mi-Caley,” as if I didn’t know. The nerve!
I should have seen this coming. Earlier, my brother and I started noticing food we’d routinely have at family meals showing up on fancy, gourmet, restaurant menus. We’d laugh at seeing polenta (which is peasant food, corn mush) being sold as a $12 side dish. Don’t get me wrong, I love polenta, my favorite dish from childhood being chicken and polenta. Sitting at my grandmother’s table, I’d pick out the hot black olives dripping in red sauce and stick them on each finger so I could eat them one by one, licking my fingers as I went along.
A year or two ago, I read a review in a newspaper that claimed you can’t get a good cup of espresso in Boston and the closest place to get “real” espresso is in New York City. I’ve had espresso in the best cafes in Italy, as well as at my grandmother’s house (she used to roast her own beans in the oven, just before brewing) and I can tell you that the espresso you get in Boston’s North End is perfectly fine.
My grandmother, Bruna Micheli.
So where did all these “experts” and marketing parasites on Tuscan culture come from and why do they exist? I think it has to do with the growing appreciation of the style and good taste that permeates from that region. But it’s a mistake to get all haughty about it. The Tuscan culture that I know is down to earth and recognizes that the finer things in life are simple and basic: the use of the best, not always the most expensive, materials at hand to create something memorable, unforgettable.
My grandmother (who by the way always pronounced her last name, “Mi-Caley”) used to proudly say “we” cook the best food and speak the best or perfect dialect of Italian. And although this was surely a demonstration of her bravado, it seems like the rest of the world agrees.
My brother and I continue to laugh. I guess the joke is on us.
(Mark Micheli, June 5, 2009, for “AllThingsTuscan.com”. “AllThingsTuscan.com” is part of the RootsLiving family of websites.)
(© 2009 Mark Micheli)