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Jack Zaleski column: Food connects us to ethnic roots

If food is culture, America is in trouble. If family recipes connect generations, many families are disconnected. Two reminders last week got me thinking about the food my grandmother used to make -- and my mother and sister, and now my wife and ...

If food is culture, America is in trouble. If family recipes connect generations, many families are disconnected.

Two reminders last week got me thinking about the food my grandmother used to make -- and my mother and sister, and now my wife and daughter.

I was in one of Fargo-Moorhead's food stores, filling the cart according to my list, marveling at the wondrous variety of goodies on the shelves. I was in the pasta and tomato sauce aisle when it hit me: row after row of Prego, Ragu and other brands of bottled sauces. My God, I muttered, Grandma Lena would be appalled.

Grandma Lena (so-called by my kids) was my mother. A first generation American of Italian descent, Lena cooked Italian, having learned from her mother, Julia from southern Italy. The two-day ritual of preparing a dinner of linguini and meat sauce was as routine in my boyhood home as lutefisk and meatballs are at a Scandinavian church supper in rural North Dakota.

No recipes. It was instinct and knowledge passed on from mother to daughter to granddaughter. No Ragu or Prego.

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The other reminder: I called my 20-something daughter in Vermont on Saturday. "What are you doing this weekend?" I asked.

"We're (she and her fiance) are making sauce for spaghetti."

"You mean pouring it out of a jar," I said.

"No way," she responded indignantly. "I'm doing it like Grandma Lena and Mom, you know, from scratch."

So there it was. Recipes and techniques that are more than 100 years old and span at least three generations were extending the generational connection. A young law school graduate, who is as far removed from 19th century Italy as anyone can be, was renewing in a small way the understanding of part of her heritage.

Heritage these days can be mixed or so diluted it's meaningless. My kids, for example, claim ethnic roots in Poland, Norway, Italy, Germany, Russia and Sweden. There is no way they can have a complete sense of those countries. It's even getting difficult for them to understand what "the old country" means.

But they love a good pasta dish or a meal of Swedish meatballs and baked cheesy mashed potatoes. Most importantly, they appreciate the history of the food. They understand that sticking with old family recipes has as much to do with identity as it does with food. Their tolerant American palates might respond to all sorts of ethnic delights, but when they prepare -- as their grandparents did -- food that is unique to their Old World ancestors, they are reconnecting with tradition.

Food is culture. The flavors, aromas and textures carry in them a message of family continuity, of distant places and times long gone. Every time the pot in my home simmers with the promise of an Italian dinner, I can see my mother in her modest kitchen, sipping her near-ready sauce from a stained wooden spoon.

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And out there in the Vermont woods, my daughter continues the tradition -- extending the generational connection. Nice.

Zaleski can be reached at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521.

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