Wednesday, April 29, 2020


Crocetti Eats Spaghetti

Singer Dean Martin (Dino Crocetti) with a
potful of spaghetti once thought an alien dish. 
Dean Martin was a popular singer, actor and television personality from the 1950s into the 1980s.  Born as Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, OH, his parents came from Abruzzo, a province in the south of Italy.  Most Italian immigrants were from the southern part of the country, which was poorer than the north. American restrictionists often pointed this out when they criticized Italian immigration. They had to concede that Italy had a rich cultural heritage and had contributed so greatly to world art, music, and science, but they insisted that those Italians were entirely different from the immigrants who came in such numbers early in the 20th century. In 1916, Madison Grant even went so far as to say that such great Italians as Dante and Michelangelo were Nordics, a racial type he claimed originated in northern Europe (Grant also claimed that Jesus Christ was Nordic. On his mother’s side, of course).  

Italian immigrants were among the poorest who have ever come to this country. Dean is said to have started public school speaking only Italian and to have taken lumps from schoolmates for his poor English.  Always proud of his immigrant background, Martin belonged to the generation that overcame prejudice against Italian-Americans. Yet, like many performers from ethnic backgrounds who came to prominence in the post-WWII years, Martin believed he needed to “Americanize” his name in order to make it. This was true, too, of such megastars as Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch) and Doris Day (Doris Kappelhoff ).

The photo captures Dean eating spaghetti, probably in the 1970s. It was only a few decades earlier that a movie star would have refused to be caught by the camera eating such an un-American food. It’s hard to believe today, but Americans once thought Italian food was horrible stuff, and Italian immigrants—mostly their children in schools—were discouraged from eating the home cuisine. By the time this picture was taken, spaghetti and meatballs had become an American dish. One can even find photos online of Kirk Douglas and Doris Day gorging on platefuls of spaghetti. The country has changed. An actress like Renee Zellweger has kept her name and when she laments that pasta is her "food vice" the rest of us can empathize.      



Friday, April 3, 2020


Scott Wiedensaul's, First Frontier

I recently picked up a copy of The First Frontier, Scott Weidensaul’s lively account of America's eastern seaboard before and during early colonial times. I just finished a section on the captivity of one John Gyles, a ten-year-old boy who was taken from his home by the Abenaki in 1689. Although Gyles remained with the Abenaki for nine years, they never quite adopted him. This surprised me. I had mistakenly thought that, if captured by Indians, one's fate was either to be tortured and killed or adopted and treated kindly.

This engraving, based on a drawing by Benjamin West, 
shows Indians returning captive children to Colonel 
Bouquet after the French and Indian War. John Gyles
was older than these children when taken, and was less
warmly embraced by his captors.  
Gyles lived in a kind of purgatory between these two extremes. His captors would eventually ransom him, but for most of his captivity, he was worked hard, treated badly, and sometimes even tortured. I have accounts of long-time Indian captives who refused to be redeemed, but Gyles welcomed the opportunity. After being freed, he became a prominent military officer in New England, in part, because he had learned to speak French and a couple of Indian languages during his captivity.

Weidensaul says Gyles's account of his time with the Indians is among the very best of the genre. I just pulled it from the Internet Archive and look forward to perusing it before long. Among the best accounts of European interaction with the woodland Indians before the 19th century are the Jesuit Relations, letters, and journal entries written by Jesuit priests living among the indigenous peoples of North America.* Along with Gyles, the Jesuits remark upon Indian notions of revenge. Novelist Frank McCourt's definition of "Irish Alzheimer's"—"You forget everything except the grudge"—seems to apply.

The Jesuits asked the Iroquois why they insisted on eating the lice they took from each other's hair. The Indians responded (I paraphrase here), "Eating?, We're not eating, we're biting! The damned things bit us, how can we not bite them back!"

Weidensaul gives an account of Indians taking revenge on a trader who had cheated them through usurious credit and sharp practices like putting his finger on the scale to short-change them. Before killing the trader, each man in the raiding party insisted on "scratching out" his debt by cutting an X on the trader's chest, each declaring, "I cross out my account."  They then cut off the trader's fingers, asking him "how much his fist weighed now." 

Similar gruesome accounts are not uncommon in the literature. Many have a certain poetic justice. The modern American says, “That’s a primitive society for you!” And yet, in recent times we’ve seen similar behavior in places like Ireland, Yugoslavia, Myanmar and Rwanda, where past wrongs are remembered and old scores settled with new violence.  Yet, to build a nation, that is, to achieve a sense of "peoplehood," takes a lot of forgetting. Native Americans had a ritual to mark such forgetting. They called it "burying the hatchet." 

* The 73-volume collection of the Jesuit Relations  (1610-1791) can be found at the Internet Archives. Click here for a 1901 review of the collection.