by Barbara Anglin
Growing up in the seventies in the Merrymount neighborhood of Quincy, just south of the Boston skyline, most kids answered the question, “What (nationality) are you?” with either “I’m Irish” or “I’m Italian”. That predominant South Shore demographic during the second half of the twentieth century inevitably led to the creation of a distinctive blending of food cultures. My family identifies primarily as Irish (Anglin); I paired up with a neighborhood guy with a vowel at the end of his surname (Rizzo) and our resulting household is one of countless thousands that exemplify the South Shore practice of marrying Irish-American and Italian-American food traditions.
The first meal I ever prepared for my future table-mate was indeed a Boston food tradition—fish cakes and beans—one from a box, the other from a can. The pre-made aspect of this home-warmed meal was less about tradition, however, and more about sharing a special-to-me comfort food with my date. At age twenty- one, this was haute cuisine in our simple kitchen. My then-roommate, herself a Merrymount alum of Scotch-Irish descent, inspired the menu, having served knockwurst and beans (with mustard!) to her betrothed. She progressed on to perfect meatballs, lasagna, and gnocchi for her Italian-American table-mate; they too married into the familiar hometown demographic.
Soon thereafter, with new life experiences and some world travels, my personal cooking repertoire also expanded into real-food menus like pesto and spaghettini topped with marinated tomatoes, garlic soup, and fresh-caught fish cooked in a fire pit. My everyday food customs were expanding and soon my family food traditions would mingle with those of my new family, to create a fusion of beloved, keep-worthy dishes, made from scratch.
Beyond first date menus, the convergence of ethnic and cultural food traditions became most evident during the holidays, when we yearn for the taste of familiar and favorite dishes. The first holiday meal I spent away from my Irish cousins and family was at my own table. Two months after getting married, I invited my new Italian in-laws to our tiny apartment to proudly serve them my family’s traditional Thanksgiving menu. I wanted to share my favorite holiday meal with my new family, a meal I had long enjoyed but had never helped prepare, but for an occasional assignment to take a turn whipping the potatoes (no lumps please!). I followed a well-worn template to prepare this first Thanksgiving meal: the turkey covered in breakfast sausages for its final 30 minutes in the oven (resulting in a caramel-colored basted skin and a mouthwatering appetizer); two stuffings—the large cavity stuffed with a Bell’s-seasoned breading, and the neck with chopped oyster dressing (an Anglin specialty made expertly by Aunt Joan!); whipped potatoes, mashed golden turnips and butternut squash; green beans with crispy onion topping, and cranberry conserve (my own personal Bon Appetit touch and big step up from the customary canned Ocean Spray).
Of course, the guests, all adept cooks, wanted to contribute to the dinner (having heard about the fishcakes and beans, might they have worried the meal might not be up to holiday standards?). Alas, after the stracciatella soup, the stuffed manicotti in homemade sauce and the huge antipasto salad, no one had an appetite for my turkey and all the fixins! This room full of first-generation and second-generation Italians couldn’t imagine a holiday without their own food traditions. The abundance of leftovers on that long ago Thanksgiving is a reminder of the attachment we all hold for our dearest family food traditions.
The Anglin menus were consistent from holiday to holiday with simply the main course rotating from turkey at Thanksgiving, to roast beef for Christmas, to spiral ham served with mustard sauce for Easter. A spread of appetizers always began the festivities—chopped liver and egg dip, crudités, stuffed mushrooms, shrimp cocktail and other surprises like liver pate or pesto cheesecake from time to time. The appetizers were so good, we could have finished there but, wait; there was more, lots more. Dinner began with glasses toasting to good fortune and to those who no longer could be at the table, and then piping hot dishes were passed around the table as everyone built a custom plate. After dinner was finished, cleared, and leftovers packed away, an array of pies and desserts would be set out with coffee, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and Courvoisier served in tiny crystal goblets. It always was a grand time with my sisters, cousins, grandmother, and the grown-ups—with food and laughter aplenty.
The Rizzos’ holiday fare changed with the seasons, and an array of appetizers opened their gatherings as well. A soup followed, then pasta, and a salad course along with seafood at Christmas, roast lamb at Easter and long-baked beans, sausage peppers and potatoes, and rum cake for the 4th of July. Holiday meals with the Rizzos were all-day affairs, with stretches of time away from the table between courses, to make room for more. Plenty of wine was served and desserts fit for a glass case were spread the length of the long dining room table to finish with coffee served with Sambuca or Amaretto.
I first encountered my favorite Rizzo meal on a Christmas Eve when Lobster Fra Diavlo (hot as the devil) was served, “Elaine” style (more herbal than hot) for more than 20 people! Both my mother-in-law and father-in-law were gourmet cooks; Grammy Elaine having a fine and sensitive Northern Italian palate, preferring the subtle and sweet seasonings of basil, shallot, and scallion, whereas Grampy Lou’s Sicilian appetite craved the robust flavors of garlic, onion, and red pepper. He often would declare every plateful “the best he ever had!” and was always grateful for a second and third helping of whatever he was offered.
Now Mason Anglin-Rizzo, my eleven-year-old son, claims Lobster Elaine as his most favorite meal and especially enjoys when it is prepared and shared with his Uncle Lou. It’s a special occasion to come together to chop up the fresh lobsters, sauté the pieces with fragrant aromatics, and simmer the bodies in a homemade tomato sauce. The sweet lobster essence infusing the sauce fills the kitchen with memories of making the dish with grandparents and savoring it with aunties and uncles and special friends over the years. We make a point of having this dish once a year, often around
Labor Day, with fresh tomatoes and basil from the garden.
Christmastime brings its own preserved family recipe, from a treasured cook book compiled by Grampy Lou for his extended family, which holds many of his mother Rosalia’s daily recipes and some holiday stars. “Briolatta” is sausage bread Nonnie Rizzo made for special occasions which my husband, son, and I now make in multiples every year to gift. The moment we smell the sausage, herbs, and onions baking into the homemade bread dough, rolled and tucked in pinwheel fashion, topped with a star anise, our Christmas spirit arrives ready for the season.
It takes effort to hold onto such special family recipes and memories. No one will ever again enjoy Elaine Rizzo’s rum cake quite the way she made it or Bob Anglin’s chowder, because these dishes were made with a felt sense, a cook’s instinctive hand, rather than from a recipe. Fortunately, other recipes, like the Anglin chicken liver pate can be traced back to a Boston Globe Cookbook recipe. My cousins thankfully recorded many of the family recipes and share them upon request. Still others, like Lobster Elaine, must be learned experientially, by observation. To ensure it is written down and preserved, you will find the recipe linked on the eSS&SC website, look for the Anglin-Rizzo recipe collection. May you enjoy preparing this dish someday, generated right here on the South Shore, and recognize that your own family recipes are treasures too, to keep handy and share, to savor and remember.
What recipes do you treasure? What dishes—simple or celebratory—comprise your crucial family food traditions? Talk about it with your family and help eSS&SC compile our next big project: our own regional edible Recipe Box, representing the history and ethnicities of our community.
Barbara Anglin cooks with locally sourced ingredients in all of her favorite family recipes. She believes her dishes taste better infused with deep nutrition from local food and gratitude for the farmers and makers who raise the foods that nourish her family. Occasionally, a can of Boston baked beans and local fishcakes still bring comfort to her.