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Edward Brumgnach
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No One Covered the Ruša and the Smokva

[This essay was adapted by Ed Brumgnach from an essay entitled "Growing Up Italian." The author of the original is not known, but may have been Vincent Panella, who wrote The Other Side: Growing Up Italian in America, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY (New York, 1979), ISBN: 0-385-14733-3.]

I am sure for most second-generation Istrian American children who grew up in the 40's and 50's in New York, there was a definite distinction between them and us. We were Istrians, everybody else, the Irish, the Germans, the Poles, they were Americans.

I was well into adulthood before I realized I was an American also. I had been not been born American but lived here most of my life. To me, Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on mushy white bread. I had no animosity towards them, it's just that I thought ours was the better way with our milk man, bread man, egg man, javelle man, vegetable man, the chicken man, to name a few of the peddlers who came to the neighborhoods where we lived.  We knew them, they knew us. Americans went to the A&P.

It amazed me that some friends and classmates on Thanksgiving and Christmas ate only turkey with stuffing, potatoes, and cranberry sauce. We had turkey, but only after antipasto, jota or maneštra or juha, lasagna or bacala or krafe (sweet ravioli), meatballs or šarme (stuffed cabbage) and radicio. And just in case someone came in who didn't like turkey we also had a roast beef or a baked ham.  Soon after we were eating fruits, nuts, pastries, palacinche and homemade fritole sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.

This is where you learned to eat a seven-course meal between noon and four PM, how to handle hot chestnuts without burning your mouth, and to put peaches in wine and grapes in rakija. Istrians live a romance with food.

Sundays we would wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. We always had macaroni, posutice, gnochi or fusi and gravy. Sunday would not be Sunday without going to church. Of course you couldn't eat before mass because you had to fast four hours before receiving communion. We knew when we got home we'd find laši (crostoli) frying and nothing tasted better than newly cooked crisp Istrian laši.

 Another difference between them and us was we had vrti (gardens). Not just with flowers, but tomatoes, peppers, basil, lettuce, scallions and radicio. Everybody had a ruša (grape arbor) and a smokva (fig tree). In the fall we drank homemade wine arguing over who made the best. Those gardens thrived because we had something our American friends didn't seem to have. We had grandparents.

It's not that they didn't have grandparents. It's just they didn't live in the same house or street. We ate with our grandparents and God forbid we didn't visit them 5 times a week. I can still remember my grandmother telling us how she came to America when she was young, on the "boat." 

I'll never forget the holidays when the relatives would gather at my grandparent's house, the women in the kitchen, the men in the living room, the kids everywhere. My grandfather sat in the middle of it all drinking home made rakija so proud of his family and how well they had done.

When my grandparents died, things began to change. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing. Although we did get together usually at my mother's house I always had the feeling grandma and grandpa were still there.

It's understandable that things change. We now all have families of our own and grandchildren of our own. Today we visit once in a while or meet at wakes or weddings. Other things have also changed. The old house my grandparents bought is now covered with aluminum siding. A green lawn covers the soil that grew the tomatoes.


The holidays have changed. We still make family "rounds" but somehow things have become more formal. The great quantities of food we consumed, without any ill effects, are not good for us anymore. Too much starch, too much cholesterol, too may calories in the pastries.

The difference between "us" and "them" isn't so easily defined anymore and I guess that's good.  My grandparents were Istrian/Istrians, my parents were Istrian/Americans. I'm an American and proud of it, just as my grandparents would want me to be. We are all Americans now.... The Irish, Germans, Poles, all US citizens.

But somehow I still feel a little bit Istrian. Call it culture... call it roots... I'm not sure what it is. All I do know is that my children, my nieces and nephews, have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of our heritage. They never knew my Istrian-Istrian grandparents.


  • "istria-talks" mailing list, April 5, 2002.
  • Photograph: Marisa Ciceran, entrance to her family's Istrian garden in Brooklyn.

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This page compliments of  Edward Brumgnach

Created: Sunday, April 14, 2002; Last Updated: Thursday, July 07, 2011
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