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Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives ed. by Joseph Sciorra (review)
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Editor Joseph Sciorra uses the metaphor “listening with an Italian accent” to characterize the perspective assumed by the authors of the eleven essays comprising Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives. By this he means that the essays reflect narrative, thematic, and linguistic elements, based in Italian and Italian American ethnicity, that inform descriptions and analyses of the dynamics of everyday life of people who share that ethnicity. For even though the collection looks at folklore—especially food-ways, architecture, and other manipulations of the landscape, music, literature, and religion—its real topic, suggested by the main title, is people whose Italian-ness prominently figures in their lives in North America.

The idea for Italian Folk began with five essays originally published in a special issue of the periodical Italian American Review, guest-edited by Sciorra. One other essay is revised from previous appearance in another journal, and the five remaining essays appear for the first time in this volume. The authors represent several disciplines, including folklore studies, ethnomusicology, art history, and cultural geography, but they share a focus on people living (and listening) with an “Italian accent.” Despite the variety of disciplines from which the authors come, they share a commitment to an ethnographic perspective, which is sometimes enhanced by historical scholarship.

The two essays on Italian American food-ways evince a common interest in special food consumption events. John Allan Cicala, in fact, concentrates on one particular meal: his grandmother’s preparation of cuscuszu, the Sicilian version of the Mediterranean delicacy couscous, in honor of his aunt’s visit to her native Detroit in 1993. While explaining the preparation process in good ethnographic fashion, Cicala uses the meal to explore the relationships of the participants and how they affect the preparation and enjoyment of the meal. Simone Cinotto assumes a more historical perspective as she examines the institution of the Sunday dinner in Italian American life. She convincingly demonstrates that the institution has emerged from the immigrant and post-immigrant experiences, particularly the interest in maintaining ethnic identity when confronted with assimilation pressures, rather than being a wholesale import from Europe.

Three essays deal with ways in which Italian Americans have altered the landscape. Lara Pascali shows how a second kitchen in some Italian American homes, situated in the basement rather than the formal kitchen upstairs, provides the social focus for domestic life. In fact, the upstairs kitchen often plays little role in food preparation but may be an important representative of the domestic unit’s status. Two monumental achievements in vernacular art by Italian Americans in California offer Kenneth Scambray an opportunity to show how their creators drew upon their geographical backgrounds in Italy for inspiration. While Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles is well known, not so familiar is the series of more than a hundred underground grottoes which Baldassare Forestiere dug in Fresno. Arte, a figure from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1618), provides the central image in Joseph J. Inguanti’s study of the residential landscapes constructed by Italian Americans in the New York metropolitan area. He notes two types of landscape: that of “order” and that of “memory.” The former involves creating a structured environment in the small yards of the houses in several boroughs of the city itself, while the latter refers to landscapes, often in suburbs, that recall natural and cultural environments of the Italian communities from which the landscapers emigrated.

Performance art provides a focus for three essays. Though Vincenzo Ancona, the subject of the contribution by editor Sciorra, was known for writing poetry that memorialized life in Sicily, he also excelled in presenting that poetry in performance. Sciorra analyzes several texts of Ancona’s poetry from an ethnographic perspective. Meanwhile, Marion S. Jacobson offers a history of the development of valtaro musette, a northern Italian accordion tradition that continues to flourish, particularly in New York City. Scholars of Italian American life have often noted that the celebration of Columbus Day provided a focus for collective Italian identity, not just loyalty to the particular region or community from which one came. Joan L. Saverino’s examination of Columbus Day in Reading, Pennsylvania, shows that the event was also...



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