An Italian American dish in honor of an Italian American hero!
This year, September 20th is a holiday that I'm going to go out on a limb and say most of my blog readers aren't familiar with. Every year in September since 1981, the town of Raritan, New Jersey holds a celebration in honor of their hometown hero from World War II: Gunny Sergeant John Basilone, the only enlisted Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross during the war. But John Basilone is a significant figure in American history for more than just that, and it's for reasons that many modern Americans wouldn't even consider.
Since I couldn't convince anyone to come down with me to New Jersey this weekend, I had to make do with finding my own way to pay tribute to one of my favorite historical figures. What better way than with a dish that's got some connections to Italy, but is actually uniquely and deceptively American?
When studying World War II, most discussion of discrimination against minorities focuses on the segregation of the armed forces and racial and gender based discrimination in the work place, along with the interment of Japanese residents and Japanese American citizens on the west coast. These are all extremely important political and cultural issues, but there were actually even more layers to the racism of 1940's America than we're usually led to believe. While they were never stripped of basic human rights or denied from active service based on ethnic identity or heritage, in the 1940's, Italian Americans still weren't really considered "White" the way they are today, and many of them did face serious prejudice during the war years. Although not as badly discriminated against as Black or Asian Americans, several thousand on the west coast were forced to leave their homes. Some were identified as Enemy Aliens, and faced new racist laws and practices at work.
In general, most White Americans considered Italians to be foreigners who weren't really American, and could be treated with scorn and disgust by their neighbors for being Catholic, speaking a different language, having different customs and looking different from everyone else. This prejudice didn't erupt into the same kind of panic and violent hatred that Japanese Americans suffered at the outbreak of World War II, but Italy being a member of the Axis Powers did not do much to endear Italian Americans to the rest of the population, making many Americans suspicious of their Italian neighbors' allegiances.
And then enter Sergeant John Basilone, the hero of Guadalcanal.
John Basilone was born on November 4, 1916 to a large Italian American family. As a young man, he was restless and unsure of what direction he wanted to take his life in, and so decided to enlist in the Army well before the outbreak of World War II. He served for three years in the Philippines, earning him the nickname "Manila John", and eventually decided to reenlist in the military in 1940. This time, he enlisted in the Marines, became a sergeant, and was shipped off with the First Marine Division to Guadalcanal.
During the Battle of Henderson Field, his position came under attack by about 3,000 Japanese soldiers. Basilone commanded two machine guns for two days straight with little food or water and no sleep, even when he and two other marines were the only people left standing. He helped move in an extra gun, repaired one that had stopped working, and repeatedly ran through enemy territory to get more ammunition. He helped successfully hold the line until replacements could get to them, and was badly burned by the super heated barrel of one of his guns when he had to move it. For this, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor, which was presented to him in Melbourne, Australia.
This was a big deal. Maybe not the biggest deal, but for the Italian American community, it was really exciting to know that one of the first big heroes to come out of the war was one of them, and it helped reassure the rest of the public that Italian Americans were Americans, not Italians who were secretly in cahoots with Mussolini. He became a huge celebrity, and even had comic books printed about him. While no one person is responsible for the improved image of Italian Americans or the growing acceptance of their culture, there's no doubt that John Basilone's prestige and formal backing by so many avenues of American society helped open people's eyes on the subject.
Several heroic servicemen were pulled off the line to go back to the United States and promote the sale of war bonds, and Basilone was invited to do just that. After touring the country and visiting his family, he again grew restless (and was frankly uncomfortable with all the attention when he truly believed he was only doing his job and didn't deserve to be painted as some kind of superhero) and wanted to rejoin the fight. He was promoted to Gunnery Sergeant and transferred to the newly created Fifth Marine Division, which was training in San Diego in preparation for landing on Iwo Jima. While there, he met and fell in love with Lena Riggi, a non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve. They married, but unfortunately, John was killed in action two hours after landing on Iwo Jima. For his actions there, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
Although he was originally buried on Iwo Jima, the bodies of all American servicemen killed on the island were relocated a few years after the end of the war. Families could choose to move them to a local cemetery or the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, but Lena chose to move her husband's grave to Arlington National Cemetery. Lena never remarried.
Since then, John Basilone has been honored in many ways. The Navy used him as a namesake to a destroyer commissioned in 1949, and several Marine Corps buildings and facilities bear his name. Several civilian organizations have named buildings, bridges and highways in his honor, and he's even been featured as a postage stamp. He was also featured as a lead character in HBO's The Pacific, the companion piece to Band of Brothers. The Raritan Public Library has a small museum of Basilone artifacts on display, and the National Museum of the Marine Corps has a few personal items as well as his Medal of Honor and Navy Cross on display.
If you're interested in learning more about John Basilone but can't get down to Raritan to see the museum, there are a couple books I can recommend taking a look at. The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose and Voices of the Pacific by Adam Makos and Marcus Brotherton are both companion pieces to the HBO miniseries and feature first hand information and stories from Basilone's friends and family, and I'm Staying With My Boys is a quasi fictional retelling of Basilone's life written by his nephew. The latter relies heavily on family history and stories about Basilone, while the former two books focus more on his relationship with his fellow Marines. Another biography - Hero of the Pacific by James Brady - exists, but does not get especially favorable reviews, and I'll admit I haven't read it yet because of that. Too many other critically acclaimed books to read first!
And then, of course, I have to recommend the miniseries. Although parts of John's story are a little fictionalized for added drama and survivor guilt, for the most part, The Pacific is quite faithful in its retelling and John Seda does an excellent job representing Basilone as a multifaceted and reluctant icon of World War II.
(Also, it's just a really great series, and I could talk about it for hours if given the opportunity. And have.)
World War II in general helped break down some cultural and racist structures that had existed in pre-war years. Obviously, everything wasn't magically fixed when the war was over, but military units mixing people from different parts of the country together for the first time opened many people's eyes to worlds outside their closely knit, ethnically homogeneous communities. The fact that most young Americans involved in the conflict were traveling internationally for the first time as well also helped expose them to lifestyles outside of what they were familiar with, and thus there became an increased understanding and appreciation for other cultures rather than prejudice and fear. Again, things weren't perfect, but they were making some progress.
Obviously, this all can tie back to food. Between people's exposure to other food from wartime international travel and an increasing willingness to cross ethnic boundaries, in the post war years, there was an increasing demand for "ethnic" food to be available to a wider audience. The 1950's saw a huge rise in Italian, Chinese, Japanese and other ethnic restaurants, and cookbooks expanded to include some of these dishes as well. This wasn't really anything new in certain urban centers - my grandfather grew up eating spaghetti and meatballs, and his sister makes amazing lasagna, even though they're very, very Irish - but for other parts of the country with a less substantial immigrant population, this was a big deal.
Today, we're making spaghetti and meatballs, which is definitely one of the most iconic Italian dishes out there. What a lot of people don't realize is that it's actually an Italian American dish that doesn't actually have strong roots in all of Italy. Remember what I said about it being relatively recently that people have come to expect meat as their main protein every night of the week? Animals like cows or pigs were too precious a commodity in Italy to make into meatballs, and the cost of meat was way too expensive for the average family to enjoy such a dish. It was only after they came to America that meat was cheap enough to prepare this way. The dish caught on, and now we think of it as something that Leonardo Da Vinci would have been snacking on in between art projects, when in reality, he probably wouldn't have been. Some Southern Italian recipes do include examples of food prepared this way before the 20th century, but the dish is actually mocked by some Italian chefs and food critics as fake Italian food, bastardized by American food culture.
Those people don't know what they're talking about. The recipe I'm sharing with you guys today is my great grandmother's recipe, prepared by my grandma. Nana - as she was known - is well known as my family's best cook period, and never wrote anything down. If you wanted to learn how she made gnocchi or pasta fagoli, she'd tell you to come watch her because she couldn't explain it in written words or just by walking you through it verbally. Today, I watched my grandma do the same thing and took notes on the process, so hopefully this can help show everyone how to make really delicious Italian meatballs.
We started off with Italian bread that's a couple days old. My grandma explained that it's better to use actual bread that's a little stale rather than breadcrumbs because the bread will keep the meatballs moist where the breadcrumbs won't, and insisted that this needs to be Italian bread, not some fluffy white American thing. She sliced up about half a loaf of crusty bread and then ran it under water to get it wet.
These pieces of bread then get wrung out and added to ground meatloaf mix, which is a combination of pork, beef and veal. Grandma says this is the only kind of meat you really should use for meatballs because it gives it good flavor, and has more fat to it, which will keep your meatballs moist. One package should make you plenty of meatballs.
She then chopped up some fresh parsley, five cloves of garlic, and cracked in two eggs into the bowl with the meat and soggy bread. When you're using crusty bread, it's better to rip the crust off and just use the soft insides of the bread if possible.
Next comes the seasoning. You need a little black pepper, some salt, and a package of G. Washington's brown seasoning and broth.
Next comes a handful of pignoli nuts, which are my grandmother's favorite part of the meatballs. My grandpa pointed out that doesn't pignoli already mean pine nut? So what we're calling them is actually pine nut nuts?
Some Parmesan cheese gets added as well, and apparently, my Nana's mom - so my great-great grandmother - used to add raisins as well. They've been deleted from my family recipe, but could be fun to try if you want to give that a shot! Remember, this is my grandma making her mother's recipe, so everything that's in these meatballs are ingredients she genuinely loves.
This all gets mixed by hand, and doesn't take too long to come together. You'll be able to tell once it's finished!
Now, you can bake these in the oven, or cook them with sauce, but my grandma prefers to fry hers. This helps lock the moisture and flavor in, even if it's maybe not the healthiest way to prepare them. She also advises against cooking them in sauce, because the meatballs tend to basically suck up all the sauce, leaving you with very little for your pasta, and kind of smothering the flavor of your meatballs. She actually prefers to eat her meatballs separately from her spaghetti and sauce for this reason!
You need about a half cup of Wesson oil and a third of a cup of olive oil. She likes to use an ice cream scoop to help her keep her meatballs approximately the right size.
These need to cook for maybe ten or so minutes over medium high heat, but like everything else in this recipe, you just need to watch them. You should also flip them a few times to make sure they're cooking evenly, aren't welding themselves to your pan, or burning! You'll know they're finished when they're nice and brown on the outside.
They get put to the size to dry and drain on a plate with a paper towel to get some of the excess oil off.
And then they're ready to be served over spaghetti and pasta sauce!
I'm not sure of the exact family history of this recipe. My Nana didn't talk too much about where her family came from or when they came to the United States, but my grandma's pretty sure they came in the early 1900's, when my Nana would have been a young girl. Although her legal name was Maria Giovanna, on her first day of school, she arrived with her neighbors, and for some reason, her friend told their teacher her name was Jane, and that's what she went by for the rest of her life. Her mother died when she was young, so she unfortunately didn't get to finish much school and was basically expected to raise her younger siblings. She was married with two young kids during World War II, and I wish she and my great grandpa were around to ask if they remembered hearing about John Basilone, or if they experienced any discrimination because they were Italians during the war. My grandma doesn't remember any of it, but she was only five in 1942, and her older brother was more concerned with the teasing he got for being unlucky enough to be named Adolph after a favorite uncle well before a certain other Adolf was a household name for their family.
But whatever the case, it's not difficult to imagine how they might have been excited to hear that an Italian American was a celebrity and a hero, being honored by people all over the country instead of looked at suspiciously. When John's father Salvatore Basilone addressed a crowd at a press meeting in his native Italian not long after his son had been honored, it was an important statement saying that he was proud to be an American, but wasn't ashamed of his heritage. You can have both and be both, and shouldn't be worried about other people's prejudices regarding it.
John Basilone might not have single handedly ended prejudice or discrimination in America, but he did help open people's eyes during a time of crisis that patriotism and bravery aren't reliant on your ethnic background. I bet he'd probably be uncomfortable with all the attention his story still gets even seventy years later, but I'm glad Raritan takes the time to pay tribute to him. This is a side of American history that usually doesn't get much attention, and since it's part of my family history, I'm glad I got a chance to share it and the story of one of my favorite historical figures with you today.
Maybe next year, I'll be liveblogging from New Jersey!