The Culture of Secrets  

An alphabet of Italian food, family, and pride: An essay by a Scholastic Writing Award–winning high schooler.

Note: Slate is proud to publish two of this year’s winners of the Scholastic Writing Awards, honoring the best teen writers in the country. This piece, which was part of a gold-medal-winning portfolio, is by Anthony DeSantis, a senior at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.

Author Anthony DeSantis.
Author Anthony DeSantis.

Photo by Emily Allen

You can read Isabella Giovannini’s “Death of a Sunflower,” part of her gold-medal-winning portfolio, as well.

From the Latin Antonius. I never believe Papa Nicki, my great-grandfather, when he tells me that my name means “worthy of praise.” I tell him too many people are named Anthony for it to mean anything special, and yet, he has a way of saying the word that’s different than when he calls any of the other Anthonys in our family by their name. This is especially true now that we both knew that he’s dying.

“Anthony,” he says to me from his hospital bed. My great-grandmother cries in the corner, but only he and I exist in that cramped room. He grabs a limp hold of my arm and tells me to have many children—preferably sons. My family has told me this all my life. “We need you to continue the family line,” Papa Nicki says, “to not let it wither away in this country.” I only bring myself to tell him I love him.

An Italian dessert, also what I think of when I think of marriage. Grandma Della puts two of her homemade chocolate biscotti on a plate for me alongside a glass of milk. My grandparents’ house is quiet enough for me to hear the rigid cookie crunch in my mouth as I chew. I eat my biscotti with my grandfather as Grandma Della cleans the kitchen. He tells her what she could have done to make dinner better and asks her to pour him more coffee. When I fall in love, this isn’t what I want it to be like.

First boyfriend. He has rich, Charlestonian blood in his veins and so I make room for one more in the closet. “Please, my family will love us both even more when we come out,” I say. He asks me when I think that’s going to happen. “Soon,” I say, “real soon.”

Grandma Della tells me that the Vietnam War hadn’t even lasted a week before she and my grandfather rushed to a courthouse somewhere in Brooklyn to get their marriage license. She now loves him so much that she cooks perfect meals for him, does his laundry with precision, and cleans his house with the knowledge that he won’t always say thank you.

One day while we shop through the cleaning supplies aisle of Publix, my sister asks our parents why they’ve never taught us to speak Italian. They explain that they never learned it themselves. Our grandparents can’t speak it, either. Their parents could, but only because they had to serve as translators for their parents, the first of our family in America. I realize howtrapped I feel in three generations of English.

Soon after, I purchase a book of Italian grammar and begin to flip through the pages. A boy I’ve had a crush on since grade school sees me conjugate the verb “negare” and asks me why I feel I have to teach myself Italian. I don’t answer. They he asks me what “negare” means and I say, “To deny.”

 I have it all figured out once. I will marry my preschool sweetheart, Catalina Bernadini. We will have 10 children, all sons, and name them all Anthony. That would please Papa Nicki. After my parents pull me out of Catholic school and dump me into a public school, though, plans change. Thank God.

Gay (An obvious choice, but hear me out.)
 “So at that art school you’re going to,” my grandfather says over Sunday dinner one summer afternoon, “what are you going to do if, you know, one of those gay guys comes up and asks to see your salsice?” Because clearly gay men are only after thesalsice.

I tell my grandfather that I’ll say, “Sorry—not interested,” and he laughs.

“Hey that’s my guy,” my grandfather says, “My guy’s not a faggot.” I don’t sleep that night. 

H is silent in Italian.

Francesco Gaggi came to America with $7 in his pocket and spoke no English. How he became one of the most prominent barbers in Long Island is a mystery. Francesco’s son is my Papa Nicki, and he tells me about how his father regularly took his whole family to see operas in Manhattan. Each of the five children received private piano lessons, prided themselves on the fine quality of their clothes, and never questioned the process of Americanization. “That’s how we got to where we are now,” Papa Nicki says. I regret never asking him, “Where exactly do you think we are?”

J, K, W, X, Y
In Italian, none of these letters exist.

One of the first things I learn while trying to teach myself Italian is that love is a difficult word to translate. The concept itself is usually referred to as l’amore, but the action can either be amare or volere bene, which literally means, “to like well.” I sometimes spend long and pointless nights in an F-150 with a boy I know will later call what we did “unclean in God’s eyes.” The Italian word for such a thing is still unknown to me.

She’s a confident Irish woman who says Connor is her favorite of my friends after the three of us and my father go out to eat one night. I think that obviously, she didn’t see us hold hands under the table. One day Connor forces me to come out to her. I curl up in a corner of my mother’s bedroom and try to stop myself from crying while she and Connor sit on the bed and laugh at how overdramatic I can be.

Nino Gaggi
My third cousin. Among those who testify against him in court in the late ‘80s is his nephew, Dominick. A fatal heart attack prevents him from leaving prison within five years of his conviction. At least that’s the way police reports and other public documents record his life. My family says everything happened a little differently, but it depends on who tells the story. Everyone agrees, though, that Nino is a nickname. The misnomer that means “worthy of praise” is something Anthony ”Nino” Gaggi and I share—even if for entirely different reasons.

Grandma Della always makes the same noise to show she’s in pain. When she grips the scalding hot handles of a pot of spaghetti as she drains out the water, she says, “Ooh-fah!” When she lifts a huge basket of laundry over her head, she says, “Ooh-fah!” When she’s uncomfortably perched in a small chair at the doctor’s office and they tell her she’s strained her shoulder so badly that she needs surgery, all she can say is, “Ooh-fah.”

Pancetta and Prosciutto
I have to thank America for allowing the tradition of men being the family cooks to survive generation after generation. The kitchen is the only place in the world where my father and I can bond. Other than that we just don’t seem to quite get each other. The two of us examine the meat as we cook Panini sandwiches for dinner one night, both trying to take as much time as possible. To make them appear less foreign, these meats have been assigned American counterparts. Pancetta is Italian bacon. Prosciutto is Italian ham. The only difference, really, is that pancetta and prosciutto taste better than bacon and ham. Something holds me back from asking my father, “Why can’t things be different?”

“Que Sera, Sera” by Doris Day
The backseat of my great-aunt’s small Honda sedan swallows my sister and me because we’re so small in those days. Our great-grandmother’s sandwiched between us when she shouts to my great-aunt and Grandma Della in the front seat. “Why don’t you play the lullaby?” she asks. Already we can sing it forwards and backwards from memory, but my grandmother still puts the cassette into the player. Doris Day’s voice sounds young, refreshing. The three old women in the car know they sound terrible as they coo along with the song. I think our voices could carry us all the way to Broadway. I pinch my sister to make her join in as we all belt out the chorus.

My older sister can’t stop crying, so we leave our grandparents’ house early. When we discussed the upcoming election over eggplant parmesan, she voiced the wrong opinion. My grandfather’s conservatism is relentless, unable to cope with my sister’s liberal thinking. My mother broods in the front seat of the car and takes an opportunity to talk about respect. She says it isn’t the undying obedience of a woman to her husband. It isn’t the clear cut gender-roles. It isn’t voicing the opinion that won’t offend the man of the house. “Modern society’s antiquated that bullshit,” she says. My mother explains that respect is, however, when people value other people’s feelings, make others feel important, and above everything else, don’t expect all women to wash the dishes after a meal while men lounge at the table. This is when I think everything’s going to turn out fine.

Sunday Dinner
The meat sauce is traditionally prepared before sunrise—left to simmer while the family goes to mass. Four generations later, my family’s lucky if we make it to church once or twice a year. The Sunday Dinner has survived, though, and we never ignore the weekly devotion to food. The sauce cooks all day and deepens in redness each hour. My father rolls the meatballs and asks if I like any of the girls at school. I brown the sausage in a pan and put it in the sauce half-raw. It has the entire day to finish cooking.

In a few years, my family will have been in America for a century.

Underlying Theme
I’m sorry. With me, bloodline and tradition will wither away in this country in a matter of decades. I am not so worthy of praise.

I grow up in Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes where we discuss the differences between worship and veneration. Worship is distinguished as solely for God. Veneration, however, is a term used to mean “giving the highest level of respect” to the sacred, but not the divine. To venerate is to honor the important. In those classes, we’re taught to venerate the Virgin Mary and all of the saints. Students are told that veneration means holding something so close that it becomes part of your essence.

Both the sun and the dough in the bowl on our kitchen counter have risen for a while. This is the day I wake up to see my father looking over me, letting me see him cry for the first time.  “She told me,” he says, “It doesn’t change much.” We creep down the stairs and go to work, not saying a word to each other. He touches every CD on our rack before he picks one to put in the DVD player while I take the pasty-colored bundle out of the bowl and begin to slice it into strips. My father then heats a pan full of oil until it has ripples that run over the golden surface. I get out a plate and cover it in the sugar we’ll put on the dough once it’s fried, and then I finally set the table.

That’s when I hear a familiar noise. Over the cackling of the hot oil, “Que Sera, Sera” starts to play. My father hums along as he places the first strip of dough into the pan. The sounds of cooking intensify, but so does the music. It isn’t until I flip the piece of dough over and cook the other side that I chime in with the chorus.