The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture

The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and CultureAnthologies are themselves a kind of literary criticism, a selection of work that shows the editor's taste and thought process. The task of an anthologist is to consider not only what gets included, but also what gets omitted. It is not just a question of which author to include but which work of that author. Further, having more than one editor means the collection is a combined perception, the result of two minds at work. Readers of The Milk of Almonds will find the mix within sometimes singular and engaging, resonant and challenging, repetitive and soporific. But it is always an open field of possibility--un mazzo di fiori--as any good anthology ought to be.

In their introduction, accomplished literary scholars Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta give a compelling overview of the intellectual and cultural underpinnings for such a work and show a capacious attunement with and knowledge of their subject. They also raise expectations considerably. They assert, "This volume presents a drastic revision and redefinition of what it means to be Italian American" (12), and "Here we speak for ourselves as we have never spoken before" (13). Do the editors fulfill the tasks they set for themselves in the introduction? I would say, yes and no.

Within The Milk of Almonds, there are an impressive fifty-four contributors of eighty-nine pieces covering a wide array of material in fiction, memoir, and poetry, some from lesbian, multiethnic, and working-class perspectives. The order of the individual selections is aesthetically pleasing and various. It is like being in an art gallery; the reader can walk around in the book, read the pieces in order, out of order, any way that excites. Still, there is a considerable amount of work with a sometimes mesmerizing uniformity punctuated by flashes of brilliance. Ten well-known authors such as Sandra M. Gilbert, Dorothy Barresi, and Lucia Perillo have two or more pieces included; three of these ten have five or more. (Of course, some of these are short poems). This is curious, though, because some of these selections are not the strongest work of a single author. The Milk of Almonds causes a yearning for a less redundant, less lengthy, and ever more vigorous presentation. Some of the breadth could have been sacrificed for even greater depth. If we are headed for a new literary direction as we move into the twenty-first century, what is it? I don't think we altogether know yet. This anthology is leading the way, elegantly and daringly, for what may come next.

In the introduction, DeSalvo and Giunta are vigilant at disclaiming some of the unfortunate features that occasionally arise out of the very medium and content they are presenting. They explain, "Because so much of the discourse surrounding the relationship of Italian American women to food, was, to us, predictable, sentimental, and uncomplicated, we had conceived a revisionist volume that would collect fresh, new, complex, and significant work" (2). If you define literary sentimentality as a piece of writing which vouchsafes the reader's response along with that to which she responds, then some of the contributions in this anthology are sentimental. For example, "I watch my own hands / while following my mother's recipe / and think of the note my five-year-old son / placed in her coffin: a picture of / spaghetti and meatballs, to remind her / to make some for God," from Dorian Cirrone's, "After We Bury Her" (252). Or, "A few customers still remember Millie's cooking / how important a full belly was to her sense of the world. / And Ma, all the time you worked there / I never came in / once / to say / hello," from Janet Zandy's, "My Mother's Career at Skip's Luncheonette" (258). These poems are less scintillating than decorous and formally predictable while others, such as those written by Anne Marie Macari and Susane Antonetta, are striking, enigmatic, and formally inventive. "Her riding in the gilt & jacaranda bonebox (Rome won't say / how many bones we got) / plexiglass & under it, rosettes" from Antonetta's "Rosette" (184). The prose contributions by less well-known writers Mary Beth Caschetta, Pamela E. Barnett, Camilla Trinchieri, and Loryn Lipari, to name a few, go against the typical food narrative. They surprise, transgress, and re-envision; thus fulfilling the editors' goal.

When one tries to get down on paper the difference between reinscribing the stereotypes and destabilizing them, as the editors suggest this anthology does, the idea can become mysteriously elusive. The premise of the entire anthology is culture and food, two tropes central to the conventional presentation of Italian American women. These are the stuff of which stereotypes are made. How, exactly, to make the images ours? How can we explore our relationship to food and culture in order to produce a new literary discourse while the lens through which we are viewing, imagining, and creating this discourse is primarily that of domesticity?

We can do this by stepping into the dilemma. The construction of gender is in our Italian American culture, our idea of food. We carry it with us into our work, even when we re-imagine it, even when we subvert it: women's work as meaningful in spite or because of the topic. One cannot help but see, though, some of the images concretized in an all too familiar one dimensionality. When we make our culture, food, and gender the central literary subjects of inquiry, then what we are focusing on, in part, are the very subjects that have delimited the feminine imagination for centuries. We risk stumbling, now and again, into that from which we most want to be freed: ourselves distorted. It is a risk worth taking. Anthologists of Italian American women's writing, including myself, have thus far mostly created collections thoroughly topical in conception. I now long for an unthematic anthology of Italian American women writers--or at least one that culls exponentially more from the imagination than the mirror. Memoir, first-person fiction, poetry that leads with the lyrical "I," meditations on food and culture, feminist interpretations of family deserve a prominent and integral place in our literature. Nonetheless, Italian American women writers can and do compose in any genre, or form within a genre, and our anthologies need to begin to reflect even more of that range.

Having said that, no anthology can represent the entirety of our endeavor, the multiplicity of views and voices. No anthology can take the pulse of Italian American women writers, on any subject for that matter, as if we were one. No anthology can fully attain its ideal. This is the challenge and the joy. Not to get it perfect, but to get it right.

The Milk of Almonds does. At best an anthology can be a groundbreaking and luxurious survey like Helen Barolini's The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women or a welcome, transformative journey like Mary Jo Bona's The Voices We Carry: Recent Italian American Women's Fiction. At worst an anthology can resemble a commercially convenient series of Polaroids wherein everyone knows each other and shares the same story over and over. Happily, The Milk of Almonds falls squarely in the former category. Even when it struggles, it does so with grace and muscle. It is lush and intricate, a stellar effort which draws on our past and informs our future. In the introduction, the editors quote an immigrant discussing the reason why he left Sicily, "you can't eat beauty, my son," he says. True, but you can take it with you.

Denise Nico Leto is an editor and poet whose work has recently appeared in Appetite: Food as Metaphor: An Anthology of Women Poets from BOA. She co-edited the anthology, Hey Paesan': Writings by Lesbians and Gay Men of Italian Descent and il viaggio delle donne, the special issue of Sinister Wisdom on Italian American women writers. Recent editorial work includes Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy: How to Talk with People about Their Spiritual Lives and For Lesbian Couples from the Guilford Press