Dr. Ed Iannuccilli is a man on a mission. When he did his first book, Growing Up Italian, Iannuccilli emphasized the importance of preserving the sense of history and culture that Italian-Americans created and preserved in this country. It was a call to all of the Italian-Americans who schooled themselves, prospered and moved to the fringe of the great urban centers in the United States to at least spiritually come back to the old neighborhoods and acknowledge the positive influence the immigrant experience had on American culture and give it the respect it deserves.
In his latest book, Iannuccilli takes on the more personal chore of describing an urban ethnic upbringing at a time when many immigrant groups were being assimilated into the mainstream of American life. Now a youngish 74-year-old, the retired physician has asked the question, Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner?
The good doctor is not talking about the menu here, although there is much to be longed for when you talk about recipes handed down, literally, from one generation to another by illiterate but knowing cooks whose kitchens on Federal Hill differed little from those found in Italian villages.
“Our mothers and aunts didn’t write down lists of ingredients and directions,” he said. “They just knew how many people were coming and just how much food you needed to feed them.”
But Iannuccilli isn’t so much pining for the textures and aromas of solid home-cooked fare. He longs for the social event that dinner used to represent for certain kids growing up in certain sections of cities at a certain time.
Iannuccilli was about three years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and about six years old when World War II ended, so he remembers the war more for the way it affected his family than the impact it had on himself.
“On one muggy August day he walked down the driveway with his jacket slung over his arm, this time his top button unbuttoned, his tie pulled down, his graying hair a bit tussled, a half smile on his shadowed face. He took a deep breath, flipped the jacket over his shoulder and said, ‘The Japanese have surrendered. The war is over.’ Though relieved, he was too exhausted to say more. The war was over. His worries of sending supplies to ships that supplied the troops, troops that were dying by the thousands, were over. Though protected by his civil service job from the draft, nonetheless he understood the pain of war.”
But more than memories of the war, Iannuccilli’s book talks about the relative prosperity that came with the war and the end of the Great Depression. Iannuccilli was perhaps a little too young to understand why his father was so particular about things like automobiles. It was only the well off who bought and maintained cars in the 1930s. The post WWII prosperity put them in reach of most families.
“He taught me to drive his immaculate ’51 Power Glide Chevy,” writes Iannuccilli.
“‘You take care of a car and it will take care of you,’ was one of his favorite sayings.”
But at the center of the book is the remembrance of the customs and rituals of his youth. The idea of dressing your best, going to church and taking the trip to your grandmother’s or aunt’s house for Sunday dinner. The old tenement rooms Iannuccilli describes would be familiar to many people of a certain age and background:
“A doorway led from the kitchen to the dining and living rooms. The dining room was reserved for Sunday and holiday meals. Its wallpaper was a pattern of large bells surrounded by ribbons, wreaths and flowers. Centered on one wall was a false fireplace above which hung a large, round mirror. On its mantle were pictures, a ceramic prancing horse and Rose Art vases holding artificial flowers from Calart. In the corner was a floor model Emerson radio, a behemoth that we listened to while lying on the rug….”
While most folks feel somewhat ambivalent about exposing their humble roots, Iannuccilli makes no bones about how he views those unpretentious furnishings now.
“It was the perfect tenement on the perfect street in the perfect neighborhood at the perfect time,” he concluded.
Like so many of his generation, Iannuccilli bore the aspirations of his parents with unquestioning faith.
“There was never any question of what I was going to do,” he said in an interview last week. “I was going to college, I was going to medical school, I was going to be a doctor.”
Iannuccilli did become a doctor. He went on to Providence College and then to Albany Medical College. His résumé includes extensive experience in academics, management, governance and business. He built and sold a couple of businesses after retiring his practice as a gastroenterologist in 2000. He is a former chairman of the board at Rhode Island Hospital and clinical professor emeritus at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University.
All of that was a prelude to what Iannuccilli sees as his latest mission in life, which is to be a historian who encourages other people to be historians.
“I once gave my mother a big book with a list of questions,” he said. “How did you meet my father? When was your first kiss? Things like that. Then she wrote about taking milk of magnesia before going to dances. She said all the girls did that, to have flat stomachs for the dances.”
As a doctor, Iannuccilli confesses he was taken aback by the knowledge that his mother and his aunts used to purge themselves with laxatives before a dance, a culturally accepted and common form of bulimia, “just so they could have flat stomachs for the boys.”
Iannuccilli still encourages people to record their experiences of growing up Italian and maintains a blog toward that end. In the meantime, just about everybody can enjoy Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner? It has a pleasant mix of nostalgia and humor that anyone can relate to, as when his father attempts to describe the idiomatic sense of time as a type of social event:
“‘Well, I might have a beer if at a time.’
‘A time? What’s that?’
‘A time, you know. Where people get together to eat and drink.’
‘Oh. We have a time every Sunday at Grandma’s.’
‘Noooo, not that kind of a time. I mean a real time with lots, really lots, of people. And they talk, hug and kiss you. And they drink and eat a lot. And then you can say they had a time. And they say, “What a time it was!” Now do you understand?’
Eventually, ‘time’ as a special event sinks in for the boy just before he goes to celebrate his own special event:
“‘And you just can’t have a time any old time, right?’
‘Right. Now you get it.’
‘Yep, now I get it. I am getting dressed. Let’s go to my time.’
‘Your timing is perfect.’
And what a time it was.