Last week, America celebrated National Fig Newton Day. Or those who knew it might have. Linda made some of these wonderful cookies and as I bit into one I remembered the first time I saw my Uncle Caesar, the man who made his fortune in America and welcomed us with open arms. He loved Fig Newtons…
I’m ten years old, standing on the deck of the ‘Vulcania’ as she pulls up to the New York quay where we will be reunited with my father, Constantino. Although my mother speaks English, she has not taught her children the language and I will quickly discover that my father despises it and everything American. In fact, he will soon return to Italy and excise himself from our American lives.
But who is that extraordinary figure standing beside him – the man with the huge golden teeth, now glittering in a rictus of greeting? And that monstrous nose? The massive eyeglasses? The huge and bushy eyebrows? If I’d even heard of Groucho Marx, I might be wondering why he’s standing next to my dad and waving at us.
Then I realize that this is Uncle Caesar, complete with joke disguises, the man who came to America as a teenager to work in the coal mines of the South and stayed when his parents went back to Italy. He’s a legend in our family. Wealthy, worldly, funny, adventurous and the perfect example of the Italian immigrant who fulfills his dream in America.
I will quickly overcome my initial fear (those huge gleaming teeth!) and come to love his comical antics. In fact, they start the moment he introduces us to American food. At breakfast, he offers us pancakes with log cabin syrup and, according to Uncle Caesar, the American way to is stack everything on your plate and drink the syrup straight from its tin log cabin.
My mother is mortified but can’t help smiling.
At lunch, Uncle Caesar asks us how we’d like a couple of dogs. Dogs? What Godforsaken place have they brought us to? A country that eats dogs! I think of Catuscia, the much-loved Great Dane we had to abandon in our flight from Asmara, barely a step ahead of the Eritrean rebels.
Unk, as we now call him, explains that it’s OK to eat these American dogs, hot dogs. It’s not long before I get used to American fare (though we will always preserve our Italian traditions), and memories of our flight from Eritrea to Italy, aboard a Red Cross ship, begin to fade.
Food. Comfort, consolation and sheer pleasure. I will have a life long affair with it.
Uncle Caesar was addicted to Fig Newtons and took them everywhere he went. We ate handfuls in his brand new Lincoln Continental, all the way from New York City to Hammond, Indiana, where we first settled.
And now, on National Fig Newton Day, Linda is making her own version. I wonder how she could possibly improve on the symmetrical little bars of which I have bought many thousands, always remembering that drive across the northern states with Uncle Caesar. Naturally, I keep my doubts to myself (I may be a slow learner but I learn nonetheless!).
Once again, Linda’s culinary talent opens my eyes. She adds the ingredients that she calls ‘the Italian touch’ and I can honestly say that I have never tasted anything so delicious. They leave the originals standing in the dust and I wish that Uncle Caesar were here to try them.-