The Folklore of Making Tomato Sauce

Newfoundland’s Memorial University is famous for its Folklore department and may boast the only such program in Canada – at least in the English language. (The Université Laval in Quebec has a French Ethnology program). But it still takes quite a stretch of the imagination to connect that and the making of tomato sauce by third generation Italians in Montreal East.

Montrealer Laura Sanchini did more than simply make that connection. Following a B.A. in history and religious studies at McGill University, Laura decided to pursue her Masters at Memorial University where she is presently in the process of completing her thesis on … you guessed it … the making of tomato sauce among her generation of Italians.

“Any academic I spoke to about my interest in folklore told me that Memorial University was the only place I should consider because their folklore department has a world-class reputation,” explains Laura. “When I first started the two-year M.A. program, I had to take courses on folklore theory, genre and methodology. Since then I’ve taken graduate courses on Newfoundland folklore, belief, legend, and cultural tourism.

“Every course entailed a research paper and I’ve mostly focused my coursework on folksong and performance in St. John’s and the Italian community in Montreal. This year I’m expected to produce a thesis that adds to the body of folklore knowledge through theory and extensive fieldwork. My thesis focuses on cultural identity among young Montreal Italians.”

Originally, Laura, whose own cultural background includes a mother who came to Canada at the age of seven and a dad who was born here (his own father having come over at a young age), was hoping to focus her research on the immigration narratives of her grandparents’ generation. But she soon became more interested in why members of her generation often thought of themselves as more Italian than Canadian.

“Most of us haven’t spent any great length of time in Italy and don’t even speak the language fluently,” she says. “However, there is a very strong sense of cultural identity among young Montreal Italians and I wanted to explore this through a folkloric lens. I interviewed over 20 people about their experiences growing up Italian in Montreal. From these interviews, a few major themes began cropping up, most notably, the tomatoes.

“Most of the food traditions I asked my informants about (wine making, cheese making, pasta making, sausages) had either been discontinued or were mostly kept up by the grandparents. Also, apart from not being kept up, the wine and sausage making were generally male centred, and the young men I interviewed were not very concerned with continuing these traditions. The tomato making, however, was a different story. It was the only tradition that most of my female informants kept alive and took part in.”

Again, Laura indicated that she did not intend on focusing the largest part of her thesis on tomato making – at least not initially. But she soon changed her mind after speaking to the younger women who took part in the tradition. Not only were these women very involved in the tomato making, but they also expressed a great interest in making sure the tradition survived into the future. It was then that Laura began asking older women about its history and trying to make the folkloric connection.

“From what I have gathered, before the Second World War, tomato making was almost non-existent in Italy,” says Laura. “They would buy some form of tomato concentrate when they wanted sauce and dilute it. It was only post-war, that canning tomatoes became popular.

“So, for many of the post-war immigrants in Canada, tomato making was a fairly new tradition. One informant told me her family had only made tomatoes for four years before moving to Canada.”

Laura points out that, for a tradition that does not have any longstanding history in Italy, it seems to have become a very important and integral part of the Montreal Italian experience – and in other parts of Canada as well.

“Every September,” she says, “in St-Léonard or Rivière-des-Prairies, you can walk down the street and see the open garage doors, with the propane tanks. And you know an Italian family is in there making their sauce for the upcoming year.”

Interestingly enough, there is a lingering belief that “real” Italians would never eat sauce from a can and boast of the freshness of their pasta sauce. But Laura argues that this type of tomato sauce making is the “authentic” way of doing it – even though she insists on quote marks around “authentic,” because it is a loaded word in folklore studies.

“You see this phenomenon in other cultures,” she points out. “In Scotland for example, they see Cape Breton as having the “authentic” type of Scottish step dancing that Scotland has supposedly lost over the years. The reasons my informants want to keep up the tradition of tomato making were varied. However, most saw it as a way of keeping up their ‘Italian-ness,’ in the same way one would speak the language or visit Italy regularly.”

Laura did not have a specific set of folkloric elements that she wished to test through the tomato sauce making by third-generation Italians in Montreal. Nor did she have a pre-set narrative to go with the tradition.

“The narrative usually begins to emerge after I have transcribed all the interviews and have had the time to sit and think them through,” she says. “Often in folklore, the first ideas you had about a project get thrown out the window pretty early on. When dealing with people and culture you really need to have an open mind.”

Laura gathered most of her information on tomato making and the reasons behind it by talking to young Montreal Italians and conducting face-to-face interviews with them. She took advantage of email when she had to follow up and found herself back in Newfoundland. She also decided to film the tomato making process as a way to document it for future research or perhaps to use in another project.

“And it helps to have film when I try to explain the process to non-Italians here in Newfoundland!” she explained.

It also helped that she herself had experienced a fairly traditional upbringing typical of a large number of Italian Montrealers – and later experienced life outside that upbringing.

“My nonna took care of me until I went to school,” she says. “I spent most of my time with my grandparents when I was younger. My nonno taught me how to make sausages and wine. My nonna tried to teach me to sew and bake and took me to church.

“Living in Montreal I think I took my heritage for granted because there is such a huge Italian community. Moving to Newfoundland, I have become so much more aware of my culture – probably because there are maybe 10 Italians here! – and I am very grateful for that awareness.”

The next step for Laura is to actually write her thesis. From there, she is planning to apply for a Ph.D. in Folklore at Memorial University. Whatever happens, she has come a long way from her early days at McGill when she first became interested in informal culture and oral history.

“At that point, I did not even know that the discipline of Folklore existed,” she says. “When I found out that Folklore was not simply the study of old things or folk tales, I realized this was something I needed to study.”

And Italian-Canadians who are interested in preserving (and I use the term both literally and figuratively) their heritage can be thankful that Laura did so.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 15.

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