The Family Table: Summer Memories of an Italian-American Jersey Farm Girl

Readers share their treasured recipes
By The Family Table
The Family Table
The Family Table
September 2, 2021 Updated: September 2, 2021

Submitted by Eleanor Rodio Furlong, Naples, Florida

I’m a Jersey girl. I’m a farm girl. I’m an Italian American girl. I grew up on a family farm in a small town in rural southern New Jersey.

I was the youngest of eight children born to Carlo and Frances Rodio. My mother was 41. Nick, my oldest brother, was 22, and Rita, my closest sibling in age, was 8 years old. Sandwiched between them were Nettie, Anna, Henry, Paul, and Florence. Looking back, I realize that on that hot, sunny August day, while the family was busy packing peaches in the back barn, I had just won a lottery. Growing up with seven siblings and aunts, uncles, and cousins that were too many to count left me feeling never alone, even when I was in a room by myself.

Epoch Times Photo
The author, age 4. (Courtesy of Eleanor Rodio Furlong)
Epoch Times Photo
The author (Center) with her older sisters Florence and Rita, and younger niece Rose-Marie. (Courtesy of Eleanor Furlong)
Epoch Times Photo
The author (Left) with her niece Rose-Marie and brother Henry, as he was leaving for WWII. (Courtesy of Eleanor Rodio Furlong)

Our home was a loving place—full of fun, laughter, and an abundance of food. Rosedale, a suburb of Hammonton, New Jersey, was where it all began. I would like to say that Rosedale is where I grew up, but Rosedale was just the beginning. I am 84 years old now and still growing up.

Webster defines the word “clan” as “a large group of relatives, friends, or associates.” This best describes my memory of growing up in the 1940s and ’50s. Life had an almost magical or idyllic twist to it. Being raised on a farm was country life at its best. Everyone knew one another. No one locked their doors. It was common for a neighbor to wander in at dinnertime and join the family meal. No one was a stranger. Everyone was a friend.

We farmhands moved quickly through the seasons, starting with the spring greens and asparagus spears, then into the summer abundance of vegetables and steamed crabs. Before we had time for some rest and relaxation, the autumn harvest was ready for picking and the time had come for the wine-making and the slaughtering of the hogs. Santa was around the corner, but arrived only after the preparation and feasting of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve.

My dad, Carlo, was born in Serino, Italy, a small village in the province of Avellino, which is about 30 miles from the city of Naples, the capital of the region. A road trip in the area unveils scenery of breathtaking beauty, with streams of water and a mountainous terrain. Its fertile soil enhances the production of chestnuts and grapes for wine. My dad, his parents, his sister Anna, and two of my uncles emigrated to the United States in the early 1890s.

My mother, Frances Massaro, was a city girl who was born in South Philadelphia in the middle of the 1890s. As a young woman, she worked in a fancy millinery shop in Philadelphia. Mom’s parents were natives of Isernia, Italy, a mountainous province in the region of Abruzzo. In 1963, this area, known for simple but rich foods, was included in the formation of the province of Molise. Mom’s Aunt Gabriella owned and operated a restaurant in Rome, but as the Nazis marched in, Aunt Gabriella moved out. I believe that Mom learned well from her ancestors; she became a master of creating one-pot wonders.

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The author’s mother in Philadelphia, 1912. (Courtesy of Eleanor Rodio Furlong)

These brave ancestors, along with more than 4.5 million fellow Italians, emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1920 in one of the largest exoduses in immigration history. The majority of them were from the seven regions located to the south of Rome. Escaping economic decline and political turmoil, they arrived with their faith, values, crafts, work ethics, arts, music, cuisine, and determination for a better life for themselves and their families. Most importantly, they carried with them centuries of traditions, pride for their land, and love for their families.

I watched my parents create meals from almost nothing, utilizing whatever was available or what the land had produced. I can still see Mom going outdoors at dawn to bid good morning to her garden and herbs. She always carried a paring knife, ready to loosen the dandelion greens from their roots. That inspired me to recreate these cherished seasonal recipes. To this day, I cook what’s in season and shop at local farmers markets.

Epoch Times Photo
The author’s parents, with their family, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary in 1954. (Courtesy of Eleanor Rodio Furlong)

Summer Splendor

The sun is hot, the days are long, the farm fields are ripe for the picking, and everyone is busy from dawn until long after dusk. My memories associated with summer are too numerous to capture with ink. How can I describe the scents of the salty air at the shore, fresh ripe berries in the fields, pots of boiling tomatoes with fresh basil on the kitchen stove, or steamed crabs in bushels ready for the outdoor picnic? How can I capture the sounds and echoes of children laughing, of a peach machine grinding as it sorts the fruit, or of a Ferris wheel spinning around with gales of laughter and screeches of joy and excitement?

During summertime, the harvest was perpetual, with my family bringing in crop after crop in a timeless seasonal succession. Preserving was also an ongoing process; sometimes it never seemed to end. Everyone, from small children to wizened grandparents, worked long hours, pitching in to assist in picking fruits and vegetables, cleaning them, and preserving them. The women’s place was in the packing sheds, where they boxed the fruits and vegetables for market.

Mom was at her best, however, when she was canning her jams, veggies, pickles, and fruits for the long winter ahead. Because women were so busy throughout the summer, they had less time for work in the kitchen. They prepared dinners quickly and often resorted to one-pot dishes. Mom was the expert on one-pot meals. The cornucopia of fresh summer herbs, veggies, and fruits provided the foundation for our sustenance.

If any rest or relaxation occurred, it would be on a Sunday or holiday. That was when outdoor grilling took place, and when my dad and brothers went fishing. We always feasted when they had a good catch: There’s no better meal than freshly prepared Jersey fish. My dad loved fishing and spent his last moments of life doing just that. He died on his boat on July 6, 1961, while returning to shore from New Gretna Bay.

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Tomato sauce is best when made with fresh tomatoes. (Melica/Shutterstock)

Fresh Tomato Sauce (Salsa di Pomodori Freschi)

Tomato sauce is best when made with fresh tomatoes. Mom preserved more than 200 quarts each season, assuring enough sauce for the coming year. There are many versions of this sauce, but Dad, who cooked on weekends, was a purist. His simple preparation included a whole onion, which was reserved for my sister Rita, and never used sugar.

This versatile sauce is delicious on any pasta, pizza, or vegetable dish. Refrigerate for one week or freeze for up to three months.

Makes 4 cups

  • 5 pounds ripe fresh tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 onion, whole
  • 2 sprigs parsley
  • 2 sprigs basil
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cut a shallow X on top of each tomato, then immerse the tomatoes in water for 1 to 2 minutes. When the skins begin to loosen, remove from pot with a slotted spoon. Transfer to cold water and drain. Cool.

Remove skins; core and gently squeeze the fruit to dislodge seeds and excess juice. Dice, chop, or pass through a food mill. Set aside.

Heat oil in a non-aluminum saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until soft. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, onion, parsley, and basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf and herb sprigs before serving.

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Holidays called for outdoor feasts, including foods from the grill and the fishermen’s fresh catch of the day. (mpessaris/Shutterstock)

Grilled Chicken (Pollo Grigliato)

Summertime is a fun time. Holidays, such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day, call for outdoor feasts; so did the days when the crabbing was good. Dad would fire up the grill on the patch of green grass nestled between Mom’s rock garden and the peach-packing shed. Our relatives from South Philadelphia were frequent visitors during the summertime. They, along with our nearby neighbors, took part in the outdoor fun. Everyone would bring their specialties, and everything was always homemade. The menu was always flexible, and it depended on what was available.

Serves 12 to 18

  • 4 whole fryers (2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds each)
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
  • 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

Wash chicken in salted water, then rinse well and pat dry. Cut chickens at joints, each into 8 parts. If breasts are large, they can be cut into 3 parts. Reserve backs and necks for stock.

Prepare marinade. Combine lemon juice with remaining ingredients, then add chicken, brushing marinade on all parts. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 8 hours.

Prepare your indoor or outdoor gas, electric, or wood grill as directed until hot. Brush rack with oil. Place chicken on rack and cook until evenly brown. Refrain from turning chicken prematurely; turn when browned. Baste with juices from the marinade.

Submission and recipes excerpted with permission from “A Taste for All Seasons” by Eleanor Rodio Furlong.

Epoch Times Photo
The author with her cookbook, “A Taste for All Seasons,” published Feb. 2021. The book is a collection of recipes, family traditions, and memories from her Italian-American upbringing, travels through Italy, and decades of cooking for family and friends. (Courtesy of Eleanor Rodio Furlong)

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