Remembering Mama with 1940s Italian Cooking

 Posted by on Jan 31, 2017 at 9:26 PM
Jan 312017
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Remembering Mama

Remembering Mama Judy Anderson GraduationIt’s been two years since I lost my mom and I still want to pick up the phone and ask her about a recipe, tell her about the kids, or just whine a titch like a little girl. Which brings me to today’s blog post. My mom could cook, from scratch, and I took on that love, and it’s one of the ways I keep her alive.

She grew up in an Italian/German neighborhood in Erie, Pennsylvania at a time when everyone self-segregated into their own ‘hoods, or wards— as she called them. We aren’t Italian and are from mixed European heritage with a lot of German, Polish, Irish, and English, and although my grandparents didn’t speak any German, somehow they ended up living in the German ward. Or maybe because they were all very Catholic and the wards grew around the churches? So many more questions I wish I would’ve asked.

You Say Tamale, I say Ravioli

I grew up, not making homemade tamales as I do now that I live in a border state, but making homemade marinara sauce, homemade ravs (ravioli), and stuffed shells.  Today, I’d like to help keep my mom’s memory alive with her stuffed shells recipe. She used the same stuffing for her ravioli, making dough from scratch. Shells are a little of a cheat, as I buy the grocery store boxed shells, but they still evoke the old school flavor and nostalgia of  ravioli. This recipe is from at least the 1940s if not earlier.

The other interesting tie-in is when researching The Flapper Affair (my 1920s murder-mystery, time-travel, paranormal romance novel–if you were a GitJD Newsletter subscriber you’d have gotten a FREE preview–sign up now), I found fun facts  in: From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione – The Story of Italian Restaurants in America.

spaghetti 25 cents vintage Italian foodProhibition Speakeasies Give Rise to Italian Cuisine Popularity

Prohibition went nationwide in January, 1920. With it, the making, selling and transportation of alcoholic beverages was prohibited. For most Italian restaurateurs, this was potentially calamitous. Wine was a nearly necessary accompaniment to an Italian meal, certainly so for the immigrants. It was so ingrained that it was common for Italians to begin drinking wine, in diluted fashion, as children.

Most Italians still drank wine. There was a provision in the Prohibition prohibitions that allowed for up to 200 gallons of wine to be made at home. Prohibition was certainly an incentive for even more American Italians to make wine, if they were not doing so already. “In 1917, when wine was legal, Americans consumed 70 million gallons – imported, domestic, and homemade. By 1925 Americans were drinking 150 million gallons of just the homemade stuff,” reported in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Bootleggers and restaurants provided a ready – if not legal – market for those homemade wines. The supply existed, as 200 gallons was far more than a typical household would need, in almost any case.

Italy 1948 remembering mama Italian recipeMost Italian restaurants continued to provide wine, though usually surreptitiously. Like many other places, San Francisco’s Fior d’Italia poured it in coffee cups to deflect attention, which worked for a while. But constant harassment from authorities caused it to eventually cease serving wine. With decreased business the restaurant moved in 1929 to smaller quarters that were able to accommodate about a quarter the number of diners than before, about 200. Though Prohibition made normal operations more difficult for Italian eateries, it killed nearly all of the fine-dining restaurants in the country. The better restaurants had always relied on selling wine and liquor to be profitable. And, people wanted to drink during the 1920s as they always had. So, they often visited the speakeasies rather than those high-end restaurants that did not serve alcohol.

According to Mary Grozvenor Ellsworth in her book Much Depends on Dinner : “Prohibition…had a great deal to do with the introduction of Italian food to the masses… The Italians who opened up speakeasies by the thousand were our main recourse in time of trial. Whole hordes of Americans thus got exposed regularly and often to Italian food….Tips in speakeasies were so much larger, so was the earning power of their waiters and chefs; this attracted the best in the business.

forks spaghetti vintage Italian food artRemembering Mama’s Recipe

Marinara Sauce Ingredients:

  • Yellow onion diced small
  • Small head of garlic smashed-all cloves (I find this works well in a plastic baggie and hammer after removing skin)
  • White Mushroom
  • Dried and fresh Oregano
  • Dried and fresh Basil
  • Spring of Rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Tablespoon (more or less) Garlic powder
  • Tablespoon (or more to taste) white sugar
  • 1/4 – 1/2 dry red wine
  • 1/8 cup grated Parmesan
  • 28 oz of petite diced tomato
  • 28 oz tomato sauce
  • 28 oz crushed tomato
  • 12 oz tomato past
  • 12 oz water

Saute mushrooms and onion in a couple of table spoons of olive oil. When onions turn translucent add fresh garlic–do not allow to burn. Add all other ingredients, let stew for at least 5 hours, (longer is better, then cool overnight and reheat–it gels flavors). Stir while on stove.

italian meat stuffed shellsMeat Filling for Shells

  • 2.5 pounds hamburger meat (I prefer lean 85-90%)
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Garlic powder
  • 1/2 a minced onion
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped frozen spinach (defrosted, water drained)
  • Dash of Oregano & Basil

Brown hamburger draining excess fat as you go. Add all ingredients mix well and finish cooking. Stuff into already boiled and soft pasta shells. Line baking pan with marinara sauce arrange shells in pan. Drizzle sauce between shells cover and cook for 20 minutes on 350.

Italian cheese stuffed shellsCheese filling for shells

  • 1 lb ricotta (NOT low-fat) cheese
  • 1/4 lb Mozzarella fresh grated (do not use pre-grated)
  • 1/4 Fresh grated Romano or Parmesan cheese (NOT pre-grated)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil

Add all ingredients except basil, mix with electric mixer, hand fold in chopped basil. Line baking pan with marinara, fill pre-boiled pasta shells, arranging in pan. Drizzle between shells with sauce. Cover and cook on 350 for 30-40 minutes.


Do you have any old family recipes that aid in remembering mama? Have you tried making tamales and or ravioli and or shells? Which to you find most difficult? What other traditions to you have to help remember loved ones? What kind of vintage cooking do you like best?

Tam Francis, authorTam Francis is a writer, blogger, swing dance teacher, avid vintage collector, and seamstress. She  shares her love of this genre through her novels, blog, and short stories. She enjoys hearing from you, sharing ideas, forging friendships, and exchanging guest blogs. For all the Girl in the Jitterbug Dress news, give-aways, events, and excitement, make sure to join her list and like her FB page! Join my list ~ Facebook page



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  2 Responses to “Remembering Mama with 1940s Italian Cooking”

Comments (2)
  1. Great blog. Love those shells and homemade sauce

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