Eating Like My Ancestors: A 7-Day Experiment

By Kelly Florio Kasouf

March 24, 2019

I didn’t get my first haircut at a salon until I was 16, and even then it felt like I was somehow cheating on my upbringing.

Let me take a step back and explain—and by step I mean leap.

After my dad died when I was 26, I realized there was a generational role reversal on my paternal side, because my Italian family was raised by women. Even though my dad was a larger-than-life man who dominated in the media world, the women in his family were the backbone to its success. It’s a simple concept for us now to understand, but back then, at the turn of the century, a family raised by women in all roles (caregiver, breadwinner) was just unheard of.

Above: The writer, Kelly, getting her hair cut at age seven by her grandmother, Sophie. Below: Angela and Mike Masciale's family portrait, circa 1927, with Sophie standing in front of Angela.

It made me realize how important women were in my particular family and how they were the glue and secret sauce to success.

My great-grandmother was one of more than enough siblings, and back in Italy during the Italo-Turkish War, the youngest and most definitely the girls, were sent off to either a convent or an orphanage. Incredible options, I know.

So Angela Acquafredda, my great-grandmother who was sent to a convent to live, stole a slew of silver candelabras from the nuns and decided to head to America… by herself… at 19.

Let that sink in.

A 19-year-old penniless single woman who could not speak English.

On November 13, 1920, Angela from Bitonto, Bari, Italy, arrived at Ellis Island on the SS New York. Her place on the ship was steerage—passenger #12.

After finding a home in Queens, she learned to speak English by paying a kid down the street 5¢ a week. She worked hard. She had pride. And until the day she died, though she wasn’t showy with her beauty, she wore a full face of makeup and set hair—she knew how to elevate her best assets.

She eventually married Michael Masciale, also from Bitonto, who ran an ice-block distribution in the Harlem section of New York, like many Italian men at the time. He was also part of the Ice Block War, but that’s another story for another time.

Even though my dad was a larger-than-life man who dominated in the media world, the women in his family were the backbone to its success.
One of Angela’s five kids was my grandmother Sophie. After having three sons when her husband came back from war, Sophie had to play two roles: caretaker and secret breadwinner. It didn’t matter because she had the secret sauce: She wanted to work and grow. She was a beautician, but didn't stop there, and eventually owned her own establishment by the early 1960s.

One of Sophie’s three sons was my dad. He was your typical Queens kid from a first-generation Italian family. There were Sunday dinners, lawn conversations, heavy footsteps on linoleum tile, and over-elaborate Christmas Eves, but what connected him to his mother and grandmother was perseverance and the desire for more.

So is this trait genetic? Did what my great-grandmother ingrain in her blood, the secret sauce of success on the way to America, somehow get embedded into those related?

I am going to recreate my great-grandmother’s lifestyle during her voyage for one week and try to understand her hardships because, even at 38, I have become so fearful in life; I cannot imagine what she went through alone at 19. I need to know how she spent her time in steerage and what kept her going.

Having my hair cut by my grandmother was common. As was working or having a passion for more. We weren’t privileged, but because of my immigrant great-grandmother, we grew. Here.
This is America.

Angela Masciale and Kelly at 6 months old, during a Sunday dinner
My Journey

Day 1:

After researching the Ellis Island archives and picking up a copy of The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook by Tom Bernardin, I learned that the majority of passengers who traveled in steerage had very little options for meals, and whatever they traveled with was to last the two-week voyage without spoiling. Although the recipes are inspired by the meals they began to eat once in America, the meal my great-grandmother ate in steerage most likely consisted of boiled potatoes, cured meats, and mustasole, an extremely dry cookie that, when water was added, would moisten, making it easier to eat. Mustasole could last up to a year if void of moisture.

So that’s what I eat—potatoes, no coffee, and mustasole, which may have loosened a few fillings. Without caffeine and other foods, I’m sleepy with a slight headache. I decide to stockpile my cured meats for a larger meal when I need it more, later in my “voyage.”

Showers or bottled water would have been considered a luxury, so I take my showers with a stationary washstand. During the time of her voyage, the berths were segregated, males from females—I plan to sleep alone for a week as well.

Day 2:

The smell of almond paste isn’t bothering me... yet. I consume a few more mustasole cookies, wishing I had a cup of coffee to dip them in. The water I drizzle on the cookie is helping it down my throat, but at the same time, I feel like it is scratching my throat and stomach.

I shower standing up next to a sink and have one to two cups of water to drink throughout the day. It’s not much; clean water was a luxury.

For dinner, I have a few slices of cured meat to satisfy my hunger, but the saltiness makes me thirsty for more water.

I’m irritable and cranky, also slightly scatterbrained. Today I found car keys in the fridge. This is going well so far.

Day 3:

I want potatoes and pasta and grits, and wine and coffee for breakfast. I’m tired and weak but throw down a few potatoes with some water and munch on a few arid mustasole cookies again. They fill my belly but without the satiation any carb would usually give me.

My hair is looking like it could grease up a skillet in a diner. No hair color, tweezers or razor. I am definitely looking primal.

Kelly, during her preteen years, taking moment to chat with the matriarchs, Angela, far left, and Sophie

Day 4:

Since breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, I treat myself to a few cured meat slices, stewed prunes, and, yes, more mustasole. Also, prunes was a bad idea.

I try to drink more water, but it only makes me feel hungry in an odd way. I want to work out but am dizzy so I stay close to home and want to nap more than work. My children are starting to fear my mood swings and think I look slightly insane.

Day 5:

At this point in the voyage my great-grandmother could most likely feel the end was near. I mark the moment by feasting throughout the day.

The feast was a bad idea. I eat too many cured meats and boiled potatoes. I treat the cookies like they are (gasp!) a dessert and eat too many. My stomach is overly bloated and my head is pounding. I obviously overcompensated and now want to crawl into my guest bed, and crash. My one towel is looking gnarly so I decide to trade it in for one more. I want to feel and look clean on day seven, the day my great-grandmother would most likely need to see the medical ward for any diseases that could hinder her acceptance into America.

Day 6:

Whenever offered, I have water. It is not a lot but enough to keep my mouth wet and stomach somewhat full. I only eat mustasole today and one to two slices of cured meat for dinner. I pass on the potatoes and have the scraps of my family’s steak dinner. Immigrants would sometimes share meals together so I figure a small grizzle of steak isn’t so bad.

I bathe in the morning and evening to keep extra clean and drink one glass of water before bed. Giddy for my final day.

Day 7:

It must have been a dream for her. To wake up and eagerly await the vision of Lady Liberty. Standing tall on the coast of Manhattan, a bustling city that was so far removed from the convent she was sent to, the rural farmland her family lived in, the seaside town where she grew up. The smell, the noise, the excitement must have made her head, already light from the lack of nutrition and meals, feel like a balloon floating over her body.

I eat my last mustasole cookie, my last cured meats, and a heaping glass of water before signing off on this epic week. I don’t think I will ever look at almond paste and feel the texture of Italian cookies the same way again. The brittle cookie we are so used to seeing in every Italian bakery, meticulously stacked high in glass-lit display cases, as if they were tiny encrusted jewels, means more to me now. I connected with my great-grandmother over flour, eggs, and almond paste. Her trip was far more brutal than anything I could have imagined but she survived. She persevered and crushed the American Dream.

Kelly Florio Kasouf is an author, essayist and longtime magazine vet—and, now, a contributing editor at VB Edit. Read more of her writing here.