Kingsport Times-News: Trigiani sisters talk about food and Appalachia’s place in the world

Trigiani sisters talk about food and Appalachia’s place in the world

Mike Still • Apr 15, 2019 at 6:30 PM

BIG STONE GAP — Don’t rinse pasta.

That was just one of several observations from Adriana and Mary Trigiani on Sunday as they met with fans, answered questions and signed books for a crowd of about 50 at Mountain Empire Community College.

The event — “Stirring Up Romance” — saw the town natives and sisters getting reacquainted with childhood friends and meeting new people at a social in the college’s Goodloe Center before an audience question-and-answer session on stage.

Proceeds from the day went to the John Fox Jr. Museum and the June Tolliver House in Big Stone Gap.

With Mary serving as moderator and respondent, she and Adriana found several ways to connect food with their experiences growing up in Big Stone Gap and to their later experiences outside the region.

Adriana related her own experience as a volunteer server at a wedding meal at the John Fox Jr. House, when she spilled a plate of chicken on the father of the bride.

“Adriana, I don’t think this is going to work out,” she recalled hostess and town figure Barbara Polly telling her. “I said, ‘So I’m fired?’ She said ‘Yes, but this is volunteer,’”

“She said, ‘This still isn’t going to work out,’ ” Trigiani said to audience laughter.

Having written several novels drawing on her experiences and directed a movie drawn from one, “Big Stone Gap”, Adriana said she has found that stereotypes of the Appalachian region still depict the region in a poor light.

“That’s why this area is the most maligned … because it’s the most vulnerable,” Adriana said of how the region is viewed nationally. At the same time, Appalachia has contributed much to American culture through its influence on popular music, literature and film.

Big band music — a frequent feature in some of her novels — ties in with aspects of Italian American family life and her depiction of Appalachia, Adriana said. African American culture from the South and the Appalachian region directly influenced big band music with its ability to connect with all parts of American society.

The Second World War — another theme in Adriana’s novels — was a period where class lines faded or were abolished as people of different backgrounds depended on each other for survival. One aspect of that was American soldiers turning postwar after experiencing Italian food and making it a widespread part of American culture since.

The sisters’ Italian heritage also reflected Appalachian life, with both cultures being welcoming of others, Adrian said.

When asked why one never rinses pasta, Adriana first told about how her father went on Lent to ask if Big Stone Gap Elementary and Powell Valley High schools could switch Friday’s normal menu of hamburgers to Thursday’s usual soup beans because the Trigianis were Catholic and observed meatless Fridays.

“Now he wasn’t doing it because we couldn’t bring our lunch or something,” Adriana said. “It was to make the point they’re Catholic and maybe we should have a conversation, that was his major point. Mr. Gilliam says, ‘Stop right there, Anthony, stop right there. … You don’t have to worry about a thing because there ain’t no meat in those hamburgers.’ They were soy burgers.”

After the audience settled down from laughing, Adriana said rinsing the salt water from the noodles makes them “the way they used to be in school, which is pieces of sponge, tasteless, horrible, wet, no flavor.

In writing their cookbook, “Cooking With My Sisters,” the Trigianis discovered how dialect is important to Appalachian people and Italians, too. Mary recalled how they were looking for a cookie recipe and had to learn how the same recipe had different names in different Italian and European regions.

“We come from can-do, clever people,” Adriana said of her family’s Italian heritage. “I see that here, too.”

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