The passionate peasant

I like to think of Angelo Pellegrini, in my journalist’s fashion, as The Passionate Peasant. A peasant he was born, in the village of Casabianca, in the Arno River Valley, in Tuscany, in Northern Italy. It was a hard life he knew there, a constant struggle for food. Pelle remembers it, his writings make clear, without bitterness or self-pity. Though he is thoroughly educated, in the fullest sense of that word, though he lives a life of plenty and comfort far beyond the imaginings of a Tuscan peasant in the early part of this century, though he has not lived in Casabianca for nearly 70 years, Pelle is still a peasant. He is the first to understand that. In fact, there is a certain pride in his understanding. for Pelle is still guided by the ancient peasant virtues.

Foremost among these is the commitment to family and community, to sharing. There are also these: hard work; frugality; a reverence for the soil and what grows there.

Pelle’s passion for life—for what he calls “the good life”—did not necessarily come also from Casabianca. Peasants call be dumb, numb, narrow-minded, intolerant. Pelle is none of these. At 78, his mind is alert to new ideas; his zest for music, jokes, people, books, food, and drink is undiminished. The passion, perhaps, came from his parents, who must have been remarkable.

They were set apart from their neighbors in Casabianca, if only by their ambition, their courage in seeking to provide better for the family. Pelle’s father found work in Europe and Africa. His mother spent time with his father in Algiers, where she was a wet nurse in a grand family. Finally, his father set off to the edge of the world, to America. When he was established as a railroad hand for the Henry McCleary Timber Co., in the company town of McCleary, Washington, near Olympia, he sent for his family. Mother Pellegrini, speaking no English, and with no idea where McCleary was or even how broad was the American continent, set off with five children to join her husband. Pelle has written dramatically of their fearful journey and of the courage and determination his mother exhibited in seeing them through to their new home.

In a powerful essay for a small magazine that was picked up by The Reader’s Digest and later became one of the sketches in his book about Italian immigrants, Americans by Choice (Macmillan, 1956), Pelle wrote this about his mother:

“Her Italian friends, with an uncanny talent for summarizing a character in a single word, called her Bimbina, which is a slight Tuscan perversion of Bimbilla—little girl. The name described perfectly her infectious humor and her willingness to participate in any community mood that brought hearts closer together. . . .

“They were small hands, but thick, with bulging knuckles and cracked skin—hands that had never known the dubious luxury of idle hours. They had woven and spun and carded flax; they had tilled the soil, wielded sickle and scythe, and held the spade and hoe in their firm grip. They had cut the grape, pruned the vine, and stripped leaves from the mulberry tree to feed the silkworm. They had washed clothes, made tons of bread, scrubbed floors, and prepared innumerable meals. . . . ‘Noi altri che non abbiamo educazione bisogna avere giudizio nelle mani’ (We who have no education must have good sense in our hands.)”

His father, if only by example, allowed Pelle later in life to feel comfortable in the kitchen, for it was unusual for a peasant man to cook. Pelle wrote of this aspect of his heritage in his autobiographical Immigrant’s Return (Macmillan, 1953):

“[H]e had a taste for good food and good wine. Like so many men who are genuinely interested in food and discriminating in their tastes, he had learned to cook, and he enjoyed cooking whenever he had the opportunity. The cultivated peasant, with the instincts of a gentleman, could be seen regularly at the kitchen range on Sunday: smoothshaven, black hair parted on the side, the sleeves of the white shirt rolled above the elbows, Mother’s embroidered apron tied around his waist, whistling merrily among his pots and pans, in the hot glow of the stove, preparing for his family and his friends the chicken or the rabbit he had dressed the day before.”

Read on . . .