The cover of “Nana’s Creole Italian Table” is a close-up photo of what we in New Orleans would call red gravy.
I can almost smell the thick tomato sauce speckled with flecks of onion, garlic and herbs. How many times did I watch my Sicilian grandmother make such a sauce? How many times have I made it myself?
Quality over quantity: How to throw together a spectacular pasta salad
Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, explores the evolution of dishes like this in her first cookbook, which is part historical journey and part memoir.
It tells the tale of her Sicilian relatives, who, like mine, were among the more than 4 million Italians who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of the Sicilians came through New Orleans.
Jump to the recipe
African, French and Spanish influences on New Orleans food are widely known, Williams said. But outside the city, the Italian flavor — let alone Sicilian — often is overlooked.
“When you read books about Italian food and Italian history in America, they almost never mention New Orleans,” she said. Many readers are surprised to learn there was a “Little Palermo” neighborhood in the French Quarter.
“What’s been gratifying,” she said, “is to have people tell me — people who are not of Sicilian heritage — how they identified with the story of the book, if not necessarily the food. … The immigrant story repeats itself in the same way over and over.”
Immigrant food can be a time capsule, she said.
“You have this huge number of people who are born here, or the little children who are born there but grow up here. They learn what it means to be Sicilian from their elders, and then 30 years later, 50 years later, Sicily remains, in their minds, what it used to be.
Make a big batch of pantry-friendly tomato sauce for a leg up on dinner all week
“We have food that we still eat here that they don’t eat in Sicily anymore. All of us here have an idea of what Sicily is based on something frozen in time. We say, ‘Oh, this is Sicilian.’ Well, it’s not. It’s New Orleans Sicilian. … That happens with many immigrants.”
Of the recipes included, about 80 percent reflect her family’s regular menus, she said, but they also reveal how food evolves. Fried eggplant served with a marinara sauce is an example.
“I couldn’t leave that out … because we ate it all of the time. It was one of my mother’s appetizers for any kind of party she gave. They make rounds of eggplant in Sicily, but here she made them in sticks.
“The sticks are eaten with Béarnaise sauce at Antoine’s” restaurant in New Orleans, Williams said. “My mother is gone, so I can’t ask her if she made them as sticks because she ate them that way at Antoine’s. It makes you think about the social invention that is cuisine.”
Williams’s mother’s story shares commonalities with my own mother’s. Both were born in New Orleans to immigrant parents, so each had a foot in both worlds. Both longed to be “American.” And both married a non-Sicilian. (Her family referred to that man as “the American,” and his preferences influenced her mother’s cooking, resulting in red beans and rice and gumbo on the table.)
Of the Creamy Shrimp Pasta Salad featured below, she said: “This is what my father ate, and my mother made it.”
“Look at what goes in it,” she said, noting the Parmesan, garlic, anchovies, shrimp, tomatoes and pasta. “That’s so Sicilian, but it totally evolved into this American thing.”
6 weeknight pasta recipes that get dinner ready in a snap
Williams, who founded the nonprofit Southern Food and Beverage Museum in 2004, has worked for decades to ensure that recipes and foodways, with all of their origin stories, context and evolution, are kept alive.
SoFab, which is now part of the National Food & Beverage Foundation, offers museum exhibits, tours, classes and food culture events. In October, it opened the SoFab Research Center at Nunez Community College in Chalmette, La., with more than 40,000 culinary books, thousands of menus, pamphlets and artifacts.
By marrying practical and hands-on experiences with the academic, Williams said, the foundation is working to give people a more grounded experience and understanding.
Tell The Post: What’s your most memorable Thanksgiving cooking disaster story?
She hopes her cookbook will do that, too, but she also decided to write it for very personal reasons.
“I really wanted my grandchildren, as they were growing up, to know something about their heritage that they couldn’t possibly experience because all of these people are gone.”
Like so many of us who cook our family’s food, Williams worked from memory.
“I learned by cooking with my grandmother and my mother. There was no handwritten recipe that got handed down to me. They had me in the kitchen from the time I was big enough to stand.”
When she was making a big batch of cookies, her grandmother would dump the flour on the table. Depending on how much she had — 3 pounds, 5 pounds — and the weather (“She’d put her hand in the air and decide what the humidity was”), she’d adjust the recipe on the fly.
How to make a family cookbook, filled with recipes from your favorite people
Williams’s advice to others who want to pass those family recipes to the next generation: “Take the time to actually measure. … Every time you make something, you say, this time I’m going to write it down. Make sure your children and grandchildren are cooking with you. Even if they are just in the kitchen and you’re putting little things in their mouths to keep them there.”
Use real semolina pasta, such as De Cecco brand, to avoid a mushy pasta salad. The salad can be made with shrimp, as directed, but is also great with crabmeat, crawfish tails or any combination. Be sure to lightly salt the pasta. The anchovies, the cheese and, depending on how it is prepared, the seafood already may be salty.
NOTE: To cook the shrimp, bring a medium pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the shrimp and return to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and poach the shrimp until pink and curled, 2 to 3 minutes. Test a shrimp to see that it is done and opaque throughout, then drain. Cooking time may vary with the size of the shrimp.
Make Ahead: The dressing can be made up to 2 days in advance.
Storage: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.
Want to save this recipe? Click the bookmark icon below the serving size at the top of this page, then go to My Reading List in your washingtonpost.com user profile.
Scale this recipe and get a printer-friendly, desktop version here.
Make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, Parmesan, garlic and lemon juice until combined. Mash the anchovies with the side of a knife, and stir them into the dressing. If the mixture is too stiff, add more lemon juice.
Make the salad: In a large bowl, combine the shrimp, pasta, tomatoes, bell peppers, parsley and basil. Pour over the dressing and toss to coat. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Top with a few basil leaves and serve, family-style.
Per serving (1 generous cup), based on 9
Calories: 481; Total Fat: 20 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 136 mg; Sodium: 764 mg; Carbohydrates: 50 g; Dietary Fiber: 4 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 23 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “Nana’s Creole Italian Table” by Liz Williams (Louisiana State University Press, 2022).
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to [email protected].
Scale this recipe and get a printer-friendly, desktop version here.
Browse our Recipe Finder for more than 9,900 Post-tested recipes.
Did you make this recipe? Take a photo and tag us on Instagram with #eatvoraciously.
This creamy shrimp salad has Sicilian roots by way of New Orleans – The Washington Post