Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Barbara Barcellona Smith grew up on the central coast of California with her Italian father, Giuseppe Barcellona, and Puerto Rican/ Cuban/ Lebanese mother, Emily. Barbara’s ethnic household was quite unique providing her with a lifetime supply of strange, entertaining, and valuable stories she has written and is excited to share with young readers today. In addition to writing, Barbara worked as a radio promotions director, an award-winning television commercial production coordinator, and a corporate marketer. She has a degree in journalism/public relations from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She was an English as a Second Language educator and currently lives in Enterprise, Alabama.
L’Idea Magazine: You have an Italian father and a Puerto Rican/ Cuban/ Lebanese mother. That is a very interesting ethnic combination. Before we talk about your Italian roots, may I know how did the ethnic fusion on your mother’s side influence you?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: First off, thank you Tiziano for this beautiful opportunity to share my voice, my children’s book, Let’s Eat Snails!, and my experiences with your readers at L’Idea, it is my honor! I am so pleased you’ve asked about my mother, because she is as much an inspiration and hero to me, as is my father. Let’s Eat Snails! is a culinary adventure, a cultural exchange, and a display of tradition, family, and love. My dedication reads: To the original culinary adventurers, my parents Giuseppe and Emily Barcellona.
My mother was experimenting with food long before strange, now gourmet, ideas ever hit trendy shelves. She was making jalapeño jelly 40 years ago! Her Italian Easter breads were beautiful with our decorated eggs displayed like the priceless gems they were to her. She was so happy in the kitchen and she kept the three of us happily engaged early on, as well. We helped her make homemade Italian bread, pasta, and sauce. I literally grew up eating from the melting pot of America! Una “fiesta”, “festa”, “waliima”, of ethnic food aromatized our home 24/7. The air was filled with the smells of Puerto Rican arroz con pollo, Cuban congri, and Lebanese baklava! My father’s always had fruit trees and she’s canned all of it, peaches, pears, and plums, to name a few! For fun, she would take us to the you-pick-it strawberry farm and then teach us how to make homemade preserves and dried fruit sheets. My father was a hunter and she turned all his wild game into delicious delights, from rabbit cacciatore, quail in quick sauce, stuffed squash with venison sausage, to babbalucci, Sicilian snail stew!
My Godmother asked me once, “How did you all turn out so great?” My response, “Involved parents!” My mother kept us active, as laziness was intolerable. She was never idle, so we were never idle! She raised three very productive children with my sister Miriam Barcellona Ingenito being an excellent case in point, as Director of the Financial Information System for California, Fi$Cal. Our lives were spent studying, running, swimming, hiking, biking, camping, fishing, and picking mussels! The best mussels and eel on the Central Coast of California were at Montaña de Oro, near Los Osos. Our family of five, my Puerto Rican grandma, the Palermos, Agostinos, and Vasquezes would load backpacks and wagons and drag them over a mountain of sand, just to find these delectables. Once we arrived, exhausted, Mom and the other matrons would set up day camp and the propane stoves while Dad and the goombahs set out to picking mussels and catching eel with giant, homemade bamboo poles. We ate like kings out there gorging on the fattest, sweetest mussels drown in butter. We hauled the eel back home to the kitchen sink, where they lay in wait, for my American friends, like the protagonist Margie in Let’s Eat Snails!, to arrive and discover they are, in fact, delizioso!
L’Idea Magazine: Obviously, from the topic of your book, we can deduct that the Italian side influenced you in your food choices and passion. How did this happen? How else did your father’s heritage influence your life choices, if any?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: I am from humble Italian beginnings and was raised by parents who taught me to work hard and to believe in my dreams against all odds. My father immigrated to America from Sicily with $500 in his pocket and a fifth-grade education. Everything he built was from hard work and self-education, and his life has provided me with fodder for several children’s stories I’ve written to include, Let’s Eat Snails! It’s always been my life dream to become a published writer and now not only has that dream come true but also my book has earned the endorsement of Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Junot Diaz, along with famed Italian writers like Dan Yaccarino, All the Way to America, and Edvige Giunta, co-editor of The Milk of Almonds!
She says, “This wonderful little book should find a special place in children’s literature that celebrates cultural traditions in all their diversity.” She completely validates my mission! I wrote Let’s Eat Snails! to relay the importance of deep family ties, community, tradition, food, and culture. Those were the values given to me by both parents and those are the values I’ve passed on to my own children.
With his limited education, my father began as an upholsterer in Cleveland. He was a quick study and had a savvy business mind. He quickly learned a new, more lucrative trade and opened up his own cement company called, Barcellona Brothers utilizing the help of my uncles Antonino and Carmelo. He taught himself how to speak English and Spanish and thrived not only in the Italian-American, and Puerto Rican communities but also in all Cleveland communities! My dynamic parents, both tri-lingual by now, quickly and successfully grew the business until they eventually sold it and followed his other Italian brother, Salvatore, to California’s Central Coast.
It was on the Central Coast in Nipomo, while living in the big house with the atrium, beautifully illustrated by Karen Lewis in my story, Let’s Eat Snails!, that I best remember eating the wild game my Dad would shoot and bring home. We didn’t need to eat rabbits, dove, quail, or deer, we just did! And the three of us kids didn’t complain about it either! My mother was the best cook I knew!
She made her own ricotta salata, everything was homemade, nothing was done the easy way in our house, take it from me, the lazy one, I remember! My sister, Miriam, and brother, Francesco, both grew into respectable Italian cooks. My brother ultimately owned his own Italian restaurant, Paisanos Pizza & Pasta in Grover Beach, for 16 years. My mother managed to make all that game taste great; everything tasted great, except tripe! To this day, I really can’t stomach tripe, no matter how it’s prepared. But the point is, I tried it, and the point of Let’s Eat Snails!, encouraging children off of the fast-food menu and onto a more worldly one. Again, we ate what my parents ate, period, no substitutions, no escaping the dinner table, and we are all the better for it!
L’Idea Magazine: You also seem to be very proud to be considered Sicilian besides being Italian. What does that mean to you? Have you been in Sicily? If so, how was your experience there?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: Honestly, growing up my father never really liked differentiating between Italian and Sicilian. He would always say, “We are one Italia”! I think we are all now finally, fully realizing and appreciating, the beauty and abundance that is Sicily. It wasn’t until my own trip to visit my Zia Maria Barcellona Compagnino and my cuginos in Ramacca ten years ago, that I truly knew what it felt like to be specifically Sicilian.
While touring the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, feeling the giant translator box swinging from my neck, and the ancient earth crunching beneath my feet, I set about to learn exactly how many times, indeed, the island of Sicily had been conquered. It was at that moment I had an epiphany, a profound and DNA-deep realization that this island was a true representation of its people. The Sicilian people are strong, fearless, and refusing to accept failure. They remain the ultimate conquerers. This island specifically defines my father, his family in Ramacca, and our family in America. My father overcame extreme strife and literally lived off the land while he tended sheep on a mountainside at 12 years old. His education was the hard one of the land. He was quick (and still remarkably is at 79) with a slingshot and often caught the family’s dinner. The things I write about are from the island’s own DNA, they are fused into my being and a part of who I am and where my roots originated, Sicily!
As I watched ancient Mt. Etna steadily smoking in the distance from my Zia Maria’s rooftop, I could literally feel my father’s childhood. I mean, Mt. Etna was smoking 70 years ago when MY DAD was a kid running up and down the cobbled streets of Ramacca! My trip to Sicily was filled with profound moment after moment from significant to common day. I still remember my “Zia tranquilla” (she was, and by far still is, the calmest Barcellona), whipping off her slipper achase after unruly and loud grandkids in the house. I remember thinking, doesn’t any generation on any continent ever learn, you just don’t mess with a slipper-yielding Sicilian (or Puerto Rican) woman! I also remember marching down four flights of stairs each hot, sunny morning in my American shorts, only to be turned right around, to change into something more “appropriate”, by merely the stares of Sicily’s most ancient matriarchy, my zia and her old cuginas, and of course, the ever-present power of the all-seeing Evil-Eye!
We toured fascinating Siracusa where we saw the Holy Site of the Weeping Madonna, walked through ancient catacombs, marveled at majestic Taormina, and took Holy Communion in a little Catholic Church near my zia’s house. I endlessly tried ordering my American husband a “real Italian meatball” only to find every time I used the word carne, he was served a plate of clams!
Sicily is old and new all fused together by the roots of thousands-years-old olive trees and sprawling modern prickly-pear farms. As we whizzed around the Mediterranean island like all the other pazzo drivers, I felt complete joy and a total connection, and I thought, I am undeniably of this place!
L’Idea Magazine: Your book “Let’s Eat Snails!” is aimed at children, introducing them to ethnic food, ethnic differences, opening the mind about new things… It’s an ambitious goal and you did very well with it. Is it more or less a reconstruction of your own life experiences?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: I am dedicated to expanding the culinary horizons of our children. I believe kids should eat what we eat, just like I had to! Let’s Eat Snails! encourages bravery through an endearing tale of family, friendship, and eating snails! When Margie visits the Barcellona family home, she isn’t ready for what the Sicilian family is bringing to the table: snails! Margie embarks on a culinary adventure in harvesting, purifying, and cooking snails to find out that they are, in fact, delizioso! This book is delicious, fascinating, gorgeous, important, and multiculturally inclusive!
Let’s Eat Snails! gleans from my crazy Italian-American childhood and takes all-aged readers on a culinary adventure. In addition to whetting children’s appetite for new and unfamiliar dishes, Let’s Eat Snails! offers a cultural window into the lives of ethnic neighbors who comprise a large portion of our American society. This book is a metaphor for all sorts of cultural things we’re afraid to try, then try and find we enjoy! Or as my paisana publisher, Suzanne La Rosa, puts it, Let’s Eat Snails! recognizes our differences and shows that what sets us apart also brings us together.
In my Italian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Lebanese house, we grew up eating weird things and all my friends knew not to say, “GROSS” no matter what they saw in the Barcellona kitchen such as dead birds, rabbits, and eel unless we all wanted a 20-minute lecture from the “Sicilian Godfather” on manners and expanding our horizons! While all the other kids had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I was complaining about my capicolla, mortadella and salami sandwiches, “Every single day Mom, really”! It took me years into my adulthood to eat any kind of cold cut, Italian or otherwise!
Our camping trips into the literal middle of nowhere did, in fact, include the kitchen sink! The whole trip was planned around food! While other kids were grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, we were cooking giant pots of pasta with dove and quail in homemade quick sauce! I remember my Dad stopping to pick watercress in the creeks that bubbled across the mountain roads on our drive to the top. And at the end of the day, like typical Italians, we would laugh and laugh around the table, eating bread and cheese while sipping on homemade vino. At night I embraced insomnia, never sleeping a wink, alert to the cacophony of Fred Flintstone snores, coyote howls, raccoons plundering pasta plates, and the never-ending buzz of cow flies in my ear, oh the memoirs of an Italian camping trip survivor! These are just a few tasty samples from my rich and colorful Italian-American childhood that I share with kids in the four books I’ve written.
L’Idea Magazine: Are your next books aimed at doing the same, that is reliving some of your experiences in a very unique household?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: All my books are based on my own cultural experiences growing up with my ethnic parents in Cleveland, Ohio, and Arroyo Grande, California. I’ve also pulled from experiences in Alabama where I’ve lived with my retired military husband for the past 23 years, minus the two years we lived in Korea while he was stationed at Camp Humphreys. Kyle is a retired Army aviator and subsequently transitioned to another helicopter job as basically a teacher of teachers (MOI, mode of operations for instructors) at the Home of Army Aviation, Ft. Rucker. He has two sons, they are grown with their own families now, but I wrote a book about some of the difficulties, we as stepfamily encountered when they were small and growing up.
I felt compelled to write this book because I felt almost like an expert regarding the dynamics of stepfamilies, after all, I was part of one for 23 years. I thought that I could write this because I understood from personal experience the emotional drama and angst young children and their parents go through as divorcing families struggle for control of the most important asset of all, the children. I also knew what heartbreak children suffer, torn between one beloved parent and the other. Being the custodial parent, along with my husband, we were afforded the greatest vantage point into my two stepsons’ lives. Their amazing resilience and capacity to love in spite of all obstacles was a true inspiration for my picture book, The Steps to Our House.
Eight-year-old Bradley leads the young reader up the steps to his house and into his unique life living as part of two families. His comical adventures in his primary home with his mother, stepfather, sister, and stepsiblings give the reader a sense that stepfamilies can be as normal as any. Bradley’s weekend visits with his dad, sister, and stepmother give the reader an endearing viewpoint into the unbreakable father-son bond that transcends physicality.
The Steps to Our House climaxes at Bradley’s first baseball game where he realizes both sets of parents will have to interact for the first time. While at bat, Bradley is distracted by both fathers shouting conflicting advice. Torn between whom to listen, Bradley takes this courage-building opportunity to stand up for himself, ultimately resulting in the betterment of the entire family.
My next picture book is back to being based on my pazza Italian family, I mean there is so much there to pull from! Part of expanding our horizons included on-the-job-lessons in at-home horticulture. My father was a self-trained tree grafter and enjoyed teaching us the beautiful art of growing many different types of fruit on one glorious tree. My ethnic household was quite unique providing me with a lifetime supply of strange, entertaining, and valuable multi-cultural stories such as Grandpa Geppe’s Gifted Tree.
While picking on one another during a mutual visit with their Grandpa Geppe (Giuseppe) one afternoon, cousins Tony and Thomas discover his amazing “gifted” tree. To unite the boys, Grandpa Geppe masterfully compares himself to the orange tree or the “family tree”. He then compares the cousins to the lemon and lime branches off of the grafted or “gifted tree” as they call it, in order to explain how similar fruit types/cousins, such as lemons, limes, grapefruit, and oranges, can all grow from the same citrus tree if grafted properly. As the boys learn how to physically graft a lemon tree to an orange tree, they come to realize their own lives are biologically grafted as well. They come to appreciate their familial similarities and forget their petty differences, all the while learning a bit of Italian, and that Grandpa Geppe’s Tree is truly gifted indeed!
Sneaky Peekers is a Puerto Rican inspiration based on my growing up years with my mother and green thumb grandmother. This picture book takes a “sneaky peek” into the life of a young, Puerto Rican girl named, Miriam. She takes the reader on her garden adventure encountering sneaky peekers of all sorts from snakes, to lizards, to slugs and caterpillars. Children will discover little-known facts about each of these creatures from Miriam’s mishaps while learning something unique about Latin culture.
While Miriam picks strawberries for her big sister’s quinceañera, coming of age party, she learns the value of hard work and persistence as she bravely faces many sneaky peekers. Each animal encounter provides Miriam with a courage-building opportunity that ultimately boosts her self-esteem. She learns that, like the caterpillar and her sister, she too will one day transform into a beautiful butterfly, totally capable of flying with her own two wings!
L’Idea Magazine: You were an English as a Second Language educator but also a radio promotions director, and an award-winning television commercial production coordinator. How did these jobs prepare you and influence you both in your writing choices and style?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: I graduated with a degree in Journalism/Public Relations from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and always knew I was meant to write. But I also always knew the best money would be made in public relations and marketing so the majority of my writing career was business-oriented. I’ve worked on many a press release and many an ad-campaign but of course, it’s hard to squash the creative side of one’s mind permanently.
I was best able to exercise my creative muscle while working for WDFX Fox 34 (located in Ozark, Alabama at the time). I wrote, produced, and directed commercials for television, now that was fun and enlightening! I’ll never forget the heavy-set used-car-lot owner who insisted on dancing what could best be described as some sort of “jig”, every time we shot a commercial. Oh the jiggling he did, in fact, do!! I won a local Addy-award for “Best Audio/Visual Presentation” for an annual golf tournament our station hosted for the clients. It was a pazzo spoof on Caddyshack where I managed to convince every single client to act in some form or fashion for the video, all with one camera, quite comical.
I did my best marketing for KSLY/KSTT Radio, San Luis Obispo, California right out of college and worked for peanuts! They loved me because I had those stations in everyone’s face 24/7. I’m still using those skills today. I’ve got a cross-promotion currently running with Peconic Escargot, New York, PeconicEscargot.com. We are putting my book into action bringing ‘deliziose’ snails fresh to the front door. The Let’s Eat Snails! Peconic Escargot Family Pack includes a copy of Let’s Eat Snails, 2-dozen in-shell snails, a baking dish, snail picks, and kid-friendly recipes to include Sicilian babbalucci!
While at A.M. Windham Elementary School in Daleville, Alabama I was blessed with the task of helping a group of 4th-6th graders write and illustrate a picture book they named, Bullies to Buddies for a Scholastic book contest. While we didn’t win, it was one of the highlights of my precious time as I watched these brilliant kids come up with an idea, decide which among them were the best writers and best illustrators, and then go to working together to create this fantastic book! I also taught English as a Second Language primarily to Spanish-speaking children, which was fortuitous because I grew up on the Central Coast of California speaking more Spanish than I ever did Italian.
I loved those kids and ultimately, they taught me more about life and love than I could have ever taught them lessons out of a book. Perhaps it’s because my own father was an immigrant with a tough start in life that I still keep in touch with some of those ESL families today. I just learned one of my former second-grade students, Rossy, recently joined the Air Force! Wow, what a difference overcoming the language barrier has meant to her. We read countless books together, each word slowly bridging the language and cultural gap between us. That’s the power of books, the power of cultural inclusion, and the power of Let’s Eat Snails!
In regards to style, radio and television helped me learn to write the language of every day, with plenty of salt and pepper! As an educator, I learned my writing must be purpose-driven and meaningful. My ESL students helped validate the importance of my own family’s immigrant story and helped validate my subject matter, multicultural inclusion, family, food, and tradition.
L’Idea Magazine: Is “Let’s Eat Snails” going to become an Audiobook too?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: I would love to see Let’s Eat Snails! become an Audiobook and love to see it translated into Italian as well. This book would make for fantastic listening on family road trips! It’s a fun, fascinating story about a unique dish and special friends from different cultures coming together to share food around the table. Boys love this book! Girls love this book! Adults love this book! I had a fabulous interview with Aldo Filippelli and his father, Umberto on WJCU’s Memories from Italy, Cleveland/Northeast Ohio radio last week, and was honored to experience a moment between the two after Umberto explained he had in fact eaten snails in the Old Country! Umberto went on in detail describing his experience and later, the beauty and abundance of Sicily. It was a beautiful moment as Aldo explained he had just learned something new about his own father. He went on to testify, Let’s Eat Snails! had just literally bridged the generational gap between his Old Country father, himself, and his own kids here in America. For me, it was a moment of total translation, complete understanding, and pure love, bellissima!
L’Idea Magazine: If you had the opportunity to talk to a person, any person from the past or the present, who would that person be, and what would you like to ask them?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: By the time I realized my Spanish speaking abilities had about a 25% efficacy rate with my 100% Italian speaking, Nonna, she was quite old and I was no longer living in the house. Those last memories around the big dining room table with my Nonna, Barbara Barcellona, were special. I remember the first time I understood the majority of what she said, we were both elated! Her children, my father included, took turns caring for my Nonna after my Nonno died, and she would come live with us 6 months at a time. She was quite a chatterbox speaking all the while in Italian to me, my brother, and sister, not minding a bit that we mostly returned the exchanges with big deer eyes and an, “I love you, Nonna”. Sadly, her precious words were wasted on my young, selfish years. By the time, I really sat down to listen to her, it was too late. If I could speak to her now, I would give her 100% of my attention and she would have 100% of my heart. I would ask her what her life was like back in the Old Country, did she ever experience personal joy beyond her children. For the most part, in my life, I’ve been afforded the ability to do what I want, when I want, where I want, how I want. That was not the case for my Nonna. I know times were tough in Paterno, Sicily and I know times were even tougher for women. Did she have big dreams of her own, or were her big dreams, in fact, fulfilled by family. She took turns sleeping with us kids, she’d climb in my bed, take out her teeth, put them in a glass, grab her rosary beads, clutch my arm to her, and begin in whispered Italian, “Ave Maria, piena di grazia…” May she forever rest in God’s loving arms, the way she held me to herself when I was just a child.
L’Idea Magazine: In these days of lockdowns, quarantines, isolation, and pandemic, is the writer in you thriving or suffering?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: The Public Relations and “Marketer” in me has been thriving! Here’s the reality of a writer, tell me if I’m wrong, first she must labor over the perfect words, then she must labor to find publication, then she must find the patience of Job, and sever her tongue through the slow process of publication (tough for an Italian, right?!), AND THEN, if that didn’t take enough time, she must now labor to market the book until she becomes famous like you, certo?
L’Idea Magazine: I wish it was so, Barbara, but thank you for the compliment. Any new projects in the works at this time?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: Currently I spend the bulk of my time marketing my book as I am yet, a fresh author. BUT, exciting news, I have a very “BIG Fish” on the line (if I catch him with my tiny, little pole from little ole’ Enterprise, Alabama, I’ll be quick to share the news)! With recognition from amazing publications such as L’Idea, I know my hard work is paying off and my message of culture and tradition is being received!
I’m also focused on finding placement for my television screenplay, The Second Wife. Italian-American Theresa Giordano, struggles with the decisions she’s made with husband, children, and family, leaving behind her own Italian heritage for a life, far different, in the Deep South.
The Second Wife strums the heartstrings of those who have ever felt like they were not actively participating in their own lives. It is a story about a woman who thought she had lost herself in her slow-paced life, but after looking back rediscovers the joy of living through the sacrifices she made along the way for her family. She realizes she had been blessed with time to whittle away the forest of events in her mind and through her reflection, she finds the single tree, the single meaning to it all, love.
The story also examines fear of failure and self-betrayal. The words of dead poet Langston Hughes begin to haunt the main character, Theresa. She hears parts of his “Montage of a Dream Deferred” repeat over again in her head: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore – And then run?” Theresa begins to relate to that poet feeling just like the raisin with all the essence of life already sucked out of it. She feels like a sore, constantly irritated by the multitude of menial tasks she fears define her life.
L’Idea Magazine: Do you have any secret wishes?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: My secret wish?! I would love to see my books sitting on end tables next to comfy, stuffed chairs in thousands and thousands of homes, where I envision happy readers, children and adults alike, smiling as they turn my pages!
L’Idea Magazine: A message for our readers?
Barbara Barcellona Smith: This is how I sign my books for children and I think it’s a message we, as adults, still love to hear at our varied ages and stages in life: I hope you enjoy this little culinary journey. Like Margie, be brave in this big world, believe in your big dreams, and your big dreams will come true. And always remember, FOOD IS AN ADVENTURE, Mangia! Mangia!