IN LA NOSTRA COSTA (Chapter 3 – ‘La Costa E La Guerra’), I describe some of the restrictions and hardships that the “Italiani della Costa” had to endure during World War II. The article below was sent to me by Kathy Kerrick and is posted here with the permission of the author Andy Griffin. What starts out as a dissertation on Chioggia beets and Chioggia radicchio ends with a very interesting story on Italian Prisoners of War who settled in the Santa Rosa Area.
From: "Two Small Farms" <email@example.com>
This week your harvest share includes a bunch of pink skinned beets. If you slice these beets in half you'll see a distinctive target-like pattern of alternating pink and white rings marking the flesh. This curious coloration has prompted some retailers to call these beets "candy stripe" beets but the correct name is Chioggia beet. Chioggia, pronounced "key-oh-jah" is a city of Northern Italy near Venice. The surrounding region is known as the Veneto and it's famed for it's vegetable production. Besides the beet, Chioggia has lent its name a number of other vegetables. The round, red radicchio that has become a standard ingredient in the mesclun salads is Chioggia radicchio. There's also a warty blue hard squash called the Marina di Chioggia. We didn't grow these beets for the novelty of their internal appearance. They taste good, and many people think they're even sweeter than the typical red blooded American beet. Chioggia beets grow well here, too. People who travel have told me that there are a lot of similarities between the Veneto and the Monterey Bay area. Some day I'd like to visit Chioggia and see for myself since I think agriculture is as worthy of being appreciated as any other aspect of culture like painting or dance. In fact, given a choice between a perfect roasted beet salad and a still life painting of a beet, I'll eat the salad any day . I was standing behind my Chioggia beets one day at the farmers market when an older gentleman who was passing by announced that when he was in Chioggia he hadn't seen any beets. It turns out he'd entered Chioggia in a Sherman tank in the closing days of the Second World War. He was part of the American Fifth Army that flogged the Nazis all the way up the boot from Monte Casino and over the Alps. As important as liberation day was in Chioggia it probably wasn't the best moment for a tourist to appreciate the agricultural riches of the Veneto.After years of war economy and bombs the natives ofChioggia had been reduced to eating Chioggia rats. Chioggia beets remind me of an Italian-American fellow named Louie Bonhommie that I knew when I worked on a farm in Bolinas during the 1980's. Louie delivered used wooden crates to the farm every Sunday morning and I used to help him unload his truck. Since his route took him to all sorts of small farms in Marin and Sonoma counties he was better than a newspaper for the latest gossip. One day Louie took a break from the scandals of the day and told me about his experiences in the army during the Second World War. Louie never saw combat. Instead, because he could speak fluent Italian, Louie served as a guard over Italian prisoners of war. The prisoners were shipped around California by bus or train from farm to farm, and they harvested fruits and vegetables or pruned fruit trees while Louie stood around with a gun. A lot of Louie's wartime service was right around the Santa Rosa area where he'd grown up. I asked Louie if it was dangerous standing guard over trainloads of Italian prisoners of war and he laughed. These men had been captured by the Americans in North Africa on the outskirts of Tunis. Most of them had originally come from tiny farms in Italy that were poverty stricken even before the war. After being drafted into the fascist military they were stationed out in the middle of the Sahara in the Italian colony of Libya. With the outbreak of hostilities war was added to their ration of miseries. When they weren't being shot at by the Allies or being ordered around by the Germans they had armies of flies to contend with, and thirst and hunger and scorpions and disease. After years of stress and privation being captured was a blessing. As the Italian Prisoners of War picked plums in California they looked around from atop their ladders at the orchards, the vineyards, and the ordered rows of vegetables in the Santa Rosa Valley and they murmured and conspired amongst themselves.... Their devious plot? Certainly they didn't have sabotage in mind. No. They were concerned that the war might end and they'd be shipped back home to Italy. One by one the prisoners came to Louie and asked him how they might get introduced to some nice Italian -American farm girls so they could make love, not war. Louie did what he could, and some of those men ended up as successful farmers around Santa Rosa with big families and lush fields, and they became good friends and loyal customers for Louie and his wooden boxes. I still love this story. It reminds me that, while they made a mistake with Fascism, from art and women's shoes and wine and race cars all the way to bunched beets, when it comes to cultural values the Italians are right on target. Copyright 2006 Andy Griffin