Tonight, my family and I will be watching the final episode of the program The Sopranos. After all these years, it finally comes down to one episode.
We’ve always been a television family. While many lament the television as causing the breakdown of so many family values, I’ve always found that in my family, it’s been a gathering point. We’ve spent countless nights gathered in the living room watching television.
While much of what we watched was Italian programming, like most immigrants we became quickly versed in the traditions of a new country. We all became hockey fans watching Hockey Night in Canada. And who among us didn’t spend the summer wondering who really shot J.R.?
But the one aspect of film and television that always posed a challenge was the portrayal of Italians.
My parents worked hard to ensure that we had the best of both worlds. We were taught about Italian music, food, history and culture, all the while being encouraged to appreciate the advantages and values of our new country. Being born in Canada, my brother and I grew up with the benefits of two very different yet equally rich environments.
We were always warned to avoid stereotypes about Italians, or any cultural group for that matter. This explained my parents’ unease with mob jokes or the more and more common use of words that were a hybrid of English and Italian dialect. While others found this amusing, my parents frowned upon it and regarded as disrespectful to both our Italian heritage and our Canadian culture.
And yet, there was always a strange attraction to certain films about Italians. I’d be lying if I said that The Godfather wasn’t a classic in our family. And I’d also be lying if I said that we didn’t think that Goodfellas was one of the best moves ever made.
As I got older, and began to think through my identity as an Italian Canadian, I was often confused by this. How could we disdain any association with many of the stereotypes associated with Italians and yet wax poetic whenever someone mentioned the name Corleone?
It didn’t make much sense to me.
So when The Sopranos first came into being, for my family it was just another show about Italians in the mob. Granted we didn’t have access to The Sopranos at first. As an HBO program, we weren’t able to view it in Canada and when it finally was available, it was a considerable amount of time before we watched our first episode to try and figure out what the big deal it was.
And what a big deal it turned out to be.
From the first, the show about a crime family in New Jersey was captivating in a way that few shows have ever been. Part of its appeal was the writing and acting to be sure. Say what you want but the cast of The Sopranos have put in some of the best performances ever seen on television.
We’ve had many family discussions about The Sopranos and why the show resonates. Someone once made the point that The Sopranos, as with all films and shows on the subject, depict Italians in a position of power, albeit violently gotten power. And for the Italian immigrant who may have suffered so much, it’s a sort of revenge fantasy. It’s a chance to stick it to the society that wasn’t so welcoming when they first arrived.
I know for myself, I find the show unbelievably compelling. I don’t think I’ve seen another show that has me thinking and reflecting as much as this one. Through all the violence and humour, I would always find myself thinking, “I can’t believe I’m watching this.”
I’d laugh at all the jokes that my parents would never allow us to utter and think, “I can’t believe I find that funny.”
I’d identify with all the stereotypes of the immigrant Italian and think, “I can’t believe I recognize elements of my own family in what I’m seeing.”
It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing a distorted reflection that you never thought could possibly be there. To a degree, I think I both love and hate The Sopranos.
I love the show because it’s just so damn good. But I hate it because no matter what, it reinforces all the stereotypes that I know to be wrong.
But I can’t stop watching.
And why in the world do we care so much about what happens to Tony Soprano? A character who has committed such ghastly acts as he has should be hated, reviled and punished.
But I would be lying if I didn’t say that there is some small part of me that doesn’t secretly hope that he somehow escapes the bullet that is surely destined for him.
In today’s Toronto Star, there is an excellent article by Vinay Menon about the final episode of The Sopranos. One of the interesting points that Menon makes is that perhaps what is behind Tony Soprano’s appeal is the perception that his crimes notwithstanding, Tony Soprano can be redeemed.
Maybe. Maybe not.
All I know is that I am hardpressed to think of another character so completely compelling. He’s repulsive and horrid, to be sure. But no matter what, you still want to know what happens to him.
As the final episode of The Sopranos loomed, I found myself thinking about it quite a bit. I’ve had many discussions with friends and family about how we think the show will end. Unsurprisingly, I even found myself picking up a copy of The Sopranos Family Cookbook at the bookstore.
I’d initally written this cookbook off as a farce. Having never looked through it, I just thought it was a bit of marketing and promotion – like The Sopranos hasn’t made enough money for all involved.
But a few weeks ago I finally did look through it and what I found was a clever, humourous book that is just another example of how well planned out The Sopranos is. For this reason its creator David Chase must be recognized for his talents.
Written from the point of view of the actual characters, The Sopranos Family Cookbook is both serious and tongue-in-cheek. It’s both a cookbook and a piece of satire. It’s funny but not lighthearted. It’s the perfect capture of The Sopranos in book form.
And right off the bat, there is a recipe for “Sunday Gravy”. Those of you familiar with Italian cooking may know that for many, Sunday mornings means a pot of tomato sauce bubbling on the stove. In my family, we call this sugo, which is the Italian word for sauce.
When I first heard the term “gravy” in reference to tomato sauce, I shuddered. I have no idea why it would be called gravy. I can’t help but picture goopy, grey sauces when I think of gravy. I do not associate it in anyway with the sugo that my grandmother and mother would make every Sunday morning.
Our sugo is a brilliant producton of olive oil, meat (most often a piece of veal shoulder with the bone in), garlic, hot pepper, salt, tomato paste and our very own raw tomato that we preserve each year. Cooked slowly for several hours, it is the hallmark of virtually ever Sunday for as far back as I can remember.
In the spirit of The Sopranos, I decided to swallow my revulsion at the word gravy and give it a go. While the “gravy” I made is a hybrid of what my mother usually makes on Sunday and the recipe in the book, it’s still sugo to me.
As for Tony and the gang, who knows what will happen. Will tonight be his end or will he continue on the violent road he has travelled for so long?
Either way, it’s arrivederci, Sopranos.
Sunday Gravy, My Way
Inspired by The Sopranos Family Cookbook and Mama Cream Puff
Note: This is a combination of the way family’s way of making sugo (sort of) and the recipe for Sunday Gravy from The Sopranos Family Cookbook. If my mother reads this (she’s in Italy), I apologize in advance for any no-nos. You have to understand that sugo is a big deal in Italian family’s and messing with the recipe is generally frowned upon. You will undoubtedly have lots of sauce left over so let it cool and then store in the refrigerator. The sauce should keep in the refrigerator for a week. You can freeze tomato sauce, but I don’t like doing that. It’s always best to make a fresh pot.
3 tbsp. olive oil
pork ribs (small segment)
bone-in veal shoulder (about a pound, cut into pieces)
4 garlic cloves
1/4 cup tomato paste
raw tomato sauce (I use my family’s raw tomato sauce. I measured the amount and it works out to about 60 fl. ouces. You can buy plum tomatoes in a can and run them through a food mill.)
1-1/2 to 2 cups water
salt and pepper to taste
red chili pepper flakes (optional)
Heat the olive oil in a large pot.
Add the pork ribs and saute until browned on all sides (about 5 minutes). Remove the ribs to a plate.
Add the veal shoulder and brown on all sides (about 5 to 10 minutes depending on the size of the pieces). Remove to a plate.
Drain off most of the fat and oil in the pot. Add the garlic and saute until the garlic begins to turn golden. Discard the garlic.
Add the tomato paste and stir for a minute.
Add the raw tomato sauce and 1-1/2 cups of the water. You may need to add more water as the sauce cooks.
Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Add the chili flakes if using.
Return the ribs and veal shoulder to the sauce. Bring to a boil.
Once boiling, lower the heat and partially cover the pot. Simmer for several hours, stirring occasionally. If the sauce becomes too thick, thin with a bit of water.
After two hours, test the sauce. If it’s deep red and no longer water, it’s ready. Remove the meat and serve along side the sauce. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.