This is a box of pasta. For the longest time, this was what reminded me of my Italian heritage, not necessarily the pasta itself, but the Sunday dinners our family had with my grandparents while my step grandfather was still alive. Before I had moved to New York, I never really thought of myself as being from any type of heritage. I was five years old, I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, and my only concept of family was my parents, siblings, and cousins. I never wondered about names being associated with places. If you told me my cousin Sergio was half Cuban, I would have said “No he’s just my cousin.” At six years old, however, this would change.

My family moved to New York for work and we came to live in my grandmother’s house. I had this notion that she was Italian, but I did not know this mysterious property transferred down to me. I did not live in Italy. I did not speak Italian, so how could I be Italian? Well, perhaps it was the food. Every Sunday she’d cook pasta and make her own sauce. My mother made sauce too, and they both had a piece of paper with the recipe written down. Yes, that had to be it. The answer to the Italian mystery must have been some secret written in the sauce recipe for pasta night.

This question of heritage was made more complicated once I attended public school. Kids would ask “What are you?” and I’d say, “Italian.” “Why isn’t your name Italian? You don’t look Italian.” My blonde hair, blue eyes, and German last name didn’t bode well for my Italian theory. Kids would tell me I must be German, I must be Jewish, or I must be Russian. No one believed that I was Italian. Maybe I wasn’t. I asked my parents why our last name was Betz and they said because my father’s father was German, so that name was what was passed down. There it was. My one quarter German was suppressing my three quarters Italian. But I didn’t know what German food was. With grandma we ate Italian food, so surely I must have been Italian.

At school I met other Italian children who spoke the language. Compared to them, I simply felt like a pretender. I was an American. I didn’t have the grits to call myself an Italian-American. The hyphen made all the difference. Maybe I could be an Italian-German-American? Ahh two hyphens– but now I was venturing into some weird type of Euromutt territory, and that hardly felt like an identity at all.

Sunday dinner was the reassurance I needed to continue calling myself Italian. Pasta after Church. That sounded Italian to me. We would sit at a round table, say grace, Grandpa would be laughing at something or another and we would first pass the garlic bread, then take pasta, then sauce, then meat, then cheese, and finally have salad at the end. Maybe I am not perfectly in tune with my heritage, but at the table I felt like I shared in their identity.