The Rice Balls at La Festa Italiana are phenomenal. I sometimes say I started this blog just to write this specific blog.
Those with discerning eyes with an eye for detail and a mind for memory noticed a lineup of new fryers for the Rice Balls. Last year’s record breaking number of rice balls sold broke the fryers. “They shorted out,” one of the rice ball women told me. “We keep one as a spare, which we had to break out on Friday and Saturday Night. We were so busy.”
The Rice Balls were great again this year at “The Feast” – the community bacchanal where Jersey City celebrates Italian American food and culture as well as the turning of mid summer to late summer.
Kind of a Drag. It’s song by Chicago, a sort of white-soul, horn heavy pop band that had a bunch of hits when I was growing up that I was of course way too cool to appreciate, or least admit to liking. I would turn the dial when it came on the radio, whether it was Cousin Brucie or Scott Muni. One of the many human juke boxes to perform a range of familiar songs during the hot summer nights pulled the song out of their archive.
I was drinking a wine and peaches and singing along with the gang at the wine and peaches and lemencello booth, when I realized I would never have sung along when this song was popular, yet I knew every lyric and sung along with glee, wallowing in the nostalgia and community that is this annual event in Jersey City.
I’ve written about it a few times and really wonder what there is to say about it. The food is awesome, and you see just about everybody you know in town when you go. The Feast has been on a roll in the last few years, attendance and revenues grow each summer. There’s more people in town, social media efforts are showing positive results. This year, judging from the packed street and the revenues – the big 50/50 drawing was more than $12,000, higher than last year’s by several thousand. By Sunday they even ran out of lemoncello.
The Feast accomplishes something the other events in town do not quite achieve. It cuts across the board. Yes, it is a celebration of everything Italian but the “millennials” the Gen X/Y hipsters, the artist types newer to town attend in droves along side the born and breders, baby boomer and older Jersey City – ites; Few events draw from all these various pools. Our city is culturally diverse, and no group holds a dominant position, either by age or by ethnicity. Multiculturalism – by age, race or creed – is liberating. Widely sharing tolerance enriches us all, but it can be disparate. All these clubs get along but they mostly travel in separate orbits. We’re more often than not, segmented, by choice, happenstance and custom.
But La Festa Italiana draws everybody. I met just about everybody I know in town there at the Feast, some folks I haven’t seen for years. Social segmentation seems an irrecoverable outgrowth of identity. Suddenly – at least it seems so – summer starts drawing to her end – and everybody migrates to Sixth Street to hang out, eat, drink, gab and dance. We all have more than one identity – we share different parts of our self with different people, depending on what the situation merits – and the segmented group (I’m a hipster, I’m Spanish) we identify with is just one of those exteriors that the world knows us by and that we show to the world. We’re all human, that’s what bonds us. But in-between our census board classification and the ultimate bond of species, there is place. We all have Jersey City in common. We all like living here – and if you’re like me, you’re not entirely sure why – but it is here that we feel most comfortable. I can think of a dozen or so gripes I have about this little piece of America and New Jersey. You got your list and I got mine. Yet, here we are because whatever the gripes, our reasons to stay, even if those reasons elude articulation, are far more compelling. So, in August we share our sense of place with each other on Sixth Street. Whether an acquired taste or something you were born to, here we live and that fact alone melts many a barrier away.
Somehow The Feast connects with that shared feeling of place. Maybe it’s been here so long – 110 years in 2013! – growing organically from a group of immigrants in a city of immigrants into an annual event attracting citizens citywide. Then as the second and third generation of those immigrants experience the diaspora, casting them hither and yon from J.C., those offspring return to Sixth Street. Is it the Italian thing – it is the best food after all – or is that Italian-American culture has made its most lingering imprint on the New Jersey culture we all share? It’s no accident that the Sopranos was set in New Jersey or that the state has more pizzerias per capita than any other state in the union (I totally made that up.)
The Italian Feast remains almost completely free of commercialism, and even though most of the food vendors are local, the quality of the cuisine is as professional as it gets. Foodie delight, local, freshly made. The Sausage, Broccoli and Cavetti at Deliano was insanely great and the broccoli rabe, at the Mozz Boss, with garlic and oil was the best I ever had. You get your money’s worth. The food is authentic – it is the same your Italian grandmother made and if you happened not have one it is the same you remember from when you ate over your Italian friend’s home. And if you grew up in New Jersey, you had one of those.
The authenticity of the food is not the only reason wny this feast is embraced by multiple generations. Regardless of your own heritage, Italian-American culture dominates New Jersey culture like no other single influence. At the Feast, you get that culture in its most unadulterated form. Not Italian culture. No. Italian-American culture, like all immigrant groups, is a new heritage, forged with equal parts of the old and new world, redefined by each ensuing generation. That special hybrid flourished in New Jersey and is something all of us if not fully identify with, certainly recognize and appreciate. That’s my hypothesis as to why The Feast has remained, gets more popular, and attracts people from across the spectrum. Authenticity… unadulterated… quintessentially New Jersey.
What are you gonna do? We’re here. We made it through another year. How you doing? Good to see you too, what are you eating? What have you tried tonight?
The Feast of Saint Rocco mass concluded with a procession, the Red Mike Festival Band played Italian songs. Of course, my reference point is The Godfather – the band even has a cameo in III – but as Jersey City tradition dictates, when the procession concludes in the back area of the church, where pastry and coffee is served, and the statue is brought in, the band plays the theme from Rocky.
Everyone relaxed, talking to the band – they played a Lady Gaga song they were working on. “This is our big season, the festival season. We always play Holy Rosary. We’ve been playing a lot of funerals in China Town. We’ve been learning a lot of protestant hymns.”
“Do you know Speak Softly Love?”
The very idea they wouldn’t know it was so preposterous the band laughed at the suggestion. It’s his big solo said one of the members, pointing to the trumpet player. You may know Speak Softly Love by its more mainstream name – the Theme of the Godfather.
Isn’t this sort of cliché, Godfather songs at the Italian festivals? Do not get me wrong, it’s one of my favorite films and was the first R rated film I saw in a theater. I’m old enough to remember some italian-americans resenting the stereotype it seemed to promote, all Italians as part of the mafia. By the time of the Sopranos everyone made peace with the cliché.
“This always makes me cry,” said the woman who made the request.
The Godfather’s theme song?
“Yes, I used to watch this movie with my parents all the time.”
For good measure, the band then played I Have But One Heart, the song Johnny Fontaine sings at Connie’s wedding. Listening to the Red Mike Festival Band jamming on Italian esoteric a in the back courtyard of Holy Rosary Church on a sunny August Afternoon, now that indeed is something only happening in Jersey City.
To fully appreciate “The Feast,” you really should avail yourself of some of the heart-felt, often moving religious activities related to the four day street fair. These services include a novena – a 9-day seriesof special masses and prayers – and longer vigil masses for Our Lady of the Assumption, a feast day, holy day of obligation service and a mass for the Feast of Saint Rocco. This year, the Saint Rocco mass featured a relic of the Saint, which was venerated after the the mass but before the procession.
Each of these longer masses is followed by a procession through the street. This same routine has been enacted every year for more than a century. You hear sniffles during the masses, especially when the familiar Italian hymns echoed from the church’s organ – they have that aural encompassment this sacred music tends to generate but also a kind of calliope sound too – mournful yet life affirming at the same time. People hear this, they remember their parents or grand parents no longer with us, they remember coming to the feast as a kid – some of their earliest memories – and this event has crossed so many generations that it’s pretty easy to think of those memories connecting with the memories of those no longer here. This Jersey City Feast brings many feedings of memory and community to the surface. The Feast is also about the Feast. Every year you connect with the Feast of every year before, and all the Feasts yet to come. This block of Sixth street, nestled between the railroad trestles known as the embankment and the cluster of church buildings that make up the entire block seems to stretch far into the future, and far into the past. You return to The Feast and so do they.
Blue and White are the colors of Our Lady of the Assumption. Each ballon has the name of a parishinor who has past away, and since they are a parishinor of Holy Rosary, they attended The Feast each year. After the feast day mass, the ballons are released.
The New Mayor Steve Fullop came by to recognize the committee that made the 2013 La Festa Itiliana Possible.
The Feast was so crowded that by Sunday Night, the Lemoncello ran out.