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Charles Todd at the recording machine

[Detail] Charles Todd at the recording machine

Primary Source Set A: Working Women in the 1930's

Italian Feed

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NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Italian Feed is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

{excerpt begins}

Mari Tomasi

Recorded in Writers' Section Files

DATE: SEP 21 1940


... "I'm getting a dinner ready for a party of twelve people. All from Montpelier. Not Italians. Italians know how to make their own Italian dinners. These are Americans. In the winter I get about two orders a week for good-sized dinner parties. In the summer, not so many. They like to get out then in their cars and stop at different places to eat."

... "After Pietro died I had to figure a way to live. I said to myself: I have the house - small as it is, it's mine and all paid for. I have a little insurance money, but there are four children. I got to make that money stretch. So I began taking orders for dinners. And sometimes if the neighbors were sick - but not sick enough for real nurses- I took care of them.

... "I like to work like this-- here in the house. I know where every pan is hung, where every spice is kept. Sometimes my customers want me to cook in their own homes. Well, I do not refuse, but I charge them more."

Melicenda said, "I don't bother to fix the table pretty. I figure my customers come here to eat, not to look at my table. Oh, I fix the food fancy so it will look good to the eyes, too. And I give them plenty. That's what they pay for.

"I charge them $1.25 each. That isn't too much. First I serve them a big platter of stuffed celery, thin slices of salami and mortadella, ripe olives, and pickles. Then the ravioli with a rich tomato sauce. If they want spaghetti, too," the woman shrugged resigned shoulders, "Well, I give them the spaghetti as well. The little Italian rolls are good with ravioli. I don't make them myself. I buy them from the Italian baker down the street. Just before it's time to serve the dinner, I sprinkle them with milk and put them in the oven for a few minutes to heat them. Dessert, no. I never serve dessert. The ravioli are so rich that I make them a dish that will cut the richness. I give them a salad of lettuce, endive, tomato, onion, celery, mixed with vinegar and olive oil. I use the wine vinegar. It gives a better taste to the salad. With the dollar and a quarter dinner I serve just one glass of red wine. If they want more they got to pay for it.

"Tonight my customers will get here at seven o'clock. They won't leave until eleven.


Melicenda smiled. "Well, any time you want a good Italian feed, call me up. My name is in the telephone book. Just call Melicenda Bartoletti."

...{excerpt ends}


  • What kind of work did Melicenda Bartoletti do? How would you describe her working conditions? How do you think this kind of work has changed since the 1930s?
  • Melicenda describes why she likes working in her own home. What might be some other advantages of working at home? What might be some disadvantages?
  • What do you think Melicenda means when she refers to her customers as Americans, not Italians? Do you think this distinction is significant? Why or why not? Who, if anyone, might make such a distinction today?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.