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April 4, 2022

Ian MacAllen's Playlist for His Book "Red Sauce"

Red Sauce by Ian MacAllen

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Ian MacAllen's Red Sauce is a smart and compelling examination of Italian food's journey from humble immigrant food to rItalian-American cuisine.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"MacAllen contends that Italian-American food, once spurned as a garlic-ridden, irredeemably ethnic cuisine, has become so much a part of U.S. palates that it is now, quite simply, American cooking.... Sharing his vast knowledge of history, ingredients, and technique, MacAllen offers an in-depth history of the Italian contribution to America’s culinary landscape."

In his own words, here is Ian MacAllen's Book Notes music playlist for his book Red Sauce:

Red Sauce began as a question. My wife and I were eating dinner at Trattoria Spaghetto in the West Village drinking too much wine – the restaurant sold wine by the carafe. It was one of those classic red sauce joints with red checkered tablecloths and a big spread of antipasti in the center of the room. A giant slab of veal parmigiana sat on my plate. I started to wonder: who invented this perfect dish?

Later that night, I poked around on the internet looking for answers. My search turned up a few unsatisfactory Wikipedia entries. I wanted to know more. I looked deeper, visiting the main branch of the New York Public library to access their digital databases. I bought a few books at the Strand. Before realizing what I was doing, I was researching a book.

Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American traces the origins of dishes most commonly associated with Italian-American food, especially during the middle of the twentieth century. Inspired by the foods Italian immigrants brought with them and imitating the dishes they believed wealthy Italians had eaten back at home, these new Americans created an entirely unique cuisine linked to the old world but made possible only in the new. From early living room restaurants up to the modern national chain, I sought out the myths and legends and discerned the truth from the fiction.

Taylor Swift: Welcome To New York

How does a southern country singer turned mega pop star relate to a book about Italian-American food? The story of red sauce cuisine is the story of immigrants coming to the United States seeking a better life. Not a small number of Italian immigrants passed through New York City while on this journey. Many settled right here for the very same reason Taylor wrote this song. The first line, "Walkin' through a crowd, the village is aglow," is especially apropos since it is the neighborhood where many early Italian immigrants settled. Taylor Swift has written an anthem celebrating the power of New York City as a place for new beginnings, and it's the perfect accompaniment to a book written about a cuisine invented in this city for the very same reason.

Lou Monte: Dominick the Donkey

This Christmas song tells the story of Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey who delivers toys manufactured in Brooklyn to the little boys and girls of Italy. Supposedly, when it was first recorded in 1960, the production of the song was backed by the Gambino crime family. Back then it was seen as a novelty, but has since become a cult classic. For me, it is the quintessential Italian-American Christmas tradition. However, I recently learned the song primarily is known by Italian-Americans from New Jersey where Lou Monte lived. I was at McNally Jackson's stationary store, Goods For the Study, buying a donkey Christmas tree ornament and decided to test the theory. I asked the cashier, who was originally from the midwest, if she had ever heard of Dominick. She had not.

The Weeknd: Blinding Lights

I spent much of the last two years at my parents house on Cape Cod, but still commuting to New York City a few times a month. Every single time I made the four to five hour drive, Blinding Lights played at least once, and sometimes two or three times. It became kind of addictive, and an especially good mood lifter as I rounded the curve from I-95 to I-195 in Providence, Rhode Island–about four hours into the journey from New York. Those long, solitary car rides actually proved the perfect place to think about the Red Sauce manuscript. There wasn't much else to do, since I usually made those drives alone. I had received a number of rejections on the first draft of the manuscript, and spent those long car rides thinking about how to make improvements to it. Blinding Lights is catchy, but also melodic enough to fade into the background. That makes it perfect for drowning out the voices of other people working from home in a shared space. Even with the book contract signed, I still had final edits to make. Blinding Light, and indeed the whole After Hours album served as the background music while I did a final edit. By then it was drowning out not just the sound of Zoom calls, but the crying of a newborn baby.

Yolanda Be Cool & DCUP: We Speak No Americano

This upbeat dance mix samples from Renato Carosone's 1956 "Tu Vuò Fa' L'Americano." The original song tells the story of Italians acting like Americans – drinking whiskey and dancing to rock and roll – in the post war period. Yolanda Be Cool's take is a great way to recharge after a long period of editing or researching. I just want to get up and dance, which I am very bad at.

Dean Martin: That's Amore

In an early draft of Red Sauce, I started each chapter with a relevant quote. Obviously, "when the moon hits your eye," offered the perfect opportunity to frame the chapter on pizza. But then you come to the part where you can try to do rights requests – or you can just cut the quote. Given the limited time and lack of budget, it was easier to drop the quotes.

Alabama 3: Woke Up This Morning a.k.a The Sopranos' Theme Song

Yes, I know it seems obvious that a book about Italian-American food would point to the theme song of the most famous celebration of Italian-American culture since the invention of the frozen pizza. But hear me out. First, the whole process of researching, writing, querying, and submitting a manuscript has a whole lot of ups and downs – a lot more downs than ups. And there not many songs do as a good a job of reinforcing a kind of "fuck you" attitude that you need to get that done. As a theme song, it plays over the opening credits of The Sopranos TV show. The accompanying b-roll highlights various points across north Jersey. Some of those sites have since been torn down. The show ran from 1999 to 2007, corresponding with the time I graduated from high school through attending Rutgers and moving to Jersey City. Tony's drive from the Lincoln Tunnel to suburban north Jersey by way the turnpike follows the same path I take home.

Frank Sinatra: My Way

Did you really think a musical companion list to a book about Italian-American cuisine was going to get by without Frank Sinatra making an appearance? Honestly, this whole list could be Frank. If you were my father-in-law, it might be. There are a lot of great Sinatra songs that could fit on this list. New York, New York would fit at home perfectly here for the same reason Taylor Swift's anthem kicked off this playlist: Sinatra was celebrating the power of moving to the city. But since this isn't the final inning at Yankee Stadium, nor is it the last song at a Westmount Country Club wedding, I thought I'd skip it. Instead, My Way is a song about accomplishment, regret, mistakes, ups, downs, and ultimately perseverance. Metaphorically, it is the same journey the Italian immigrants who invented red sauce cuisine experienced. And if there is a better analogy for completing a book, I don't know it.

Ian MacAllen is a writer and book critic. He has written reviews and interviews for Chicago Review of Books, Southern Review of Books, The Rumpus, Trampset, Electric Literature, and Fiction Advocate, with other nonfiction in The Billfold, Thought Catalog, and io9. His short fiction has appeared in The Offing, 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Joyland Magazine, and elsewhere. His maternal grandfather was born in Bagnoli del Trigno in Molise, Italy and his maternal grandmother's family was from Naples and Sicily. He is descended from a line of Sicilian Strega. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

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