My mother's family is Swiss, from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. With family names like Tomasini and DeMartini, there is no hiding the Italian heritage. My great grandfather changed his last name to DeMartin when he first arrived in the U.S. in 1892. He became an American citizen in 1898.
As children, my brothers, sister and I used to crawl onto grandma's lap while she told stories about her family's visit to Switzerland just before World War I, and how they got stranded there during the war.
Grandma arrived in Switzerland with her family late in 1913. She was barely 10 years old, and this was her first time traveling outside California. The family intended to stay in Switzerland about a year. Her youngest brother got sick and died of diptheria while they were there. Then her mother became pregnant, and the visit was prolonged.
At the time, American citizens were not required to hold passports for travel and no member of her family had a passport. But when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, passports became a requirement for entry into the United States.
Food was becoming scarce in Europe and even neutral Switzerland was not a safe place for a large American family. They desperately wanted to return home to California. My great-grandfather traveled to Zurich to apply for passports for himself, his wife, and their five children, submit two photos of each family member, and wait until everything could be verified and passports issued before they could travel home. He had no proof of his American citizenship, and his passport application relied on his sworn statements, and promise to use the documents immediately for the singular purpose of returning to the United States.
Waiting for passports, they split their time between Locarno, on the Lago Maggiore, and the tiny alpine village of Brontallo, high in the Valle Maggia, staying with relatives until December 1917. We pictured a life as described in the children's classic, Heidi, by Johanna Spyri.
Once they got passports, they immediately traveled by train to the Port of Bordeaux. Women and children were not allowed off the train during station stops, and every window in every compartment was permanently shuttered. She later learned from her father and brother that passing trains carried dead soldiers from the front.
The family spent a night in Bordeaux before boarding the steamship Rochambeau en route to New York. They ate dinner in a cafe near the harbor, their first restaurant meal in over a year. As her father got up to pay the bill for his table of seven, the cafe owner pointed to the American soldiers standing outside the restaurant and simply said "merci."
A short two years after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, and five years after the Titanic disaster; the large family feared separation should the ship be struck by a mine or torpedo (a very real possibility). Grandma, at 14, was the oldest of the children, and the only one privy to the pact made by her parents to stay together in their cabin should the bells sound and women and children be ordered onto lifeboats.
As the story goes, the ship zig-zagged the harbor to avoid mines before crossing the Atlantic. Every time she told this part of the story, she gave these details no less significance than the description of fresh apples and oranges in barrels on the deck. "You could just take them, as many as you wanted!" she always told us as if she were still in awe. Fresh fruit (in fact, food of any kind) had been scarce during their extended stay in the Swiss Alps.
On every visit to Switzerland, first with my grandmother in 1975, and several times since, we made the trek up the alps to Brontallo for a family meal that always included polenta. Similar to grits, polenta is slightly coarser in texture and once it’s cooked, it can be cooled, cut into shapes and grilled or fried. It is often cooked over an open fire in a cast iron or heavy copper pot.
When served to us as guests by our Swiss relatives, it is accompanied by a beef and tomato stew, but grandma remembered it plain for breakfast, or with a ragout made from mushrooms and herbs foraged in the woods.
Some people make polenta with milk or chicken stock as the liquid, but I always remember it with just water and salt. Here is a link to a traditional polenta recipe.
And it's OK that it sticks to the pot. I remember fighting with my cousins over the crispy bits you peel off the pot before you wash it.