In our house, it really is all about the food.
When I was growing up, we traveled to my grandmother’s most Sundays for homemade pasta and meatballs.
I’m not talking about the kind of pasta that comes from a machine-fed operation; I’m talking about the hand-cut stuff that got rolled into gigantic round sheets and cut with a knife—a dull knife. Grandma used to work that old knife through the dough, her gnarled fingers cutting with such patience. Such precision. No measuring, no fancy gadgets.
Grandma lived with my Aunt Marie and together they made cavatelli and something else we called “hats” and I still don’t know the real name for “hats”. When we visited, all four of us kids couldn’t wait to try making cavatelli. The trick was in the way you rolled the cut dough with your index and middle finger. By the twentieth one, I was ready to be done. Not Grandma. On and on she went, just like she’d done for a good part of her eighty-plus years.
But there was nothing like the smell of a good meatball frying in the kitchen. Have you ever tried brown meatballs? Aunt Marie fried them, no baking in those days, and she’d leave four out of the sauce, one for each of us kids. Oh, we were in heaven. Yes, we grew up on garlic and Pecorino Romano cheese! The salad was always simple; lettuce, onion, tomato, oil and vinegar, but pair that with a good meatball, and you don’t need much else.
If we visited on Saturdays, that was bread making day, a task Grandma never gave up. In later years, after Aunt Marie died and Grandma came to live with us,
she taught me to bake bread, measuring with my eyes, immersing my hands in the flour, mixing the yeast in lukewarm water with my fingers. No machines, no fancy gadgets. I actually got quite good at it, except for the one time when Mom was at Mass and Grandma and I were left in charge of the bread. Grandma told the best stories and we were talking away and never smelled the bread burning. Mom was not happy with either one of us! I should mention here that Grandma didn’t speak English, other than the hyphenated English-Italian words like “ice-a-box-a”. Still, that didn’t stop me and Grandma from communicating. Three years of Spanish proved a very helpful crossover and the rest came from Grandma’s tutoring.
Food has always been an important part of our family and our history. Grandma never quite trusted dishes like lasagna, ravioli, or gnocchi. She liked her pasta without the extras of cheese and potato. I’m not sure what she would say about Harry Blacksworth’s Penne pasta with spinach and garbanzos. One of my very favorite dishes is Pasta and Broccoli, perhaps because it was the last dish my Aunt Marie made us, but I think it is also because it is representative of food we enjoyed as kids. (We ate calamari too; cleaned it, removed the insides, got all itchy from the inky water!).
My mother is the one who makes a great lasagna, ravioli, and pretty much every dish I’ve written about in my books. I have never seen anyone whip up a pumpkin roll like she can or make a pie crust as though it were second nature. Practice, she says. But she should know that practice means I will eat those pies…and not just one piece! Mom is in so many of the “cooks” I write about in my stories; Stella Androvich, Miriam Desantro, Ramona Casherdon. And let me tell you, that Banana bread recipe is delicious! Let me know if you want the recipe and I’ll be happy to post it.