It could have been that I was pregnant or that I’d succumbed to Hulu after a long time without television, but I think that it was something else. I’d been watching tons of Italian cooking shows and pining to visit the places my great grandparents had left to come to the US- Napoli, Sicily- a longing for Italy in general. I don’t typically cook pastas anymore- this one can’t have gluten, white carbs turn the other one into a one-man-eating-machine, but at that moment I wanted to swim with my mouth open inside a giant bowl of Macaroni and melted provolone.
Everyone knows about Italians and food, even their insults involve vegetables. So is it any wonder that I should write about my Sicilian grandmother and food? As far as I’m concerned the two are synonymous. When I think of my grandma as she was for most of my life, I think of her short, round frame standing at the kitchen sink in a house dress, one foot resting on the heel of the other while she washed, peeled, or cut whatever she was preparing for dinner. Her hands were plump and soft, her knuckles bent and knobby with arthritis. I don’t remember disliking anything she ever cooked. I don’t remember her ever understanding what a vegetarian is. As I peered into the refrigerator after a tedious day of high school, she’d offer hopefully, “How about a nice ham sandwich?” “That’s meat, Grandma.” I’d say flatly. “Well, there’s leftover meatballs.” she concluded, solving my hunger.
Food is food. How could any of it be bad? That could have been her dictum. Whether we were eating tuna sandwiches and chocolate milkshakes from the hospital commissary (something she liked to do for fun) or enjoying her own rice pudding at the end of dinner, she would bob her nubby finger as if conducting music, and purse her lips in enjoyment, an impish expression of delight in her eyes.
For me, so young, and never having been responsible for feeding anybody, I took for granted the role her cooking played in my life and that of the family. Mealtime, as we lived it, was the mast from which the family unfurled like a banner and rewound itself in the course of a day. If you ask anybody in the family about Grandma and food, they will have plenty to say- about her love of eating, her love of gathering over a meal, and her way of expressing love by feeding us. As far as her cooking is concerned, everybody has their personal favorites: sciabezhia (I have no idea how that might be spelled), pizza di grano, manicotti, stuffed artichokes- even her baked “fried” chicken was superb.
!With the exception of maybe walking me through how she doctored up a box of Manischewitz matzo ball soup mix, she never really “taught” me how to cook, that I recall. She was in the kitchen doing her thing. We talked. I watched, and somehow some of it is caught in my brain. Maybe once or twice I called and asked for clarification, but that was it.
When my husband and I were first married, while visiting his brother who was newly divorced and living alone in a small midwestern town, I made the one vegetarian Italian comfort food I could think of, eggplant parmigiana. All of my Sicilian nurturer genes were firing into action that weekend as I nervously tried to remember each step, intent to make it taste good and to make a good impression. “What a pain!” I thought. Finally appreciating the effort it took to make this one part of a meal she cooked semi-regularly. She would have included a salad, no less than two side vegetables and dessert. I managed to get the eggplant parmigiana on the table, just the eggplant, and we finished the meal with heaping bowls of Reese’s Pieces ice cream, my brother- in-law’s special contribution.
My Grandma died a year ago on New Year’s day. After the mass and snowy burial, we gathered at long tables in the back room of a Long Island Italian restaurant. As I sat flanked by my father’s cousins, we talked of, what else? food, and it occurred to me, painfully, that she should have been there. As Salvatore and Gigi explained the manner and custom of preparing and serving scarola e fagioli (served brothy and only on a weeknight, I think.) I felt the pangs of her loss. How does a family gather and buzz with warmth and laughter when the matriarch has left the table-when the cook has shut the lights and closed her kitchen?
I realize now, a year later and after many meals prepared in my own kitchen, that she, and the other women cooks of my family, imprinted this food thing upon me as it was imprinted upon them. In the same manner that genes turn on and off, this responsibility to feed and nourish and host, came on like a light that had been off for most of my life. (Ask my college roommates who saw me survive on microwaved potatoes with ranch dressing or whatever was thrown into a gross little rice cooker.) It can’t be helped. Dinnertime is preeminent for me. Holiday meals are an experience. I’m not happy if my sons don’t eat. I’m at peace when they do. I’m eager and anxious that what I put on the table is enjoyed. This is a gift, I understand now. As articles are written about the loss of dinnertime in America and how fast food is making us all fat and sick, I can sit back with some distance from this particular horror. For me mealtime lives on. My little family gathers each night around the table and we experience this anchoring ritual. My boys hover around me in the kitchen and want to help, more to connect to me than to practice their cooking skills, but its happening, that food thing, it’s transmitting. When the five year old reminds me of how skillfully he cut the vegetables, and when my two year old is thrilled that dinner is ready and runs through the house heralding “Dinnertime! It’s dinnertime!” it’s happening. And when I see him delight at the taste of a potato, I see her. I see her in him and I see her in me and I am content.