Food, That’s Amore.

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.

 

 

House Dreams

When I was nine my parents sold the house that I’d lived in all my short life. Keeping a complex story short, the sale of that house was, for me, as if the contents of my life had been shaken like Yatzee dice and dumped out into a shoe box.  I longed for that house, but, more likely, I longed for the comfort, harmony and innocence it represented for me. In my nine year old mind, it wasn’t obvious that it was comfort and harmony I sought, it was the house. Surprisingly, I didn’t spend my time fantasizing about going back or on what-ifs, at least not consciously. I focused on the future and cultivated a fixation complex preoccupation fetish interest in houses, my house, or my someday house. When walking the dog, I evaluated each that I passed. “Is this a house I could live in?” I asked myself earnestly. I made alterations. I honed my tastes. I made mental notes for whenever we won the lottery, or for when I grew up.

While this preoccupation during my conscious moments focused on planning and preferences, my dream life churned out dream after dream, for years, where houses played the figure and ground. Some were mysterious, some nostalgic for a bygone time, some seemed to be telling a story of a version of a life lived. Now, with distance, I don’t remember what went on in the dreams, I only remember the houses, their essence. Eerily, some of these forgotten dreams have been drawn to the surface when I’ve come upon one of them in my waking life. Seriously.

In my sketchbook from 1995 I have a drawing from a dream of an old farmhouse at night with flames in the windows, surrounded by wheat. Saw this on Facebook the other day and gasped. Weird.

With all these conscious and unconscious ploddings and longings in mind, you might say that it’s my penchant for a good uphill struggle, or my close relationship with frustration, that I chose to live in one of the most expensive places in the country. I then saddled myself with enough student debt to rival that owed to the IMF by a small developing nation, and later chose a smattering of really lucrative career paths such as artist, social worker, and teacher. As a topper I married a man with a heart the size of a giraffe’s and professional aspirations similar to my own. Obviously, I did not follow these simple steps. Funny enough, I followed my heart, my interests and my passions, which lead me to a lot of great places, but not here:

Nearly perfect. Where’s the picket fence?

In fact, with the number of times my husband and I have moved in the last 7 years  (5 times), we’d be better suited to this:

I have, by choice, moved a lot.  A ton of times in college, (that’s what happens when you take the circuitous route that I did) and plenty since. I just get sort of sick of it, I guess. The pattern goes: find new apartment, nest like hell, live there for a year- no more than 2- then I’m over it and need to find that new place. There have been few, perhaps only one, that I would have stayed at a lot longer (Heyyy, Bocana Street ladies!) Perhaps like some who long for true love and jump from person to person in their quest for that Perfect One, maybe that’s me and house/home. Gotta keep movin’ til Mr. Right House comes along.

I suspect, though that maybe, like men (and women), there is no Mr. Right House. Or, at least not as we imagined it. Maybe instead you find something that feels right, meets your bottom line, and has a lot of potential. My friend once compared men to apartments. “No apartment and no man can have everything. So, you just have to decide, what’s more important to you- walk-in closets or a large kitchen. etc. etc.”

Which you choose, however, goes deeper than you think. For the sake of a good analogy, I compare partners and houses, but in her book “House as a Mirror of the Self”, Clare Cooper Marcus, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley (who is also trained in Gestalt therapy) explores how the idea of House as a symbol of Self ( first proposed by Carl Jung) is made manifest through our relationship and attachments to our homes. She covers a wide range of topics with chapter titles such as:

The Special Places of Childhood

Becoming More Fully Ourselves: Evolving Self-Images as Reflected in our Homes

Becoming Partners: Power Struggles in Making a Home Together

Beyond the House-as-Ego: The Call of the Soul

and more.

Pretty interesting stuff, and with the number of design, DIY and real estate shows on TV or of blogs dedicated to home makeovers, homemaking, home design and the like, it is clear that home is of interest to many of us. But while the super fabulous designers on HGTV can revamp your old, funky living room, Marcus shows that connection to house/home, while it includes design and objects, runs much deeper, and with examination, can tell us more about ourselves, our relationships, memories and even the needs of our soul.

Given all I’ve purged here about myself in this post, it is evident there is a lot of food for thought there for me. But, perhaps it’s moot. As far as walk-in closet vs. big kitchen goes, there is no longer a question. What I mean to say is, we’ve done it. We’ve plunked down the big-ass check, signed enough paperwork to fill the library of congress, and basically indentured ourselves for 30 years. Somehow, with a lot of luck and help from our angels we now own this:

Our House

Our House

I know, I know. Palatial indeed. We are feeling good about marrying this house. It’s a big commitment, but we think we’re ready. We hope, at least. And now the nesting has begun! All those questions I asked myself as a child can now be answered and I can cultivate comfort and harmony in a more stationary way. I recognize the trappings of homeownership, and I also know that it isn’t what creates comfort and harmony or even stability.  Nonetheless, I hope that this will be a place to nurture those who live within and all who come to visit. Perhaps we will delve into the questions Clare Cooper Marcus poses, and learn more than how to clean gutters or insulate water heaters.

XOX,

Veronica

PS- This is my very first blog post. Thanks for reading and comments are welcome! We’ll see how this project unfolds!