From 1963 to 1976, I lived on Nagle
Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, on the edge on Inwood, a
skip away from Fort Tryon Park. That park was my playground and the
Cloisters was the extra, the icing on the cake. Many adventures were
experienced there for city kids who had no other place to go. But nothing
could prepare me for the adventure that I was about to explore in a
world that was unknown to me.
I was only nine when I went to Italy
for the summer for 45 days. My Italian-born parents sent me there to
spend it with my father's mother, Nonna Maria Civita Colicci. Even though
I traveled with a chaperone, a third cousin of Nonna's who spoke very
little English, I felt as if I traveled alone. Considering that today
I won't let my own ten-year old daughter go to the bus stop without
me, this was a huge adventure.
My mom cooked everything from scratch
so I was used to good, home-cooked meals. However, the meaning of the
word 'from scratch' changed the very minute I stepped on Nonna's farm.
Everything eaten on that farm started and ended there. My very 'comfy'
world of store bought meat and chicken wrapped gingerly in packages
was rocked. I remember sitting on the grass talking to Nonna while she,
without warning, chopped off a chicken's head. It ran headless toward
me, blood squirting. Needless to say, I did not eat chicken, rabbit,
or any meat that whole summer.
Here are a few of my favorite culinary
things from that summer: homemade cheeses, olives and olive oil, tart
marmalade, dried chamomile leaves, farm-fresh vegetables, snails after
the rain, fresh milk straight from the cow, and, of course, homemade
wine! My least favorite thing: rum soaked cake for my birthday celebration.
I learned so many things on that
farm during that glorious summer:
Nothing was wasted. You grew the
tomatoes, jarred the sauce, used the discarded tomato peels to feed
and fatten the pigs, and then made proscuitto from the pig! What a beautiful
cycle of food!
Chamomile tea is not only for drinking
but to be used as a wash for tired eyes.
A storage room full of wheat grain
could be mountains of fun for mischievous kids. And that you would get
in trouble if you were found out.
Many foods could hang from a ceiling
for safe storage.
Don't complain about the rooster
waking you in the morning if you don't want to eat him for dinner.
I learned that there is nothing
like this place ever again for me since some of the magic disappeared
with age. Since two of my Dad's sisters still live there and work the
farm, I returned when I was 28 for a three-week visit. (Nonna had since
passed.) It was wonderful, but not the same.
Today, when my parents come back
home after their yearly visit, they bring back goodies for me. I taste
and remember the little girl who once had culinary heaven at her fingertips.
Maybe I should let go and let my
own daughter go seek some adventures.