I love to cook.
And on the occasion when I sort
through the torn-out recipes that I've saved over the years for exotic
and ethnic dishes and fancy party food, I always come across a very
plain, precious item that I will never discard.
It's a record of sorts, a glimpse
into my past - a faded piece of unlined paper containing a bread recipe,
crudely written in the frantic pencil scribblings of a child, the words
running in a jagged, uphill slant.
The child who wrote it was me, of
course - probably when I was 8 or 9 years old. And I remember as if
it happened only yesterday, that I wrote it as I sat on the cold linoleum
floor of my grandmother's kitchen in New Jersey. Pencil stub in hand,
I was feverishly recording ingredients for Italian Easter bread, as
my grandmother made the dough.
"What's next nana?" I'd
ask. And since she was a nana, she baked as nanas do - by eye, by feel,
by instinct. "But nana, how big is "a shot glass full of oil?"
I'd implore? And, "How
do you measure "a handful" of flour?" I'd whine. And
so our discussion would go, she, providing me with a vague idea of quantities
and I, struggling to make sense of it all.
Of course like so many projects
that restless children begin, I eventually abandoned my seat on nana's
kitchen floor, pursuing instead those things that interest adolescents
- most specifically, the misery of my hormonal changes and rebellion
against all things practical.
But something curious happened,
many years later. When I was in my thirties, that old recipe fever took
hold of me again and with it, a need to record nana's culinary legacy.
There were many reasons for my inspiration, not the least of which was
the sudden popularity of Italian American, pseudo-family cookbooks,
written mostly by celebrities and restaurateurs.
To say that those books were my
true inspiration would be untrue however, because it was nana who really
inspired my love of cooking. And I had to face a sad fact with this
new experience - she wasn't getting any younger. The implications of
what this meant broke my heart and tightened my throat. The child in
me desperately wanted to hold onto her - all of her - the stories she
told me, the breads and cookies I watched her deftly bake, the comforting
smell of her house. I couldn't bear to think that any of it, especially
nana, would ever be gone. I had to save it all somehow and I felt a
sad desperation to do so.
So I started writing a cookbook
comprised of nana's recipes. And once again, as I had as a child, I
took my seat in nana's kitchen to write down her recipes as she cooked.
Like most Italian-American families,
we weren't a mirror image of the unflattering stereotypes that are shown
on TV. And we weren't gangsters either, despite the Sicilian heritage
on my grandfather's side of the family. Working hard to pursue The American
Dream would more accurately describe us. For example, nana left school
when she was 15, to work in the factories of Newark. She continued to
work for the better part of her young life - first to care for her ill
mother, later to ensure an education for my mother and my aunt. And,
since cooking was a natural a part of a woman's education in our family,
we took for granted that the kitchen was an integral part of our lives.
Whether it was cooking or eating,
food was always the centerpiece of our social settings and the focal
point of our lives together as a family. No one ever had it so good
either, as far as comfort food was concerned; a bowl of Stracciatella
(egg ribbon soup) when you had a cold or a plate of hot Pasta E Fagiole
(macaroni and beans) smothered with parmesan cheese and black pepper.
But I digress. This is fodder that
every Italian American family can wax poetic about.
I'm talking about holding onto all of it ... forever! I started to compile
a book - a combination family biography, family tree and cookbook. I
alternated between cooking at nana's elbow as I had as a child and experimenting
with her recipes in my own kitchen. I often brought the finished product
to her house to share with her and to get her opinion on the end result.
Authenticity and accuracy were key - the family members and the stories
that lurked behind the history of each dish were just as important to
me as the ingredients. And I tortured poor nana in my attempt to gather
these details, although for her, it was hardly a chore to tell me a
story. When we made her recipes together, I could almost sense my great
grandmother watching over nana's shoulder, making sure she made each
one properly. And, as nana told her tales, I envisioned her mother -
the petite matriarch that I never knew.
In an ironic twist of fate, nana's
cooking ultimately became a wordless form of communication between us
toward the end of her life. As her mind slipped away, so did her desire
to cook. Eventually, she didn't speak anymore, which broke my heart.
But I'd like to believe that when I delivered goodies to her, at the
nursing home where she eventually lived, that she knew who I was. I
saw recognition in her eyes as she bit into the cookies that I brought
on my visits, made from the very recipes that she had imparted to me.
There'd be a glint in her eye as she nibbled one of her Knot Cookies,
a smile when she crunched on a Biscotti. And for Christmas, her eyes
grew wide and she broke into a wide grin when I brought her the soft
and chocolaty Mostacciolli cookies that our whole family loved, filled
with figs and scented with clove.
I baked her creations on every holiday,
not solely for her enjoyment, but so that no one would forget her. On
Easter, there was sweet bread, baked with whole eggs pushed into the
top. For Christmas, my mother and I fried Struffoli dough and baked
Mostaccioli cookies, regardless of the back breaking work they entailed.
So, as I said, I wrote a cookbook
filled with nana's recipes and interlaced with her stories and her love.
A REAL Italian American legacy. Then, I tried to publish it. And no
one was interested. I was told that ' You aren't famous ... no one has
ever heard of you ... no one will buy your book ... '
Just as I began to feel more defeated
than I ever had in my life, I remembered the true reason behind the
writing of my book - it wasn't for money or for fame, it was for nana.
I did it out of love.
And my mood softened. This book
was a precious gift that she had given to me. It was something to share
with my family! Nana, my grandfather, our family and friends, most of
whom are gone, will live forever in the pages of my book. I'm grateful
for all that she gave me to remember them by.
As I bake, I know that she's there,
watching over my shoulder, and I whisper, " Nana, how do you measure
"a handful" of flour? "