IF YOU LOVE ME, YOU’LL EAT THIS
In my family, food is how we say, “I love you.” The meal we cook is a valentine. Eating every bit of what’s served is a return kiss. And this lover’s dance passed down to me. If I care about you, I cook for you.
I learned this from my grandmother, “Nanny,” we called her, and my mother. They may not have known all my friends or attended all my school events, but that was only because they were home cooking, cooking something big–Panzetta on Tuesday; Clams Oreganata, stuffed artichokes, and frittata on a Friday. It didn’t have to be a Sunday or a holiday for a multi-course meal. I know it was not that they weren’t proud of me, not that they didn’t care about what I was involved in, but they chose their kitchens over some of my events because they believed that the meal–celebratory or daily–was their God-ordained duty, contribution to family, and solid proof that they loved us. I know that now because I, too, feel that now.
They lived this belief. My grandfather’s barber shop was below my grandparents’ apartment, and Nanny cooked a full, hot meal for his lunch daily. No cold cuts. If he had a sandwich, it was veal cutlets and broccoli rabe on Italian bread, roasted peppers with garlic and olive oil, mozzarella she had made herself. She would slice fresh fruit–peaches, pears, apples, whatever was in season, and he would eat the wedges with the point of his knife. I remember her yelling down the hallway stairs, “Pietro, vieni a mangiare,” in Sicilian dialect, however. When company arrived, before anyone could say hello, my grandmother or mother would yell, “Put the pot on.” No one sat in the living room, even though the sectional sofa was well-protected under plastic slipcovers. The apartments were small, no dining room, family room, basement, no backyard. Friends, neighbors, and relatives gathered around the kitchen table–the table, our alter, the center of our universe–where meals were time for bonding, story-telling, sharing, and memories. All that food. All those bilingual conversations. All that love on mismatched dishes that made the trip across the Atlantic. All those memories, like all the times my grandfather made a bunny-rabbit puppet with his white, linen napkin to entertain his grandchildren while sitting at the table. I want to make memories like that. I’d like to make use of all three meals for that purpose. I try.
Nanny greeted me with a kiss when she saw me, but the real hello was her turning to her stove to ladle something into a dish on a table that was set long before I arrived. My grandmother’s table was always set. And there wasn’t just one something on her stove, there were several somethings. You have to be Italian to know that pasta is only one part of a meal. And pasta can have many parts because gravy (Not sauce. It’s gravy.) can be complicated–meatballs, brasciole, pork, etc., etc. Simple Marinara was informal. Speaking of marinara, this quick gravy was born of love. Legend says that this is the gravy sailors’ wives prepared for them when they returned to port in Naples. Mare is the Italian word for sea, so it’s possible. I had heard in an Italian class I took that prostitutes who populated the port towns actually made marinara for their customers. Making love and making food linked. If that isn’t proof that food equals love, in your next life, come back as an Italian and see for yourself.
Every memory I have involves food, no matter what the holiday, what the event, what moment in my history. I can’t remember Nanny without the “mapeen” in her hand. Every day when I got home after school, my mother was in the kitchen holding a brown, wooden spoon, already cooking dinner. I have that spoon now. When my mom moved to Heaven, that spoon was so much a part of her, I couldn’t part with it. Its handle is worn to a curve on one side from the many years of laps around the edge of the gravy pot, the zuppa di verdure, lenticchie, the pasta e fagioli, the scarola e fagioli.
The first-hand, Italian role models are gone. I’m holding the torch. I’m compelled to have my children taste, smell, touch their southern Italian heritage. They never heard my grandparents’ accents. They will never help my grandmother make fresh ravioli as my brother and I did when we were kids. We turned over a glass to cut circles in the dough my grandmother had just rolled out. Nanny would spoon the filling onto the circle, and we would place another dough circle on top, then press around the edges with a fork to close the ravioli. We would carry the ravioli to the flour-dusted dishtowels she had set out on her bed. My kids will never taste Nanny’s ravioli. Because my mom now cooks for angels and saints, my kids haven’t tasted my mother’s meatballs since 2006. So, it is my God-ordained duty to remind them what Italian is. Bring it on. I have a kitchen, and I’m not afraid to use it.
Because of what the mothers before me modeled, dinners, for me, have lots of rules and are elaborate and labor-intensive leaving leftovers for some fancy lunches. But breakfast? No heritage-imposed regulations there. I do remember my grandmother and mother making breakfast, but there wasn’t as much ceremony about it. It wasn’t as sacred a meal. Breakfast was a must, but it was a meal to get out of the way to make room on the stove to start the gravy. One of my mother’s favorite breakfasts was an American-Italian combo. She put ricotta cheese on melba toast and sprinkled sugar on it. Damn if it didn’t suggest cannoli. Often, my breakfast was leftover Italian food from dinner the night before. When I got older, whenever I traveled, I longed for my mother’s cooking. Always, as a welcome-home dinner, my mother would make my favorite, veal parmigiana. And I’d eat it for breakfast the next day, too. And the day after that. Today, regardless of what Kellogg’s has to say about breakfast, the morning meal has dwindled in my family. Now, it seems there are just two requirements to start a new day: wake up alive and Keurig. This is America. This is the 21st century. My kids are adults. They are American. I can’t compete with protein bars and iced caramel latte mochachino machiattos, or whatever they are.
I lost the war on breakfast, but I will not give up the fight on lunch and dinner. Now, when I know my son is coming home, I cancel plans for days prior and am compelled to have everything he ever liked ready. I fry meatballs three days out, make sausage and peppers, double pots of gravy so there’s enough for him to take home, eggplant parmigiana. I cook until our house is saturated in the perfume of the Italian culture–garlic, oil, and cheese–so when my son walks in, it smells like home. Our house is not the only thing that absorbs the Italian perfume. Once, when I ran to get fresh, Italian bread before my son’s arrival, a woman in front of me on line turned around and asked me if I had been frying eggplant. I knew I had done good. My son would feel loved.
I greet my son with a fork in my hand. Immediately after dinner, I ask my husband what he wants for tomorrow’s meal. He can never answer on a full stomach. When my daughter was in college, I visited her at school with my trunk loaded with doubles of her favorite foods–chicken parmigiana, ravioli, and cannolis, but since she eats so little, she was always annoyed at me for carrying in all the tins of meals, already portioned into servings. Food isn’t important to her. A twig just snapped from the family tree.
I tell my kids about the breakfasts my mother made for my brother and me before school, when we still lived in an apartment, before my parents bought their first house. Cold mornings, little heat, only four rooms so my brother and I had to share a bedroom. Our bedroom was right off the kitchen. My mother would come to our beds with blankets in her arms, ready to wrap them around us once we left the warmth of our covers. She walked us to the kitchen, hugging us in those blankets, and stirred sugar into bowls of hot cream of wheat. Every act of feeding us exemplified love, and we ate to reciprocate.
My kids never even wanted me to cook breakfast. For my son, breakfast is measured in grams of protein, and for my daughter, well, she still doesn’t eat breakfast. They have no idea how many memories are falling away. When my son comes home, though he still loves gravy with sausage and meatballs atop ziti, he doesn’t want to eat heavy food anymore. He eats healthy. I guess I should be happy about that, but if I don’t cook for him, make those special meals, my heart hurts. His healthy lifestyle has eliminated a big part of what I need to be. I’m trying to adjust. It’s hard. Now, I limit the number of heavy meals when he visits, and I stopped buying take-home tins. Since my daughter eats out of necessity instead of passion, I need to have only salad and avocados in the house for her. I buy those in bulk to satisfy my need to satisfy her. I’m trying to adjust. It’s hard.
I’ve given in to evolution–Italian to Italian-American to American of Italian descent. I cook less. We all eat less. Better? In some ways. I concede reluctantly, but I will never stop making the Christmas biscotti, the recipe that traveled from Sicily to New York with my grandmother in 1919. They are a sacred tradition. My mother made them. My grandmother made them. My great-grandmother made them, and all my family-tree greats before her made them. These cookies are a family legacy. I bake them by the hundreds for Christmas. I go through thirty eggs. I give away batches and batches to friends, family, and neighbors. Those who know me expect them. They wait for them. I am the keeper of the keys on this one and take the responsibility of honoring these cookies seriously. I love that everyone expects them, regardless of the work it takes to make them. I’m happy to share the love. But I will not share the recipe. I won’t even give it to my in-laws. One of these Decembers, my kids will have to watch me make them to ensure this recipe lives on when I’m gone. It hurts that it’s not as important to them as it is to me. I’m trying to adjust. I’m trying.
I have this cookie recipe, along with two other recipes, written in Italian in my grandmother’s handwriting, her swirly, shaky, European-style script, framed. They hang in my kitchen watching me, my stove, and everyone who eats at my table. The ghost of my culture, the presence of my heritage, the taste of my past is still present.
Maureen Mancini Amaturo, though named after Maureen O’Hara, is 200% southern Italian. Her heritage taught her well to eat, love, and pray. She’s obsessed with cooking for her Italian husband and pure-pedigree children, was first in her family to graduate college (BA in English, MFA in Creative Writing,) and wears black frequently, as much a symptom of her 30+ years as a fashion/ beauty writer as it is of her Italian heritage.