What an ugly name for a vegetable. There is nothing appetizing about the word, eggplant. It sounds gross like the word, pregnant. The vegetable in question looks pregnant, too, with its bruise-purple skin, stretched and bloated over a rounded belly. Or maybe it looks like a strega with that weird little witch’s cap of a stem, jagged and mold-green, pricking fingers like briar rose’s spindle.
Adding the word “parm” does nothing to improve eggplant’s case. Now, on my cutting board I imagine an infected limb about to be amputated. Knife in hand, I chop, chuckling at myself and my weird writer’s mind, but really, these strange thoughts serve to show that I empathize with my little son who told me he doesn’t like eggplant.
Why adults could possibly expect a child to like a dish called “eggplant parm” is beyond me. I didn’t like it either, nor, when I was young, did I ever want to be pregnant. The whole thing sounded startling and gross, like eggplant parm.
Now, here I am in my 30s, a mother cooking eggplant parm. It took awhile to get here.
So, I get it. No kid in the history of being a kid wants to eat, “eggplant.”
But call it Mommy Pizza and we see the dish in a whole new light.
Julian is five. Supper is the main event of the day, a time of preparation and music; gathering and connection, and…
“What are you making?”
“Can I help?”
As he washes his hands, I slice the discs and salt them. When dewdrops emerge like fat tears on round cheeks, we gently blot them with paper towels. His hands are small and soft and plump with youth; mine are stringed with bones and veins, the skin already thinning. I think they are both beautiful. I love his little hands, and I love mine. All the things they make and do; all the ways they talk for us when words fail.
I retrieve three mismatched, ceramic bowls, and line them up on the counter. They clink on the granite with purpose; in these bowls the magic of transforming humble slices of eggplant into Mommy Pizza begins. In the first and third bowls, I pour flour and breadcrumbs respectively. Then, while I am busy cracking and whisking eggs in the second bowl, Julian presses his hands in the bowl of flour and claps.
I look up, about to tell him not to stick his hands in the bowl and pause, watching him as he watches the white specks of flour dance, sparkling like snow dust in the late afternoon light. Through the wavy glass panes of the tall window, almost 150 years old now, October sunshine, west-warm and ripe at day’s end, pans the gold in his hair and his eyes. He gleams.
“It’s like all the stars in the universe,” he says, eyes wide and wonder-full at the sudden beauty of what he did.
“That’s beautiful,” I say. “…all the stars in the universe. Yes!” I smile, glad I held my tongue. Suddenly, it seems silly to remind him not to stick his fingers in the ingredients because that’s exactly what we are about to do.
He claps again, and we watch the flour dance.
Then, we get to the business of cooking.
Taking a slice of eggplant, he presses it in the flour and dips it in the egg, coating both sides. We watch the yellow drip off in stringy leaks before he passes the slice to me, and I bury it in breadcrumbs and arrange the dressed “pizza” crust on the baking sheets.
We make up a song about what we’re doing. One of us makes a percussion noise, while the other chants: flour, egg, breadcrumbs…
“Hooray!” We exclaim and repeat the song until the baking sheets are full of coated eggplant.
Balls of hardened goop crust our fingertips. “Ewww,” he says, wiggling his fingers. We wash our hands. While the “Mommy Pizza crust” bakes, I slice the mozzarella, and he holds his hand out eagerly.
“Mmm, I love fresh mozzarella.”
“Me too,” I say.
He watches as I lay the sauce in the baking dish, white with filigree handles and deep as a Roman bath, and layer the eggplant, then the cheese. I sprinkle fresh parm and then another layer of eggplant, sauce and parm.
After hefting the meal into the oven to bake, I set the timer for half an hour. We know how to fill the time, dancing in the kitchen to some of his favorite songs: Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations, Up, Up and Away by the 5th Dimension, and I Love Onions by Susan Christie.
We shout-sing loud and proud. We wiggle and twist in the warm, yellow light of the kitchen. There are jazz hands and belly laughs, disco arms and butt shakes. The counters are cluttered and messy. The sink is full of dishes. I wear an apron tied around my waist over blue jeans and clog-like slippers. His clothes look like he rolled in flour.
This is how we make Mommy Pizza.
On the table that once belonged to my great-grandmother, Julian sets placemats that my grandmother gave me. Though it will be just the two of us — we still eat with family.
When I hand him forks and two neatly folded napkins, he grips them in his little fist and somehow in the 10 second journey from kitchen to dining room, the napkins fly open and look partially crumpled on the placemats as if already used. Forks lie haphazardly beside them.
I leave them that way.
I ask “Alexa” for Italian dinner music, and she obliges with a playlist beginning with
“Mambo Italiano.” Julian’s eyes light up as he listens to the song.
“She just said mozzarella!” He says, throwing his hands in the air.
Someday, Julian will learn about his Italian ancestry — the immigrants who came and built a life, family, foundation; who educated themselves, supported each other; who fought for worker’s rights; who suffered and sacrificed so we could have so much.
He will learn about Marche, the region in Italy where our ancestors came from. He will hear the story about the brave woman who began our family with her loss; who in the black hours before dawn, left a baby in a basket on the steps of a church. This orphan boy grew up and had a son, who would give our family a name; who would turn from everything he knew to start a new life.
Julian will learn about this man named Antonio, who came to this country alone at 15; changed his name from Casagrande to Rocchetti, traveled from Ellis Island, NY to Barre, VT, where he worked at a granite quarry. How he taught himself to read and write; how he settled in New London, CT — a small city by the sea — and started his family. How he became an activist, anarchist, and a playwright, bringing people of his community together, writing plays for the dramatic societies (M. Rocchetti). How, in his writings, he made cultural and societal statements by capturing the emotional truths of his time as he knew them. How he wrote and wrote and wrote, advocating for worker’s rights. How he wanted change.
I wonder what Antonio would think if he could see his great-great granddaughter and her son, living in a Victorian house overlooking a woolen mill — still in operation — that once employed many Italian Americans. A house that perhaps witnessed young children forced to work long hours with dangerous equipment — looms, that I imagine could catch the hem of skirt or the ends of a ponytail — now beholds their children running with flapping book bags for the gentler tyrant of the school bell. A house that perhaps witnessed a strike and negotiations for fair pay and work hours, and the development — over a century — of environmental health and safety regulations. The house of a mill owner’s son; the house of a padrone. What would Antonio Rocchetti think of this? Would he have thought it possible?
In his poignant and haunting play, Vendetta, translated by my father, Michael Rocchetti, Antonio captures the struggles of a small, Italian family — factory workers — during WWI. When Giulio, the man-of-the-house, is sent to the front, his young sister, Mercede, is forced to take her brother’s place, working in the factory in order to support her family. There, she faces the exploitative padrone and his spineless, predatory son. Characterizing her strength with empathy and passion, Antonio makes Mercede the true hero in this play, as she stands up and speaks for herself in her brother’s absence.
A story of love and loyalty and family, Vendetta explores innocence and disillusionment, honor and corruption, despair and hope. In the first act, Antonio Rocchetti wrote,
PLAYER. …Oh these privileged patricians! We, the plebeians, toil, and sweat, and bleed and die…while the Patricians and padroni live in opulence and reap the rewards. (he slams his fist on the table, and swears) Corpo di un Cane. Is there no justice in life? (5)
To which Mercede’s brother, Giulio, responds,
GIULIO…Let’s try not to be too bitter. Let’s try to subdue our rage and anger, and savor all of life’s little pleasures as they come our way (6).
Outside the window, the sun sets and the sky darkens over the mill; the trees becoming tall, dark skeletons. Inside, our plates are full and the dining room smells warm, of sauce and olive oil and melted parmesan. From across the table, I look at Julian, bright-eyed and listening to the language of the music, eager to eat, and full of life, and I think —
As my father, Michael Rocchetti, has shared these stories with me and written about them in his own work, so too, will I share this history with Julian, but for now —
Let’s…savor all of life’s little pleasures as they come our way.
We smile. We give thanks. We eat.
And I marvel at all this beauty — this bounty — we harvest from the humble eggplant.
This is how we make Mommy Pizza.
Rocchetti, Antonio. “Vendetta.” Theatrical Script. Transcribed and translated by Michael Rocchetti. 16 May 2020.
Rocchetti, Michael. Personal Interview. 10 October 2019.
Maria Rocchetti Ostrowski’s creative nonfiction and poetry appears in the anthologies, (HER)oics: Women’s lived experiences during the coronavirus pandemic and Letting Go: An Anthology of Attempts, Poetica Review, HerStry, 34th Parallel Magazine, and The Book Smuggler’s Den. In 2019, her novel manuscript, Yet From Those Flames No Light, was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for excellence in mystery and suspense. She posts about her writing life on Instagram: @the_roughdraft.