Apologies if this post sounds like my seventh-grade “What did I do last summer” essay.
My earliest memories take place in a specific kitchen. Rewind to the early 1980s on the Syracuse’s Northside. My maternal grandmother, Concetta Mancini, hosted the big dinners in her turn-of-the-century colonial on Mary Street (Remember that Italians, like most Catholic families, are matrilineal. Everything goes back to the mother’s side of the family. There are exceptions, but this is the general rule.). Christmas and Thanksgiving were at my aunt Carolyn’s, but the dinners that mattered were here. I still remember the flecked countertops, the big stove with a pot of something simmering (the stove was always heating something), the window over the sink that looked out at the driveway…and the food.
Our family hails from the Molise region of Italy, more specifically Campobasso. My father’s family is from Ferrazzano; my mother’s was from different places in and around Campobasso. I have never been to Italy and know little about this region. What I can tell you is how my grandmother’s cooking influenced me.
Sarah Vowell, in Partly Cloudy Patriot, writes that it was years before she learned that not everyone ate a potato with every meal. It was quite a shock to me that not everyone ate pasta two or three times a week. And, don’t get me started on where the sauce came from. A jar? What do you mean? Your grandfather on your father’s side doesn’t grow the tomatoes so your grandmother and mother can crush and seed them?
Labor Day weekend meant two things in my house–the start of the school year and gagging. And the two were not related. I don’t know if you have been around tomatoes being crushed and strained, but it is not fun. Worse was the smell of a rotten tomato that slipped through the QA team of mom and grandma. They would run the tomatoes through an electric tomato crusher, which separated the seeds from the pulp, leaving behind the makings of the next year’s sauce and a wretched smell.
If Labor Day was our annual rite of a season’s end, then New Year’s Eve marked the beginning of the cooking calendar. New Year’s was held at my house each year and was “our holiday.” And, until the day my mother died in 1997, we had the same menu. On the Eve: Fried smelt, red clam sauce over angel hair, shrimp cocktail, bacon-wrapped scallions, cipollinis, roasted red peppers (which were roasted on our back deck for a number of years), broccoli, baccala, and an assortment of cold salads, many with fish. On the Day: French onion soup, prime rib, baked potato and a bunch of vegetables of which I had no particular interest. Easter had nothing to do with chocolate. Sure, I got my share, but for me it was about the ponzat (sp), or stuffed veal
leg breast. And on, and on.
By my junior year of college, I was living in an apartment and cooking for myself. My experiments went mostly wrong, but by senior year I was making my own sauce and freezing it and am certain that I was the only person to ever borrow the RA’s hammer for the purpose of pounding veal for scallopini.
Today, through all of it, cooking is a therapeutic release. I can’t fix a damn thing. I can’t change my car’s oil. I’m useless with a golf club. But, you give me a couple of hours notice and I’ll assure you that you will eat well. It’s my art. It’s my release. It’s what gets me through. And I’m happy to share it.