The Best Cook in the Whole World
One pair of grandparents I was blessed to have, lived in the Italian neighborhood. Aunts, uncles, cousins lived up and down the street in walking distance to St. Mary’s Church. Some of the cousins still do. My grandmother was a little girl when she voyaged to America. Born in Naples, in the shadow of the Vesuvius, she was used to peasant food; what was grown in the garden, fished from the sea, or scavenged from the wild. Certain dishes aren’t anything you’d find on a restaurant menu but it is authentic Italian food, nonetheless.
A couple times a year my brother, sister and I would sleepover in the Italian neighborhood. Our parents dropped us off for the weekend. My grandmother fed us well. Some of the food she and my grandfather ate was different than what they served us. For instance, a shallow pan covered with snail shells baked in the oven after the chicken and potatoes were done. I remember spying something different on the kitchen counter. It was also something kept off the table. Curious, I got up to have a closer look and saw a rustic pie crust filled with oily onions. I asked, “Nanny, what’s this.”
“Oh, you won’t like it,” she said with a wave of her hand – the same hand that seemed never to be without the limp ma-peen (little mop or dish cloth).
“I want to try it.” I spoke up, privately giving myself credit for being so brave – although not brave enough to touch the subject of snails.
“Alright,” she said with a wink in her eye. She expected it would gross-me-out. It wasn’t company food, nor did it resemble anything normal like her mouth-watering spaghetti and meatballs.
My grandmother cut me a slice. Just then, the odor of garlic wafted my way like a sort of warning of things to come. I ate cautiously, making sure I didn’t make a face. The texture was greasy, the flavor, pungent. It might have been the first time I had tasted anchovies. My grandmother sat and watched me eat. She was entertained and laughed. But she never asked what I thought of the pie. Therefore, I didn’t have to answer. I volunteered anyway. “Mmm, not bad,” I said. It may have sounded like a white lie but it wasn’t.
Peasant food was handed down to my grandmother from her mother, who was known in the neighborhood for keeping the largest vegetable garden – planted on the town’s vacant lot – a block away from the house. It was she who made my father trudge heavy buckets up to the large lot to water her long rows of asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, spinach, escarole, eggplant, onions, etc. It required many trips, back and forth.
He was ordered to weed it, too, with his cousins, no matter how hot the sun was. Great-Grandma was bossy but she was also the most affectionate person my father knew. She did as much work in a day herself, as could be done in two. From her summer basement kitchen, she fed not only her own family, but all those who walked through the door besides, while regularly caring for the sick and aging of the parish, leaving meals from her garden’s bounty on back doorsteps.
My father’s favorite dish of his grandmother’s was her layers of pan-fried eggplant baked in a casserole. He also ate bowls of pasta with beans and lentil soup with rib-sticking satisfaction. It was simple wholesome peasant food that was dirt-cheap but my father thought his grandmother was the best cook in the whole world.
Sometimes, I enter the kitchen and “brace myself.” I know I’ll be in there for some hours. I might cook double for sharing at a backdoor. Or I’ll cook double to freeze for a rainy day. A popular egg-pie is quiche. Like most pies it freezes well. It’s a way to incorporate healthy vegetables. It’s a handsome dish, tasty enough for company, that can be made well ahead. And it even tastes better the next day. My version of peasant pie uses a generous portion of green onions and mushrooms pre-cooked in olive oil.
While making this pie for a weekend breakfast, my mind wandered. Would any of my children or grandchildren tell tales about the home-cooked meals they ate in my kitchen – something normal like my spaghetti and meatballs? Perhaps one day I’ll hear, “Grandma, you’re the best cook in the whole world.”
You know the moral of the story.
I thought you could use a bit of encouragement, as November is the month when the enormous work of planning, cooking, serving and washing up after “that meal” rolls around again.
The Lord be with you, in the big things and in all the little things,