Friday, November 8, 2013

The Best Cook in the Whole World

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.
Landis Valley

      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.   

slow food

     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. 

autumn vegetable garden in Pennsylvania
Autumn Vegetable Garden

     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.

primitive kitchen
Primitive Kitchen
     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.

slow food - mushroom egg pie with green onion
Filling the Pie

     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.

slow food
Out of the Oven

     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.

young dogwood tree in autumn


    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,
     Karen Andreola

orange autumn fabric yo-yos
There's a yo-yo for every season.


  1. Lovely... I'll never forget the first time my daughter came home from college. She walked in the door and said, "Aaaah it smells like home." Not sure what she meant, she went on to explain that it smelled like food cooking. After 2 or 3 months on a meal plan at the dorm, she had not smelled food actually being cooked. So as further encouragement to young mothers- it is important and they are noticing. : ) Angela

  2. This brings back fond memories as many of my old Italian family members were incredible cooks (as was my Polish great-grandmother who made noodles and would drape them over the chairs to dry!). When my husband and I were married and still in graduate school we lived in an old house in the Little Italy area of Pittsburgh. It was incredible as there were still many old timers around, and there were several amazing Italian markets. Gosh I miss it!

  3. What a neat post. I always envy those who grew up with lots of family - aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents…

    I guess maybe that is why I am trying to instill these kinds of things in my own family; cooking together, sharing life together, building memories together.


  4. Your description of family, Church family, and good food all together in one lovely place makes my heart sing.


  5. Lovely!
    I am Italian-American (on both sides) and your writing brought so many memories back.

    One grandmother always called the dishtowel the "mopine" in the midst of her English sentences.

    My other grandmother, who we called Nonny, also was an amazing cook. When I was older, my sister and I asked her how she made her salad so good and we were amazed to find out that it was just plain iceberg lettuce with oil, vinegar and salt! We have never been able to duplicate the exact flavor...and we realized it was the LOVE she put in that made something so commonplace so special.

    Both were from the generation that were content and happy as homemakers, and that legacy has been a powerful force in my life for the same, despite the pull of our culture.

    As my grandfather always used to say, "Salut"! (to your health)

  6. I am not from an Italian family, but the family gathering that I remember were butcherings at Thanksgiving each year. 2-3 steers and several hogs were butchered each year. It sounds disgusting, but I enjoyed, as a child, running from one room of the basement-turned butcher shop to another - watching the grown-ups swart hogs' skins, chopping meat for the grinder, grinding for sausage and hamburger. Then out in the back yard was the big iron cauldron that was used for cooking down lard. Oh, those cracklins were THE BEST!
    I realize now it was not just a time to get a new stock of meat for the year, but a time of fellowship, camaraderie and participation in something they (the adults) all knew how to do and remembered doing from their youth. So the cycle of memories and food goes on!

  7. Thank you for the lovely post. As a lover of quiche I am wondering if you would share your recipe... it looks delicious!

  8. I've read that smells strongly evoke memories - more than visual cues. A house filled with the smells of cooking (or a basement or backyard) is a blessing and a comfort, for sure.

    Thank you, Ladies, for sharing your thoughts and memories.

    Oh, another "mopine" in the blog neighborhood. And salad with just oil and vinegar, too. My grandmother put raw onion, pepper, tomatoes, and olives in her salad - and at Christmas - cod fish.

    The quiche pictured on this post is just a standard quiche recipe with lots of green onion and mushrooms added. I cut cheese in cubes and I like to mix light cream in with the egg and my secret ingredient is a couple teaspoons of brown mustard and a pinch of nutmeg. I comes out different depending on the veggies I use. And I don't always take the time to make a pie crust. See what an inexact cook I am?

    Karen A.

  9. Thank you for the quiche info. I'm going to give it try. I was hungry after reading this post.

    Our local authentic Italian restaurant has the most delicious salad and it is just lettuce and an oil/vinegar dressing but the dressing is aged for a few weeks. It seems as if there would be something else in the dressing but I have no idea what it would be.

  10. Such wonderful good memories to enjoy of your grandmother's cooking! My family roots are found in Poland (and other various neighboring countries in Europe). Holiday meals for us always included homemade kielbasa which I didn't appreciate. Thankfully, my dad taught me how to make my own a few years back, and now I'm the grandma who will be serving homemade kielbasa...
    Such a blessing the Lord has given us in the delicious aromas from the good foods from our kitchens. Your quiche looks tasty. :) Blessings, Lisa

  11. What a lovely post Karen! I fond memories of my grandmother's cooking especially her homemade doughnuts with maple glaze!

    Our oldest is coming home for Thanksgiving and his 25th birthday and he asked for Lasagna for his birthday. He said, no one makes Lasagna like you do momma! ;o)

    I hope you are having a blessed day!!

  12. My "Nana" prepared the most delicious, made-from-scratch treats and would bring them every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They included a type of spicy-sweet relish called "Piccalilli", Boston baked beans which were slow-baked in an oven crock, Pork Chow Mein, and Toll House Cookies - to name a few. She passed on her love of cooking and baking to me and also taught me how to crochet, knit, and sew a hem-stitch. I miss her very much!
    Warm regards from Lynne H.

  13. Yes, there are yo yo's for every season. They are lovely and dress up your harvest table well.

    I have a good feeling your cooking will be well remembered.

    No one can hold a candle to my Granny's cooking. She was and still is...the best cook in the whole world.


    A nostalgic and sweet post for Thanksgiving.

  14. This was a most entertaining post. I remember when my children were young, and I was doing all of the cooking and most of the cleaning up myself at holidays (in-laws weren't very helpful), that I would light a candle in the kitchen to gaze at during the hard days of work. It gave me a little happy when my feet and back got achy. ~smile~

    Be blessed,

    P.S. Just got the package. I haven't opened it yet.