My mother (pictured above) was a proud Italian-American. Her mother was from a small village outside Naples and her father was from the province of Abruzzi. In that amazing journey that so many immigrants made over the years, my grandparents (separately) found their way to America, eventually settling in Philadelphia and raising five children. Genoveffa and Mario were devoted to their new country but also stayed old-school to the very end, speaking Italian at home and, most especially, cooking very traditional recipes.
It was a tradition passed on to their children. Along with my siblings and my cousins, I was the fortunate recipient of delicious food made from recipes carefully passed down from one generation to the next. My grandmother was the best cook in the family when it came to the traditional Italian recipes (apparently, my grandfather taught her how to cook). I never once saw Nana consult a cookbook or a recipe card. Her cooking skills seemed somehow imprinted onto her DNA. And when she pulled out the old pasta machine to make ravioli or lasagne, or cleared the decks to make spaghetti and meatballs, gnocchi, or pizza…well, it was heaven. There were few things better in life than Nana’s “homemades.”
Like their own mother, my mom and aunts pretty much cooked everything from scratch.
Those are the three Esposito sisters in their later years–my mom (Flora) is in the middle, flanked by big sisters Rudy and Maria. After my nana, Aunt Rudy was the best of the traditional cooks. She made the most amazing eggplant parmesan and also put together a mean antipasto platter for every holiday. Those platters were works of art, and I really wish I had a picture to show you. Aunt Rudy was also the kindest, most loving person I’ve ever known and I think that love manifested itself in her wonderful cooking.
Maria, on the other hand, was what my family would have referred to as an “American” cook. She veered away from the traditional dishes and had an inordinate fondness for trying recipes from the newspaper–not always with the best results. Still, you had to give her props for trying something new.
My mom, though, was without a doubt the best cook in the bunch. She could cook anything and do it to a level of artistry that’s probably now only seen in the kitchens of the best restaurants or at food magazines. She had an innate sense of what worked in a recipe and what didn’t, and she had no fear when it came to tackling a difficult cooking project. My mother was also a talented, self-taught butcher. Okay, she wasn’t out in the backyard slaughtering cows (although Nana did used to slaughter a lamb at Easter back in the old days), but she could take just about any cut of meat and trim, butterfly, or filet it into tender submission. It was a skill I wished I’d taken the time to learn, along with how to make her soups. She made the best soups I’ve ever tasted.
When my mom died at the too-early age of seventy-four, she left her cherished recipe box stuffed with hand-scribbled notes, recipes she adapted, and a select few from newspapers that she deemed worthy of saving. She also left a treasure trove of wonderful, first edition cookbooks. The cookbooks were split up among my sibs with no problem, but the recipe box…well, that was the bone of some contention. EVERYONE wanted it. Finally, we all agreed that my sister (the eldest and a very good cook) should get it. But before it was handed over I pulled out every recipe card, scribbled note, or old newspaper clipping and photocopied four copies for the rest of us. It took a LONG time, but it was worth it. And the best part? I love looking at the recipes and seeing my mom’s handwriting and notes. It’s like some small but very important part of her is still with me.
I will never be the cook my mom was. I’m not disciplined enough and I don’t have her built-in sense of what works in the kitchen and what doesn’t. But every once in a while I pull off something pretty nice–like this asparagus ricotta tart I made the other night.
Not bad, eh? It’s an Italian recipe, pulled from one of my vegetarian cookbooks, and it was really good. I have a feeling even my mom would have liked it.
Do you come from a family that likes to cook? Any favorite recipes that have been handed down from one generation to the next? Feel free to share!
Dear mom I saw at the grocery store:
I saw you there in the cold section, I was picking up yogurt for my family and you were there with your three kids – 2 in the cart and one walking beside you. Your little ones were what people affectionately call chubby, but I want you to know that cute chubbiness is going to change and what happens from there will shape your children’s lives. Your little girl, walking beside the cart, I’m guessing she was 7 or 8 and I’m sure everyone still teases her about her “baby fat” but those eating habits she has right now, they’re only going to get worse.
You see, I was that little girl the one with the baby fat. But once you hit Jr. High, no one calls it baby fat anymore. But then it’s just fat and people will still comment on it. There will be that boy who somehow gets a hold of her yearbook and writes in it cruelly, “save the whales, harpoon the fat chicks.” And there will be that girl who points and tells her that fat girls shouldn’t wear mini skirts. There will be the boy she has a crush on, the one who never looks her way and she’ll go home sad and only get sadder. And bigger.
Mom, know now that you are the one capable of changing her eating habits, of teaching her about healthy choices, fruits and vegetable and no, that doesn’t include french fries. Know that every time you offer her a candy bar or an ice cream cone when she’s sad, that only teaches her to continue to reach for those when she needs some comfort. Know that if you don’t fix it, she will have to, someday when she’s ready, if she’s ready, but that the burden of those extra pounds will cause her health problems and emotional damage that she’ll live with forever.
Mom, I know you love those kids, I could see it on your face, but I glanced in your grocery cart and honestly I don’t mean to judge, but please be careful with those choices for your babies. I know they’re kids, I know they should be able to eat fun “kid food” chips and cookies and every sugary thing in between. But they’re kids and they’ll love fruit if you give it to them, it’s sweet and natural and yes, it can be more expensive, but there is always some fruit in season or there’s frozen fruit. There are ways to do it. And you can do it!
Your window of opportunity is small, eventually this blame will leave you and fall to her. It will be her choices, those things she puts in her mouth. But right now, while she’s still little, you can help shape her view of food and her body and her health. Right now, you still have time…
That’s what I want to tell them, every time I see moms with “chubby” kids. It hurts me. I ache for those children because I know, first hand, how horribly cruel kids can be and it only gets worse as you grow up. I hope that letter doesn’t make it sound like I blame my own mom because I most certainly do not. Things were different when I was growing up, no one knew much about nutrition in the way that we all know now. Convenience was king and still is to some degree, but we’re having a bit of a renaissance where people are getting back to growing their own food and infusing their daily food intake with more whole foods, grains, veggies and the like. We know more now. And for right now while we prepare our kids food, it is our responsibility to teach them about healthy eating. Of course that doesn’t take into consideration the picky eaters…but that is for another blog.
So do y’all ever pass someone you don’t know and want to say something to them – whether good or bad? I mean sometimes I see that frazzled mom at the store and I just want to go up to her and tell her she’s doing a great job. What do you think about the epidemic facing our kids today with the unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyles?
When I was young, my mother used to bake the most delicious red velvet cakes. Even the icing was from scratch. She’d stack it high and sprinkle it with flaky coconut. It was heaven on a plate. Mostly, she made it for special occasions like birthdays and Valentine’s Day, but every once in a while she’d surprise us and make one just because. Maybe that’s why I always associate red velvet cake with comfort, happiness and love.
I associate other foods with love, too: My grandma’s pumpkin bread; my mother-in-law’s snickerdoodle cookies; and just about every meal the Norwegian prepares. He really is a fabulous cook. As a family, we put a lot of time and thought into our weekly meals and we make a point of sitting down together for dinner every night. We like to cook together, too.
The two of us have passed on our love of cooking to College Girl and when she feels homesick, she’ll fix some of our family favorites. She says it’s the next best thing to being home.
Given my love affair with food, it’s no wonder it usually plays a starring role in my books.
Do you associate certain foods you with good memories? If so, what are they?
Everyone is a little bit Irish today, but in my childhood home being Irish was a full-time job. My father, a man of wit and brevity, never lectured us about anything. But he had an endless storehouse of wonderful old Irish sayings, and he could always pop out the perfect one to put us in our places.
We probably didn’t appreciate it then, but all these years later I remember them, and I’ve even found a few more of my own along the way.
The Irish swing easily from sardonic to sloppily sentimental…and back again. I’m the same way. So of course, my storehouse of favorite Irish sayings hits both notes, as well. Here are a few:
My favorite blessings:
May the saddest day of your future be no worse than the happiest day of your past.
May you always walk in sunshine, may you never want for more.
May Irish angels rest their wings right beside your door.
My favorite warnings:
There’s no need to fear the wind if your haystacks are tied down.
It’s sweet to drink, but bitter to pay for.
My favorite curse:
May those who love us, love us.
And those that don’t love us, may God turn their hearts.
And if he doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles,
So we’ll know them by their limping.
My favorite toasts:
We drink to your coffin. May it be built from the wood of a hundred-year-old oak tree that I shall plant tomorrow.
As you slide down the banisters of life, may the splinters never point the wrong way.
What wonderful sayings were you brought up on–Irish or otherwise? I’d love to add to my storehouse, so that I can impress everyone the next time we have a St. Patty’s Day party, like this yummy one at my sister’s…from which I’ve just now come home. Apparently, ahem, we’re big on dessert!
I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about my struggles with Diet Coke here on this blog. I know I have on my Facebook page. I’ve tried to quit so many times, but for one reason or another I never quite made the commitment. Well, I’m happy to report that I have not had a diet soda of any variety since September 2nd. In fact I haven’t had any artificial sweeteners since then.
While I’m very happy and proud of my accomplishment with this, something about it all has really surprised the hell out of me. I knew I had physical addictions to the chemicals in diet coke. Day 3 of my detox (as I fondly call it) I felt so badly I thought I might be physically sick. It was awful, I shook, I was all jittery and cranky. But I had expected it. Things got better after that. Eventually the shakes went away and my headaches disappeared (well the soda-related headaches). But I never realized how emotionally addicted I was to those little cans of bubbly delight.
Most days I do okay, but some days I want one so badly I literally could rip them out of some poor unsuspecting soul’s hand. I’ve even cried – that’s embarrassing to admit, I realize it’s just a beverage. But I miss them. For so long, my diet sodas were my constant companion. I mean I was drinking a lot of them, like upwards of 50-80 ounces a day. Yes, you read that right. But I’ve seriously mourned the demise of diet coke and diet big red and any other variety I would have.
It still seems weird to me to acknowledge this. It’s crazy to think that something so trivial could be so emotionally important to me, but there you have it.
So how about you? Have you ever had something like this that completely took you by surprise? Ever given up something that was really difficult to let go of?