Inviting Writing: An Italian-American Grandma’s Cooking

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This is the final selection in our series of reader-penned posts about eating at Grandma's house. Many thanks to all who participated. Stay tuned for a new Inviting Writing theme next Monday!

Today's featured writer is Jane Pellicciotto, a graphic designer in Portland, Oregon who keeps an illustrated log of her fresh produce purchases and contributes occasionally to the Portland Farmers Market blog.

Pass the Gravy By Jane Pellicciotto

Whenever we visited my father’s family in New York, it was with a mix of excitement, curiosity and a little dread.

Brooklyn had what the Maryland suburbs lacked—subways rumbling overhead, the Chinese five-and-dime, colorful accents, and Grandma Pell’s cooking. But it also meant a nail-biting journey in the car with my father, for whom driving was sport. He would jockey for position among the black Cadillacs on the narrow avenues, while I’d slide down the vinyl seat so I couldn’t see the too-close cars. Instead, I’d try to think about the pizza awaiting us.

Grandma Pell, whose name was Lena, was born in Manhattan in 1908, a year after her parents emigrated from Italy. She’d never been to Italy herself, but maintained her family’s ways around food. Put oregano in the pizza sauce, never in the marinara. Fry sausages in olive oil, but the meatballs in vegetable. Soak the eggplant in salt water first; fry the slices not once, but twice.

Rules were not universal, however. An argument once broke out between my uncle’s sister and her husband whether to stuff peppers with raw or cooked pork. Heads turned when a hand came down hard on the table. Raw won.

The kitchen was always grandma’s domain and from its small space came humble, but glorious food: unadorned pizzas, stuffed squid, spaghetti pie, green beans stewed in tomatoes, and eggplant parmesan that melted in your mouth like butter. We saw these visits as an excuse to eat with abandon—salami and proscuitto and capacollo, slabs of salty wet mozzarella, extra helpings of rigatoni and meatballs. But most of all, for me, it was about the stuffed artichokes. One by one, I’d savor the slippery metallic leaves and the slow journey to the heart.

Grandma, who always wore a cotton housecoat, was methodical. She had a head for numbers, having been a bookkeeper despite her father’s orders to be a seamstress. And she was practical. Once, she overheard my uncle ask us if we wanted greens. Grandma came into the dining room, set down a bowl of broccoli rabe dotted with slivered garlic and said, “You don’t ask. You just put it!” Meaning, if someone wants it, they’ll eat it. Don’t fuss. (Then again, grandma would also ask over and over, “Did yas have enough? Have some more. It’s gotta get eaten.”)

My siblings and I were hungry for words and language and culture, keeping our ears perked for delicious turns of phrase like “just put it,” which we added to our own lexicon. Sauce didn’t just taste good, it “came nice,” as if a benevolent thing arrived at the front door. Dishes were “put up” rather than loaded into the dishwasher, and the ends of words were clipped while their centers were drawn out, adding bouncy drama to Madonna, calamari, mozzarella.

There is an edge to New Yorkers, not to mention Italians. And my grandmother had the misfortune to outlive her only two children—my father and aunt—by almost half a century. So I cherish one of the lighter moments in my memory. Back when my brother was a teenager, and very particular about clothes, Grandma announced on one visit that she had been saving a pair of dungarees for him. She returned with a relic of the bygone disco age. We looked at each other with alarm, but to our surprise my brother tried on the jeans. He emerged from the bathroom walking stiffly, stuffed into the jeans like a sausage. His flattened butt was emblazoned with metallic gold lightening bolts. We didn’t want to hurt grandma’s feelings, but none of us could contain the laughter, including grandma, who could see the jeans were painfully out of date.

It is no myth that getting a recipe from an Italian grandmother is nearly impossible. Once, I tried to get an answer as to how long she kept the marinated artichokes in the refrigerator, knowing that botulism could be a problem.

After many fits and starts, she finally offered, “not long.”

When I asked why, she said, “they get eaten.”

My sister's efforts were able to extract more details of Grandma's amounts and processes, until we had something resembling recipes. Try as we might, we can’t quite duplicate the flavors we tasted all those years. I’m convinced it’s about more than just ingredients. Taste is about place—the cold ceramic floor, the well-used paring knife, the loud exchanges, even the distant sound of car alarms. Still,  when I prepare roasted peppers, I make sure never to leave a seed behind.

Grandma Pell died last summer just shy of turning 101. Salute.

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