(by Marianne Leone)
When I was seven, I worried day and night about my Italian mother’s immortal soul. Ma never went to Mass on Sundays, a mortal sin that condemned her to eternal punishment in the flames of hell, forgivable only by absolution from a priest. That’s what Sister Juventius said. And Sister Juventius knew all about sin. And hell. But Ma was a mangiaprete, an anti-cleric, who used Sunday Mass time to make the pasta I craved with a lust that bordered on the profane, making me complicit in her sin.
On Fridays, Catholics were supposed to abstain from eating meat. Strangely, this rule was observed by Ma, and her signature Friday dish was a delicious meatless lentil and tomato soup with her own hand-cut noodles. I couldn’t figure out why she obeyed this particular church rule, since she never allowed anyone to dictate culinary matters at our house and was the undisputed queen and absolute ruler of her kitchen. Even when my two aunts pitched in during elaborate holiday dinners, they were Ma’s acolytes, scurrying to chop vegetables at her bidding. Kids were banned outright. If Ma wasn’t following God’s command to go to church every Sunday, she would never allow Him to tell her how to run her kitchen. The unusual adherence to the no-meat rule remained a mystery for years.
A year and a half after my mother died, my husband and I and a couple of friends went to a tiny restaurant in one of the teeming alleyways of Naples, Italy. Multigenerational Neapolitan families crowded the murky space, babies wailing, cutlery thrown to the table by busy waiters, the ebullient babble of southern dialect rising above the steaming pasta. The waiter slammed acqua gasata on the table and thrust his chin out, waiting impatiently for our order. I got the lentil soup.
Upon my first mouthful of the soup, I burst into tears. It was the lentil soup of my childhood, the soup of all those meatless Fridays, the soup I had tried and failed many times to recreate. My friend asked for a taste. She savored the soup, then sat back and smiled. “You know why you could never figure out the recipe? There’s meat in the soup. Pork, I think.” I tasted it again. She was right.
I suddenly heard my mother’s voice. “Whadda those priests know about making a soup? You ken’ make a good soup without meat! So, I put in, I take out, now it’sa soup you ken eat onna Friday.”
Only she never took it out. There were the hair-like pork strands, visibly floating in the broth, just as they had in Ma’s Friday soup. I just never saw them.
Marianne Leone co-starred in The Sopranos as Christopher Moltisanti’s mother Joanne. She and her husband, actor Chris Cooper, established the Jesse Cooper Foundation to support disabled children in memory of their son (P.O. Box 390, Kingston, MA 02364). Her story is excerpted from her memoir Ma Speaks Up: And A First Generation Daughter Talks Back, published by Beacon Press.