(by Natalie Balents)
In 1986, my mother sold her red Porsche 944 because she was too pregnant to wiggle into the driver’s seat. My grandmother said that she drove herself to the hospital in high heels when she went into labor. In December. In New England. She wasn’t the maternal type who liked to cook or bake, or spoke to me softly, or sheltered me from the sharp edges of the world. She didn’t do that, and I’m glad she didn’t. She was a fierce Italian-American, and she had a few tricks up her sleeve for special occasions: stuffed squid, meatballs, roast Cornish hen, pizzelles, homemade raviolis.
It wasn’t until I was in college and learned to cook for myself that I realized there was an absence of nutrition, but more importantly, my birthright as an Italian was languishing, and would take years to exhume and authenticate, with the help of my mother’s mother, my grandmother: Emilia Josephine. She was petite, small nose pointed downward, apple cheeks. She could smile with her eyes, and they were a strange brown-blue color, reminding me of a dove. The youngest of 12 children, she was closer to the motherland. Her father had immigrated and spoke broken English, reflected in the way she pronounced certain words, the way she cooked, and the way she loved. And of course, the way she smoked cigarettes.
When my interest in cuisine nosed to the surface, she began to tell me of her father, Emilio, and how he came to America dressed as a woman (he went AWOL after being conscripted to the Italian army and got on the next boat for America). He settled in Boston and grew mushrooms in the basement of their home in the North End of Boston—I imagine it helped keep the Italian culture alive in his heart. My favorite story is the bathtub eel story. He would bring home a live eel for Sunday dinner and leave it in the bathtub before he killed it. He did that on purpose, to scare the children when they went to use the bathroom. She explained how he would cook it, blistering the skin and roasting it with oranges and wild herbs. I envisioned the eel writhing in the bathtub, making the shape of infinity over and over, frenetic in the confined and smooth porcelain. When I watched my grandmother cook, I would pretend that he was standing behind her, looking over her shoulder as she smashed the eel’s head and started preparing it. I imagined the smells of eel and orange as they caramelized at high heat. I imagined the redolence from the herbs caused him to daydream of Italy. I imagined he cried quietly once or twice without anyone noticing.
My grandmother was the youngest. My mother was the eldest—the favorite because she was the first and the most like her father: strong-willed, winsome, cavalier, and charismatic, although petite like her mother. She is olive-skinned with dark hair and eyes and thick wavy hair. She didn’t think about Italian cuisine as our heritage or birthright or as storytelling. She ate to not be hungry and to fill a void. My grandmother was the counterpoint to this severity. When I asked her to show me how to cook, she smiled and told me that she had no recipes. It was all by eye, by heart, by memory, by blood. So I watched her. For decades, I watched. And she told me some of those stories that I craved about her Papa and where we came from and the bathtub eels.
Natalie Balents is a consultant who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. In her spare time, she likes to work on her motorcycle, bake bread, swim in the ocean, and study botany. She can be found on Instagram.
Bathtub Eel (Sunday Dinner)
1 eel, gutted
4 garlic cloves
4 sprigs fresh rosemary (optional: mint, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, tarragon, wild
chervil, or chives)
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
6 oz. dry white wine
Using a cast iron or heavy-bottom pan, sear the eel quickly over high heat, being careful not to damage the skin.
(You can also use an outdoor grill.)
Let eel cool, then butterfly it down the middle. The best way is to press the eel, skin-side up on a board to loosen the spine. Carefully peel away the skeleton (like deveining shrimp) and rinse the crevice you created under running water to clean out the insides. Then pat dry.
Stuff the crevice with garlic and a mix of aromatic herbs (this is the fun part) and tie up with kitchen twine so the stuffing doesn’t fall out.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Drizzle a baking sheet with olive oil, and arrange the eel.
Season with salt and pepper to taste, and roast for 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and add white wine.
Return to oven for another 10 - 15 minutes.
Serve immediately with a side of lemon. This dish is ephemeral and will never keep or reheat well.
It’s great served on a bed of soft polenta, drizzled with pan drippings, and a salad of bitter greens such as chicory (radicchio).