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Bel Paese

(by Christine Flowers)

I am half Italian, which means I am all Italian except when I’m sleeping. In other words, while I live and breathe and am conscious, the Bel Paese of my maternal family has a gravitational pull, making it impossible for me to acknowledge that my poor Irish-French-Swedish papa had anything to do with molding my soul. He did, of course, and in ways that I am just now at the age of 56 discovering.

But the rest of my body, my heart and my mouth and most especially my digestive system, were forever imprinted with the mark of Mamie. Mamie is short for Philomena, which is the name of a saint who was somehow decommissioned. My grandmother Mamie was never quite sure why her namesake was relegated to the B leagues of sainthood like Christopher, he of the dashboard, and she didn’t take kindly to the idea. I remember her raising calloused fists to the heavens and complaining to God. I am sure He listened, because no one ignored Mamie.

My grandmother was a force of nature, and I spent a good part of the first ten years of my life living with her. My dad was always working, my mother had four other kids to watch, and I was the firstborn favorite who lived with her on many weekends. We’d wake up on Saturday mornings, and she’d lay out the coffee (for her), milk (for me), and Stella D’Oro cookies (for both of us). But the holidays were especially wonderful.

(with my grandparents)

If you are Italian, you eat. You don’t understand the concept of hunger. You look at pictures of starving children from those World Vision charity commercials and think: Where are their grandmothers, and why haven’t they made lunch? You have a skewed relationship with food, which means you are Michael Douglas and it is Glenn Close. Food will not be ignored.

Mamie taught Lucy, my mother, how to cook: the grapefruit-sized meat-a-balls; the scrippelle soup made of chicken broth and gossamer thin crepes filled with ricotta; the “guggideen,” which were deep-fried, sugar-dusted ravioli cookies filled with figs and hazelnuts; the “bruzzole” with the meat pounded into the thinnest submission and stuffed with bread crumbs, sage and olives, then lashed together with twine; the strufoli, a pyramid of deep-fried (see a pattern here?) dough sprinkled with honey and candy confetti; the lasagna with its creamy entrails oozing out of paper-thin sheets of dough and soaked in marinara sauce; the panzanella, which revived the dead and crusty bread like a carbohydritic Lazarus, raised to salad glory.

I wish I had paid attention when my mother tried to teach me what Mamie had taught her. But by the time I was old enough to understand that I was blessed with the Leonardo de Grandma of cooking, she was too old to give me lessons. Learning from Lucy, secondhand, didn’t seem all that exciting, or important.

And I regret that, profoundly.

My mother was an amazing cook herself, someone who could pull together a gourmet dinner fr