(by Giulia Asquino)
For Italians, food is not only nourishment but a lifestyle. From north to south, there are specialties, secrets, and traditions, all guarded and handed down with pride, sometimes even jealousy, from one generation to the next. We go "to the eye," especially for traditional dishes. There are things we do beyond the recipe. We don't need to read it—we know it. And each family has a characteristic for the same dish—for example, the lasagna. There are families that like the upper part of the pasta scorched so that it crackles, while others like it softer, but these differences don't change the basic taste. It's just how the recipe has been passed down.
My story really begins in 1954, with a girl just 16 years old from a small town in the Campania region, near Naples, who moved to Rome to support her family, while they remained in the country. She became a maid in the houses of rich gentlemen. The girl was my grandmother, Maria Rosaria. After some years, she married and had two children, one of whom was my mother.
My grandmother was an exceptional cook, and she wasted nothing. Bread was sacred. If it became too stale to be sliced, she’d cut it into small pieces and put it in hot milk in the morning. My mother liked the addition of coffee, and when I arrived in 1998, she’d add cocoa.
For my mother, milk soup is the food that most binds her to the memory of my grandmother. My mom and I have tried many times to reproduce it, but it still does not have the flavor and the emotion of when my grandmother prepared it. My mother and grandmother spent a lot of time together; the place was almost always the kitchen, and that’s true of my mother and me as well. My grandmother did not have the habit of writing down her recipes, but she told them, as if they were stories, imprinting the importance of cooking for the people you love. She was not jealous of her recipes, but when she cooked, she didn't want anyone around, and my mom is the same—she’s organized and doesn’t want help.
In the kitchen, we have faced difficult but also beautiful moments, like when I talked to her about my choice to leave for America to study acting. I remember the date exactly—it was December 5th, 2018. Mom never clipped my wings when I told her about my decision. I had never been overseas, but she supported me, and the fact that I had to go so far away did not scare her, unlike what everyone else said. Indeed, if it made me happy, she was happy, and sure that I could handle it.
So on February 4th, 2019, I left for New York. I like to think that I faced, and am facing, what my grandmother felt half a century ago when she left her country village, the difference being that I left to start realizing a dream that I had been keeping for a long time in a drawer.
Surely one of the things I miss most about home is the food. Thank goodness I can cook. I rarely eat out. The only place I go is a "real" Italian restaurant where the cook is a friend and I can feel the scents of the house there. And although my grandmother died in 2008, when I cook, she and my mother are really there with me.
Giulia Asquino is an actress, dancer, and singer living in New York City. She can be found at https://giuliaasquino98.wixsite.com/acting-dance-sing and at Backstage.
2 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
5 – 6 c. tomato sauce
approximately 3 lb. eggplant (about 3 large)
1 lb. mozzarella, cubed
2 – 3 leaves fresh basil, torn
Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat and brown the garlic.
Add tomato sauce and simmer for about 20 minutes.
In the meantime, slice eggplants about 1 inch thick, salt them, and place on a cotton cloth or paper towel for 15 - 20 minutes.
Brush off the salt and dredge each slice in flour.
Heat peanut oil, and fry the eggplant slices on both sides.
Alternatively, you can place the slices on a baking sheet without flour, and bake at 375 F. until lightly browned.
Drain on paper towels.
Preheat oven to 400 F.
In a large rectangular casserole, layer tomato sauce, eggplant, mozzarella, and basil.
Bake for 40 minutes.
Let rest for 5 – 10 minutes before serving.