Updated: Mar 1, 2020
(by Tamara Dey-Venturella)
In my Italian-American family on the south side of Chicago, we ate peppers and eggs for breakfast, or fried baloney on Italian bread. My school lunches consisted of stinky salami and provolone sandwiches that the entire lunchroom could smell the moment I unwrapped the wax paper. I would have loved a peanut butter and jelly sandwich like my friends. "Okay, next time," my mother would say.
My friends were aghast when I talked about eating spaghetti with neck bones, or said that my favorite meal was pasta con sardi—pasta with sardines. Anyone who entered my mother's kitchen might have been frightened by the empty sardine cans strewn about, kitchen cabinets wide open, with nearly every dish and utensil dirty. This was my mother's method-of-madness in cooking. (I am quite the opposite, perhaps a little OCD, vigorously cleaning everything as I go along.) A lot of our deep, insightful conversations took place in her kitchen, whether about school, boys, or my job at Sears. I now treasure those times, and we still carry on our covert conversations out of earshot of other family members, like two best friends seeing each other for the first time after a long separation. I get so sad when I have to leave and go home, usually to an empty house.
My mother's exposure to cooking came from her family, who immigrated to the United States from Italy. My grandfather's family was from Sicily in the heel of the “boot,” while my grandmother's family arrived from San Benedetto in the north—the best of both cultures. It was unusual for a Sicilian to go outside of his sub-culture and marry a "Marchigian" (as someone from my grandmother’s region was known), but they defied tradition. To date, none of my immediate family had ever traveled to "the old country" because of a fear of flying. My grandfather's family ran a tavern that offered food and drink, and my mother was reared in this environment. I was lucky to experience it too—walking through the back door of the tavern and grabbing a handful of pizza dough from the gigantic mixer (although when my mother saw me do that one day, she said that the yeast would make my stomach "explode"). I desperately wanted to help in the pizza kitchen but was only allowed to make sandwiches because the pizza ovens were too dangerous.
Many things have changed in our lives thanks to the Internet. My mother loves YouTube for recipes (and listening to The Platters). But I still use a lot of her handwritten recipes. I get sentimental looking at her handwriting, imagining her sitting at the kitchen table, writing.
Tamara Dey-Venturella is an ER nurse, writer, and actor. She shares her home near Chicago with her four-legged children: Codie, Danny, and Shiloh.
Pasta con Sardi (Pasta with Sardines) 1/2 c. olive oil 1 c. fresh bread crumbs 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 – 2 t. fennel seeds 4 cloves garlic, minced 1 c. canned crushed tomato purée 3 tins (4-3/8 oz. each) boneless and skinless sardines, drained 1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley 3/4 t. salt 1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper 1 lb. spaghetti
In a large frying pan, heat 1/4 c. oil over moderate heat.
Add breadcrumbs and cook, stirring occasionally until golden, about 5 minutes.
Remove from pan and toss with Parmesan.
Set aside and wipe out pan In the same pan, heat remaining 1/4 c. oil over moderately high heat.
Add fennel seeds, and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, 5 - 10 minutes.
Add garlic and cook, stirring 1 minute longer.
Stir in tomatoes, and bring to a simmer, cooking until thick, about 10 minutes.
Add sardines, parsley, salt, and pepper, breaking up the sardines with a fork.
Remove from heat. Cook spaghetti in boiling water until al dente.
Toss with sauce and half of the breadcrumbs.
Top with remaining breadcrumbs.