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No Pantyhose, No Bra

(by Jackie Schifalacqua Atkins)

My mother might go into the kitchen if she needed a glass of water and no one was around to fetch it for her.

Cooking food was something akin to punishment. First you had to admit you ate food, which according to her was something people had in common with animals.

She was raised in an Italian ethnic household, and my guess is that this resistance to the planning, preparation, and serving of food to her family was comparable to the negation of relegating women to servitude. While her mother was always in the kitchen, my mother saw no need for it. She was too busy joining committees and starting initiatives to ban Mad magazine from store shelves in Mount Penn, Pennsylvania.

I did not suffer from her lack of handing down family recipes because we never (when the cook was off) ever ate anything remotely equivalent to Italian American cooking. There were two exceptions. My father’s family summer homestead in Cape May, New Jersey, was presided over by my nonna, a Roman matrona who made all her own pasta, raised her own livestock, and grew all her vegetables. Every Sunday morning, I would plop myself down beside her marble-topped kitchen kneading table and become mesmerized by her careful layering of the stretched dough into a cranking machine, knowledgeably changing the dial on the machine until the right diameter for the pappardelle was achieved. Occasionally, my mother would come into the kitchen for water and shake her head. “Shouldn’t you be practicing your tennis serve?”

The other exception to our daily intake of roast beef, steak, mashed potatoes, and peas took place on Easter Saturday at high noon, the time Catholics traditionally break their Lenten fast. On this day, my maternal grandmother would deliver from the bowels of South Philadelphia to rural Pennsylvania her pizza Ghena. Now, this is not to be confused with what others call an Easter Pie, which is fine in its own right but is really a pie with a thin crust. No, the Ghena was a cross between a quiche and a hearty loaf of bread. The dough was thick as a rustic pizza, stuffed with cheeses, eggs, and, and ham. No ricotta.

On this once-a-year day, even my mother ate food. Opening up this care package beat all the presents on Christmas morning. Then one day my Grandma died, as often happens with 96-year-olds. Easter meals were now no more than roast lamb and chocolate-covered eggs. All of a sudden, my mother became nostalgic for her ignored heritage. As befit her personality, the lack of the pizza Ghena was all my fault. After all, since I liked to cook, why didn’t I get the recipe before my grandmother died?

My grandmother never had any recipes. That’s the way Neapolitan immigrants flowed. Little did she know, I had perfected this dish years before because I, and I alone, took the time out to go down from my Chestnut Hill studio and observe my grandma making things. I served the Ghena with wine at parties; didn’t need Easter to do it.

So two Easters after my grandmother died, I drove up to Berks County, Pennsylvania, for a command performance at dinner. Though my paisley wraparound dress was creased from the hour and a half drive (duly noted by my mother when I walked in the door, along with my lack of pantyhose and bra), I carried a surprise package. Tucked within my April Cornell carpet bag was the ghost of Easters past—the link between a horse cart street and a gravel driveway, an inheritance worth more then my mother’s Limoges and Murano. I ran over to the kitchen and instructed whatever the name of the woman who was slaving in there (my mother went through help like silk stockings) to cut the savory pie in squares and serve it with the cocktails.

Back in the den, I grabbed my tumbler of Maker’s Mark and waited for the silver tray arrival of happier Easter memories. When my mother saw it, she smiled.