(by Catherine Gigante-Brown)
There was nothing fancy about my mother’s Brooklyn kitchen or her white enamel Welbilt stove. There was nothing fancy about my mother—Teresa Maria DeMuccio Gigante—but to me, she was everything.
Mom was the first-generation daughter of Italian immigrants from Calabria and Naples. Most of the dishes she made were simple, savory, peasant fare from her parents’ Southern Italian villages. Hearty soups, braised meats and deep, complex, red gravies.
What I wouldn’t give to wake to the scent of my mother’s Sunday sauce bubbling away on the burner again! It was the best aroma in the world, better than coffee brewing, better than bacon frying.
It took several hours to make, so Mom would start early, before my father, sister, or I were awake. But the second I opened my eyes and smelled it on the stove, I’d creep out of bed, careful not to wake my sister on the fold-out Castro Convertible across from me. I wanted my mother all to myself. I didn’t want to share her with anyone.
Mom would smile when she saw me, half expecting me, a lukewarm cup of Maxwell House at her elbow. I would wash my hands at the sink and join her at the Formica table, pulling up a dinette chair next to her and nestling my head against her shelf-like chest. She was a thick, sturdy woman, smelling fresh and clean like Noxzema cold cream and just-chopped parsley. She smelled even better than the sauce on the stove. The gravy meat—braciola, sausages, and a chicken quarter to sweeten the pot—had already been browned and added to the sauce. All it needed was the meatballs.
Together, my mother and I would mince and chop and talk and laugh—remembering something from the “Carol Burnett Show” the night before. She had a deep, throaty laugh that shook her whole body and an easy smile that sparked the most wonderful dimple on the right side of her cheek.
In the warm comfort of her kitchen, I could talk to my mother about anything. As an awkward tween, when I lamented my monobrow, my prominent Roman nose (which was a lot like hers!), and my flat chest, Mom would always boost my confidence. Of my nose, she said, “You’ll grow into it.” (I did.) Of my chest, she smiled, “Don’t worry, it will grow.” (It did too.) As gently as possibly, she showed me how to tweeze my Frida Kahlo eyebrows into something more manageable.
As Mom showed me how to mince garlic one day, near tears I confided to her, “None of the boys like me. I’m not blonde. I’m not pretty.” My mother hooked her garlicky hand around my shoulder. “The most beautiful thing about you can’t be seen with the eyes,” she said. “Someone will see it someday. I’m sure of it,” she added, kissing the top of my blue-black hair. Of course, she was right.
When I confessed my dream of wanting to be a writer, my mother was supportive. “But make sure you learn how to type,” she pointed out. “It’s a good skill for a writer to have. Plus you’ll always have something to fall back on.” Right again, for when I was putting myself through college or during dry spells, I supported myself with a myriad of temp jobs, many that paved the way for other opportunities.
On the culinary arts front, my mother taught me not to be afraid to get my hands dirty. Some people mixed the meat, egg, spices, bread crumbs, garlic, and grated cheese with a spoon, or even worse, wearing rubber gloves, but not my mom. “You’ve got to get messy to be a good cook,” she’d say with a smile.
After we rolled the meatballs, she would brown them in a cast iron pan while I grated the Pecorino-Romano, careful not to scrape my knuckles. No matter how busy she was, Mom would always fry a batch of tiny meatballs that didn’t go into the gravy. They were for the two of us to enjoy together, speared with frilly toothpicks.
In addition to bringing my mother’s credos into my own kitchen, I also brought them into my books. Each of my novels in The El Trilogy contain bits of my mom’s cookery. It’s my love letter to her as I write about Bridget, Rosanna, Tiger, Stan, and Chiara wrapping spiedini, arranging the antipasto into a beautifully symmetrical pinwheel pattern, or learning the intricacies of pasta-making. These beloved characters are really just extensions of me and my mother at the kitchen table.
When we baked a cake, Mom let me lick the batter from the beaters—I can still taste the metal and thick sugar against my tongue. When we made veal cutlets, I nibbled the egg-and-bread-crumb mixture from her fingers. When we made icebox cake, she always saved a bit of the chocolate pudding at the bottom of the pan for me to scrape with a wooden spoon. Cooking, for me, was a sensual, visceral experience. It still is.
I learned all sorts of culinary skills from my mother—how to trim and pound chicken cutlets, how to make pasta lenticchie soup from scratch. But more importantly, I learned about cooking with love. About showing people how much you care for them by preparing their favorite dishes.
My mother passed away suddenly when I was 35. In her dresser drawer, I found a Manila envelope stuffed with the short stories and articles I’d written. Everything I’d ever sent her. I had no idea she’d kept it all.
In my novel Brooklyn Roses, I named the “Terry” character for her, instilling Terry with my mother’s quiet grace, unconditional love, and a kitchen prowess much like my own. I think Mom would like that. I picture her smiling shyly and blushing while reading it, but bursting with pride on the inside.
More than a quarter of a century later, I still miss my mom terribly. But the more I cook, the more I feel like her. That’s a good thing. Only I wish, just one more time, that she and I could cook together, elbow to elbow.
Terry’s Sunday Sauce
olive oil (as needed)
meatballs (see recipe below)
9 Italian sausages (I usually use 6 sweet and 3 hot to give it a little kick)
1 pork braciola
1 chicken quarter
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
dashes of dried basil, oregano, and parsley
3 cans (28 oz. each) crushed tomatoes
1 can (15 oz.) tomato sauce
water (as needed)
dash of sugar (optional)
In a frying pan brushed with olive oil, brown the meats.
Remove to a bowl when done.
In a 4-quart pot, cook garlic and onion until slightly soft.
Add basil, oregano, and parsley.
Add crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce.
Use a small amount of water to clean out the cans and add to the pot.
Bring to a light boil.
Add the meats and their juices, cover, and simmer for 2 - 3 hours, until the bright red color mellows into a rich orange.
Stir occasionally and taste. If the sauce is a bit acidic, add a dash of sugar to neutralize.
Serves 8 - 10, enough to cover 2 lb. pasta. Freezes well to enjoy later.
1 1/2 lb. chopped meat (mixture of veal, pork, and beef is best)
1 large egg
1 slice of bread (any type, preferably the end), soaked in milk, squeezed almost dry, then broken into fine pieces between thumb and forefinger
1/2 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
dashes of dried basil, oregano, and parsley
1 T. grated cheese
seasoned bread crumbs (as needed)
olive oil (as needed)
In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients (except olive oil) by hand, adding as much bread crumbs as necessary so it will stick together.
Break off pieces of the mixture and roll into balls between your palms. (The size is up to you.)
In a frying pan brushed with oil, brown meatballs on all sides.
Use for Sunday Sauce, or drop into a pot of bubbling spaghetti sauce and simmer until the sauce is done, or eat as is.
Makes approximately 12.