My Italian-American grandmother was an amazing cook, but she went against stereotype: Tomato sauce was not in her repertoire, and she was not demonstrative, loud, or overly affectionate. In fact, she was reserved and, at times, cold. I don’t remember her ever hugging or kissing me, except for perfunctory hellos and goodbyes. But I knew she loved me. My sweetest childhood memories are “helping” her make the dough for her light and fluffy ravioli. Wearing one of her waist-style aprons tied under my arms, I’d throw flour on her wooden board and roll the cutting wheel. She’d have a twinkle in her eye and teach me to chant numbers in Italian like a song: uno, due, tre…and when we got to dieci, we’d clap.
(Grandma and me)
Growing up in the 1960s, my family’s visits from the Long Island suburbs to my grandparents’ brick home in Queens were always a detour into exotic eating. My grandparents came from a small town in the region of Piedmont at the base of the Alps, where tomatoes did not grow in abundance, and the language, wine, and food were influenced by its northern neighbors of Switzerland and France.
My grandfather wore a cloth napkin tucked into his collar as he slurped pickled eels, cured meats, and smelly cheeses bought on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. My brother remembers waiting for my father to take “something scary” (like a chicken liver) out of a serving bowl before digging in. With one small oven and a counter the size of a hot plate, Grandma Foglino could produce a four-course meal: antipasto (celery, anchovies, and artichokes); homemade soup (asparagus, zucchini, or white bean); starch (risotto with mushrooms, polenta, or gnocchi with meat sauce); and main course (lamb chops, chicken, even rabbit). Dessert was never a child’s delight—an assortment of fruit and cheeses.
Even though my mother, Kathleen, was very much a cook of her time—mac ‘n cheese, shell steak well done, and fruit suspended in Jell-O (a short phase)—my grandmother didn’t hold that against her (and we mostly ate at her house). It helped that my mother’s family came from Italy (a few generations earlier and not from the North, but she passed).
It was few years after my parents divorced, when I was 12, that my grandmother turned into her own version of Marie on "Everybody Loves Raymond," refusing to eat anything my father’s new wife cooked. One strike against my stepmom: She was Irish and German, not Italian. Another: She had four teenaged children whose biological father was no longer in the picture.
She needn’t have worried that my stepmother was out for my father's money. Mary Ruth had a job teaching the blind; she and my father were both depression era babies who made frugality a competitive sport. “God bless her,” my father would say, “she’s cheaper than I am.” (My father once built a clock he had in a window because he figured he could save $10—he used a fish-shaped wooden cutting board I had given him as a gift.) Mary Ruth was a diehard yard-sale shopper. Her one splurge: spending her last $500 on a mahogany dining room set. To this day, she recounts her calculated justifications: “I couldn’t get the two sisters who were moving to sell just the china closet, which is what I wanted,” she says. She compared prices at department stores and learned that one cabinet would cost $500. She went right back to the sisters and got the set. “It also came with a buffet table, a server, a mirror, a padded table protector, and a tablecloth that had never been used.”
That dining table became the gathering spot for Thanksgiving meals for our part-time, motley Brady Bunch for thirty-something years, and where my grandmother started displaying her hostility. (My parents agreed to alternate holidays in their custody arrangement, but as we lived closer to my mother’s family and saw them throughout the year, Thanksgiving became the day to see my father.)
Both my mother and stepmother were in awe of my grandmother’s culinary abilities. Over the years, each asked her for her recipes. But she was very much an instinctive cook—“Sauté it until it’s done,” she would say. Or “add a teaspoon of garlic…maybe a little more.” Both my mother and stepmother needed more solid guidelines.
Mary Ruth had a measured and precise system for preparing her massive Thanksgiving meals. An endless feast would be rolled out like an assembly line down the table: pearl onions, creamed spinach, Brussels sprouts, mashed white and sweet potatoes, and two kinds of stuffing. As I would pass each dish to my grandmother, she would look at it suspiciously and maybe spoon the smallest dollop (like quarter-sized) onto her plate. Mary Ruth started serving antipasto, albeit from Shoprite. Grandma took maybe two olives and a piece of celery.
(Stepmother Mary Ruth)
My stepmother took it in stride. “I knew early on that she was a hard woman to please,” she says. Soon everyone started contributing a dish. My stepsister from Woodstock brought vegan meals (lasagna with tofu, never again). My father prepared bluefish caught in the Long Island Sound (wanting to empty his freezer). Soon my grandmother was contributing sautéed vegetables, the way only she could, with just the right amount of garlic and olive oil. My favorite was her Swiss chard mixed with an egg yolk and Parmesan cheese. Over the years, she became more accepting of our Thanksgiving meals—she never quite had a heaping plate full, but the portions grew.
Now that my grandmother and father are both gone, my brother and I still gather around the same dining room table with my siblings and stepmother. Mary Ruth volunteers her time at a food pantry throughout the year, but gets especially busy during Thanksgiving. She still serves antipasto. I will always be grateful to both women for expressing their love in their different ways. This year I’m going to make Swiss chard.
Annette Foglino is an award-winning journalist in New York City and author of Spa Journeys for Body, Mind and Soul. She can be found @annettefoglino and on LinkedIn.
Grandma Foglino’s Swiss Chard
2 T. olive oil
3 cloves garlic chopped
1 large bunch Swiss chard, washed and roughly chopped
1 T. red wine vinegar
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
In a large pot, heat garlic in olive oil.
Add Swiss chard, and cook until stems are tender.
While chard cooks, beat together egg, vinegar, and Parmesan cheese.
When chard is done, add egg mixture and stir, letting the heat of the chard cook the egg.
Add salt and pepper to taste.