I am half Italian, which means I am all Italian except when I’m sleeping. In other words, while I live and breathe and am conscious, the Bel Paese of my maternal family has a gravitational pull, making it impossible for me to acknowledge that my poor Irish-French-Swedish papa had anything to do with molding my soul. He did, of course, and in ways that I am just now at the age of 56 discovering.
But the rest of my body, my heart and my mouth and most especially my digestive system, were forever imprinted with the mark of Mamie. Mamie is short for Philomena, which is the name of a saint who was somehow decommissioned. My grandmother Mamie was never quite sure why her namesake was relegated to the B leagues of sainthood like Christopher, he of the dashboard, and she didn’t take kindly to the idea. I remember her raising calloused fists to the heavens and complaining to God. I am sure He listened, because no one ignored Mamie.
My grandmother was a force of nature, and I spent a good part of the first ten years of my life living with her. My dad was always working, my mother had four other kids to watch, and I was the firstborn favorite who lived with her on many weekends. We’d wake up on Saturday mornings, and she’d lay out the coffee (for her), milk (for me), and Stella D’Oro cookies (for both of us). But the holidays were especially wonderful.
(with my grandparents)
If you are Italian, you eat. You don’t understand the concept of hunger. You look at pictures of starving children from those World Vision charity commercials and think: Where are their grandmothers, and why haven’t they made lunch? You have a skewed relationship with food, which means you are Michael Douglas and it is Glenn Close. Food will not be ignored.
Mamie taught Lucy, my mother, how to cook: the grapefruit-sized meat-a-balls; the scrippelle soup made of chicken broth and gossamer thin crepes filled with ricotta; the “guggideen,” which were deep-fried, sugar-dusted ravioli cookies filled with figs and hazelnuts; the “bruzzole” with the meat pounded into the thinnest submission and stuffed with bread crumbs, sage and olives, then lashed together with twine; the strufoli, a pyramid of deep-fried (see a pattern here?) dough sprinkled with honey and candy confetti; the lasagna with its creamy entrails oozing out of paper-thin sheets of dough and soaked in marinara sauce; the panzanella, which revived the dead and crusty bread like a carbohydritic Lazarus, raised to salad glory.
I wish I had paid attention when my mother tried to teach me what Mamie had taught her. But by the time I was old enough to understand that I was blessed with the Leonardo de Grandma of cooking, she was too old to give me lessons. Learning from Lucy, secondhand, didn’t seem all that exciting, or important.
And I regret that, profoundly.
My mother was an amazing cook herself, someone who could pull together a gourmet dinner from a can of Spam, which she was not too proud to use. Many Italian women are like that, actually, not purists who stand on ceremony. You might think they are too good for canned mystery meat from watching the cooking shows on TV, the ones where everyone looks like they don’t eat anything but a leaf of lettuce every three days, but Italian women like Lucy and Mamie were experts in the art of improvisation. Back to that Spam: She would dice it into tiny cubes, sprinkle it with olive oil and rosemary, mix it up with chopped veggies and cubes of mozzarella cheese, and fold the whole shebang into ten eggs beaten within an inch of their cholesterol-filled lives. She’d pour that golden mess into a skillet, and five minutes later we had the Frittata of the Gods (or what the “’'Medigans” called an omelet.
Lucy tried to teach me, with all the good faith that a mother invests in her firstborn daughter, but the day that I used salt instead of sugar in the carrot cake (I mean, carrots are vegetables, right?) she made a tactical pivot and started to encourage my academic pursuits. Hence, I cannot cook. But I can appreciate those who do.
I also appreciate food as a way to express true love. My mother was a very affectionate lady, who treated food the way poets treat words: with reverence for their value and meaning, and she turned a simple cutlet, breaded with crumbs she had ground herself from day-old bread, into a love sonnet. I can still taste that cutlet, dissolving on my tongue like a savory snowflake. How Lucy managed to make meat ethereal will always remain a mystery—a very different version of mystery meat.
Mamie and Lucy are both gone now, probably munching on Stella D’Oro at God’s breakfast table and asking St. Michael to leave his spear outside of the gate when he comes by for coffee. And I’m sure when my name comes up, they raise their eyes, wave their hands in resignation, and smile. I know they hope I’m not starving.
I’m not starving at all. I’m filled with memories of them.
Christine Flowers is a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News.
1 1/2 lb. flank steak
4 T. olive oil
1/2 c. soft breadcrumbs
1/2 c. minced fresh parsley
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 t. dried oregano
1/2 t. salt, divided
1/2 t. black pepper, divided
1 medium onion, chopped
2 15-oz. cans tomato sauce
1/2 c. water
1 t. Italian seasoning
1/2 t. sugar
Pound meat as thin as possible (about 1/2 inch thick).
Rub with 1 T. oil.
Combine breadcrumbs, parsley, Parmesan, garlic, oregano, 1/4 t. salt and 1/4 t. pepper.
Press onto meat, leaving a 1-inch border.
Roll up, starting with a long side, and tie with kitchen string.
In a large heavy pot, heat remaining 3 T. oil, and brown meat on all sides.
Add onion, and cook until tender.
Stir in tomato sauce, water, Italian seasoning, sugar, and remaining 1/4 t. salt and 1/4 t. pepper.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 1 1/4 hours, or until meat is tender.
Remove meat from sauce, discard string, and cut into thin slices.