“So, Mom, you like Andrea Bocelli?
That question popped into my head, observing her smiling eyes as she listened to his velvety voice sing “Bésame Mucho.” It made me incredibly sad because I didn’t know the answer.
So many questions occurred to me as I sat in the nursing home, watching the effects of a broken hip and the dementia stealing my mother away from me.
Hooked up to a feeding tube, this amazing cook with a monstrous appetite lay deprived of her daily glass of wine with Dad.
I thought of dipping bread in her Sunday sauce. “Everyone knows you never cut the bread,” Mom would say, sounding almost annoyed. “Just pull it apart!” Then I was rewarded with a fried meatball, disappointing my three brothers. Today I still try to make them the same way she did. What was her trick? Was it the stale bread soaked in milk? I remember her squeezing the bread ever so lightly, but just enough to blend with the chopped meat that she purchased from her favorite butcher, conveniently located next door to the bakery.
I glanced over at her. It’s been a long time since I took a good look at your face, I thought. How beautiful you still are at 87. With her elegance and regal features, she easily could lie about her age.
She’d arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico to work as a nanny. Leaving her home at age 13 was not a difficult decision: Her mother had died when she was an infant, and her stepmother didn't care for her. Esteban Francés, an important Spanish surrealist painter, and his wife Irene, a singer, asked her to look after their son. The lure of traveling to America, Spain, and other beautiful places made her choice easy. Later she fell in love with a delivery boy, my Italian dad who promised to take care of her, which he did well; they were married for 67 years. But how did this Latina girl turn out to be the best Italian cook? Luckily for our family of six, she was taught by the mothers of the men in the “Boys Club” on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village (although she was too young to know what that really meant).
We ate traditional Neapolitan and Sicilian dishes like pasta fagioli, with extra sausage. “Just like grandma,” my son would say when I made it. I must have watched her more closely than I can remember. She taught me the importance of chopping countless heads of garlic, pounds of onions, and bunches of parsley for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of the Seven Fishes. The table groaned with white and red clam sauce, shrimp, baccala, raw and baked clams, and the prize pasta with a little bit of everything.
Hers was a generation that now seems lost, spending endless hours in the kitchen. There were never any leftovers, and remarkably she never complained. Today no one comes close to her level of cooking. I was always on some crazy diet, which upset my mother deeply. But she gave me a great sense of style, dressing me on a budget, which no one would ever know.
Now I long to hear her say, “Phyllis, eat your breakfast!” I long for the aromas that would waft up to my bedroom while waiting for dinner. I want just one more day, just one more meal with Mom in her kitchen.
Phyllis Paul, aka Phyllis Palmiero, is an actress from Queens, New York. She can be found at Backstage.
2 lb. fresh cod fillets
1 T. salt
2 T. chopped parsley
1 T. chopped capers
1 c. Italian or Greek black olives
1/2 c. olive oil
Put fish in a frying pan and cover with water.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook until fish flakes, about 6 – 8 minutes.
Remove fish with a slotted spoon and spread on a platter.
Sprinkle with parsley, capers, olives, olive oil, and the juice of 1 lemon.
Thinly slice remaining lemon and arrange around the rim of dish.
Cover and refrigerate for one hour until chilled.