I am in Ireland as I write this, working with a fabulous group. Everyone is tucked in for the night after yet another day of fun adventures and I got to thinking.
As we ate dinner this evening, I looked around the table at the happy faces enjoying their meal and I was suddenly nostalgic for the days when my huge Italian/Irish clan gathered at our home in New Jersey (my mother and Nonna were the best cooks, so our house was always first choice).
Every weekend, holiday or any sort of special occasion was a new adventure in our home as relatives and friends careened in and out of the house. My mother, who worked full time and somehow managed to serve us three healthy, balanced meals daily (complete with dessert and homemade bread), was in charge of the kitchen with aunts, uncles, friends and me hustling to do her bidding to create a great meal.
People often ask me who taught me to cook. No one and everyone in my family, as I watched, fascinated by the ‘dance’ they did as they cooked. Each person, confident in their job, moved with grace and ease around the other bodies in the kitchen, confident in their tasks. I was drawn in, enveloped by their knowledge and more importantly, their passion for cooking and nourishing…and their generous, patient willingness to share what they knew with me. They were artists in the kitchen, like jazz musicians, joyfully improvising when an ingredient was lacking, often thrilling to the resulting dish. And yes, they also honored tradition; some recipes were sacred; no changes to be made…ever. It was a cool balance of sorts. I cook that way still.
I can remember as a little girl, standing on my little stool, rolling meatballs, or washing lettuce or stirring a pot of gravy (sauce to those outside the New Jersey/New York/Philadelphia area) under watchful eyes, but still allowed to do the job independent of hovering. They knew how to keep me safe; to encourage me; to teach me without lecturing or scolding. It was the greatest chef training anyone could hope to have.
For them, seasonality and freshness were the most important ingredients in a dish. And ‘no waste’ was just something we did naturally. We grew up without a lot of money, but we had enough, so who would waste food when there were people less fortunate than we were? We didn’t waste water; we didn’t use paper towels. I was in training for the job I do now although I didn’t know it at the time.
As I travel the world for my chosen work: teaching about healthy living, hosting groups, filming tv shows, I am often struck by how much of my family’s character stays with me. Did we have problems? We did. Did we fight? We did. Were there rifts in the family that took years to repair? There were. But all in all, my family fought for each other; we loved each other fiercely; we shaped each other. We were proud of and celebrated achievements and were right there to lift each other up when we fell, as everyone inevitably does.
People often talk about the baggage they carry through life because of their families. My family was extreme in every sense of the word. It was a daily adventure. Some days were terrifying (literally) and some were exhilarating. I am the woman I am because of the family I was lucky enough to be born into.
I am sure I romanticize my memories of my family, immigrants who came to the US in search of a better life and the newer generations who questioned everything we thought we knew (as we were taught to do). Time glosses over the flaws and paints a faded sepia-toned photograph of who we really were. But they’re my memories; the stuff of my story; my own personal tapestry.
If this is my life’s baggage, then I will happily carry it.