As the holiday season shimmers on, I am feeling sentimental this year. My family was big and loud and a bit…pazzo as we say in Italian, but they made me the woman I am and I am missing those wild holidays of my childhood. Family was everywhere all the time, it seemed. I was smothered in kisses and hugs…and food by aunts, uncles, cousins and other loved ones from dawn til dusk, holidays or not but so much more during this festive season. I am not usually one to live in the past or to get maudlin. Maybe it’s the absolute horrors of the pandemic that seems to drag on interminably but I am feeling the loss of those who created me more than just a little bit this year.
Surrounded as I am with people I love and with people who love me, this sudden nostalgia took me a bit by surprise as I am quite happy in my world, living the life we have created, doing the work we do and loving every moment of it. I know that it’s the rare individual who can say that he or she loves their work completely and can’t imagine doing anything else. And I know that it’s even more rare to do that work with the person you love most in this world; in my case, my husband, Robert.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t longing for the past. I was feeling grateful to my ancestors for making me who I am; for giving me the strength I have; for showing me how life is to be lived with honesty and integrity and how to respect all living things.
My father was not a great man. He didn’t change the world with a life-altering invention. He didn’t create world peace.
He was a good, good man; he worked hard as a butcher to put food on the table and clothes on our backs. Our home was warm. He was six feet of pure Irish muscle with a soft heart, especially for his kids. When I was a teenager, he had the chance to earn crazy good money by working in a slaughterhouse but just could not bring himself to murder those innocent animals.
He is the reason I became a vegan. That day, at our kitchen table as he wept over the animals, my heart was filled for him and for them. And I knew I would never eat another living thing again.
He was a great soul who will be missed in this insane world, but who left behind a legacy of kindness and gave me the start to the life I lead and the work I do to make a difference in the world. Thanks, Pop.
My mother was one in a million with a sharp tongue and hot temper, but a commitment to good food as I have rarely seen in my life. She had an amazing palate and a love of fresh ingredients that put her way ahead of her time. I think the only canned foods we ever ate were the tomatoes and fruit we jarred at the end of every summer with ingredients from our own garden.
My Italian mother was proud of her heritage (as am I) and most of the food we ate was Italian. But my mother was also an adventurous cook who watched Julia Child on public television. I would watch with her, mesmerized by Julia and by my mother’s complete joy in watching this tall, charismatic cook work magic in her TV kitchen. My mother would duplicate dishes Julia made, sadly to poor reviews from us as we loved her Italian cooking and had no interest in anything else. I look back and think how disappointed she must have been when we refused to even try a new dish.
With a legendary bad temper and an uncanny ability to be cruel and kind at the same time, my mother was a force of nature. As a kid I watched her and learned. I always say that she taught me everything I wanted to be…and everything I didn’t. Watching her, I vowed to avoid hurting others (although I confess to not being perfect in this regard…at all); I vowed to be kind; I vowed to always revere fresh food and to cook and bake with passion and love; I vowed to always gather around a table to share food with those I love best. Thanks, Mama.
My father’s parents were Irish and more reserved and quiet as I remember them. My grandfather was a pharmacist and my grandmother raised her four children, my father being the youngest. My memories of them are vague as they didn’t live close to us, so we didn’t see them as often as my mother’s parents.
My maternal grandparents came to America from a small town on the outskirts of Naples, Italy, Castellemare di Stabia. It seemed to me that we always lived next door, upstairs or downstairs from them. They were a constant in our wild lives.
My Nonna (or Nonni as we called her…) was a great cook, who spoke very softly and was as characteristic of a grandmother as you can imagine. I remember her as somewhat glamorous as well, with her hair always done and dressed very well (as her budget allowed). She wore her Italian culture with pride. I am not sure I ever saw her outside the kitchen unless she was in the garden, hanging laundry, shopping for food or attending Mass. She could cook with the best of them and taught me so much about the kitchen and cooking. Thanks to her, I grasped all the basics of the kitchen early, although she never ‘taught’ me. I just helped her and as she handed me tasks, I learned. And as I learned, I grew in skill and intuition in the kitchen.
My Nonno was my anchor. He was my safe harbor in a chaotic childhood. An artistic carpenter, my grandfather was always on a job doing the finish work, the details that would elevate the quality of a home, from spiral staircases to bay windows to wainscoting. Since I was always with him (unless I was in school or sleeping), I learned what he knew: how to hang doors and plane windows; how to run gas lines and finish trim on cabinets. He had the patience of a saint; never raised his voice or cursed. I did not take the no cursing guidance from him, I confess.
He taught me that any job worth doing was worth doing right and that if you were willing to work hard, you could succeed at almost anything. He loved travel, craving a trip around the world (which he took when he retired. He left the family for nearly two years. I had postcards from all over the globe.)
He taught me that you needed very little to be happy in life: good work; a family and a small circle of loyal friends; a good garden to put food on the table…and a good espresso. My love of that special little cup of coffee comes from him and his passion for it.
As I write this, I am reflecting on how far I have come in this life; how blessed I am to do what I do and to have the opportunities I have. I have suffered illness and loss; I have bounced back from failure. I have lost it all in business and rebuilt. And all of it; every shred of who I am comes from these people; their love of life, food and family; their strength and resilience fuel me.
Their love was often shown through the food we cooked and ate together. Now, in my life, when I prepare a recipe from them (even if I adapt it to my lifestyle), I feel as though I carry on their legacy and the people I love get to know them just a little bit from the food they loved and how they loved and shaped me.
I bless them every day and am grateful they’re my people; my ancestors; my guides. I can only hope they are proud of the woman I am.