This story appeared in the Smithsonian magazine’s Food & Think blog.
It was with a mix of excitement, curiosity and also a little dread that we’d visit my father’s Italian family in NY. We went most often at Thanksgiving or Easter. Brooklyn had what the Maryland suburbs lacked—subways rumbling overhead, the Chinese five and dime, colorful accents, and grandma Pell’s cooking. But it also meant a nail-biting journey in the car with my father, for whom driving was sport. He’d jockey for position among the black Cadillacs and Lincolns that sailed and bobbed on the narrow avenues. I’d slide down the vinyl seat of our blue Oldsmobile to avoid seeing the too-close cars. Instead, I’d try to think about the pizza awaiting us.
Grandma Pell, whose name was Lena, was born in Manhattan in 1908 a year after her parents emigrated from Italy. She’d never been to Italy herself but maintained her family’s ways around food. There were rules, sometimes concrete but mostly mysterious. Put oregano in the pizza sauce, never in the marinara. Fry sausages in olive oil, but the meatballs in vegetable. Soak the eggplant in salt water first; fry the slices not once, but twice. Rules were not universal, however. Once, an argument broke out between my uncle’s sister and her husband about whether to stuff peppers with raw or cooked pork. Heads turned when a hand came down hard on the table, “You put it in raaawwww!” People shrugged and went back to eating.
The kitchen was grandma’s domain and from these small spaces came humble, but glorious food—unadorned pizzas, stuffed squid, spaghetti pie, green beans stewed in tomatoes, and eggplant parmesan that melted in your mouth like butter. We saw these visits as an excuse to eat with abandon—salami and proscuitto and capacollo, slabs of salty wet mozzarella, extra helpings of rigatoni and meatballs. But most of all, for me, it was the stuffed artichokes. One by one, I’d savor the slippery metallic leaves and the slow journey to the heart.
Grandma, who always wore a cotton housecoat, was practical and methodical. There wasn’t so much a sternness about her as much as there was a sense that life delivers what it delivers. I’d heard the term whateva uttered more than once over the years, long before it became the popular dismissal it is now. Or more often, “What are ya gonna do, heh?” in response to something you had no control over, like that the stuffed mushrooms were late going in the oven. Once, when my sister and I were visiting, grandma overhead my uncle Vinnie ask us if we wanted any greens.
Grandma came into the dining room, set down a bowl of broccoli raab dotted with slivered garlic and said, “You don’t ask. Ya just put it!” I smirked, delighting in the finality of this phrase I’d never heard before. My sister, who I elbowed smiling, didn’t quite catch it.
“What grandma?” my sister asked, hoping that it would be repeated.
“Ya just put it. If somebody wants it, they’ll eat it. Ya don’t fuss.”
Then again, grandma would just as likely ask over and over, “Did yas have enough? Have some more. It’s gotta get eaten. Alright?”
My siblings and I were as hungry for words and language and culture as we were ravioli, keeping our ears perked for delicious turns of phrase like “just put it,” which we added to our own lexicon. Sauce didn’t just taste good, it “came nice,” as if a benevolent thing arrived at the front door. Gravy was another word for sauce. Dishes were “put up” rather than loaded into the dishwasher, and the ends of words were clipped while their centers were drawn out, adding bouncy drama to Madonna, calamari, mozzarella.
There is an edge to New Yorkers, not to mention Italians. There was not much lightness in that household, but maybe more a sense that the work was never done. My grandmother also had the unfortunate luck to outlive her only two children—my father and aunt—by almost half a century. They both died too young and of avoidable, but different, causes. There is one entertaining memory, however, that I cherish.
My brother was then a teenager and very particular about clothes. Grandma said she was saving a pair of dungarees for him. She returned from the basement with a relic of the bygone disco age. We looked at each other with alarm but to our surprise our brother tried on the jeans. He emerged from the bathroom walking stiffly, stuffed into the jeans like a sausage. His flattened butt emblazoned with metallic gold lightening bolts. We didn’t want to hurt grandma’s feelings, but none of us could contain the laughter, including grandma, who could see the jeans were painfully out of date.
It is no myth that getting a recipe from an Italian grandmother is nearly impossible. Once, I tried to get an answer as to how long she kept the marinated artichokes in the refrigerator, knowing that botulism could be a problem.
After many twists and turns, she finally offered, “Not long.”
When I asked why, she said, “They get eaten.”
My sister was able to make the best effort, extracting amounts and processes until she had something resembling recipes. Try as we might though, we can’t quite duplicate the flavors we tasted all those years. I’m convinced it’s about more than just ingredients. Taste is about place—the cold ceramic floor, the well-used paring knife, the loud exchanges, even the distant sound of car alarms. But when I prepare roasted peppers, I make sure never to leave a seed behind.
Grandma Pell died last summer just shy of turning 101. Salute.