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.