My (Jess’) grandmother passed away on the last day of 2012. She was born in a small village 100 km south of Rome in the province of Frosinone in 1916. She was a toddler when the First World War ended, six when Mussolini came to power, 15 when she married a much older man from the village nearby, and 16 when she had her first child (my father). She birthed him alone with the help of a midwife in a big old farmhouse that still stands on the side of the road leading to the village. He weighed 5 kilos (12 pounds) and the labor took 12 hours. At least, that’s what she told me, in stories that would have me mesmerized, hanging on every word. She seemed to remember every detail, even as the years rolled on. She told stories of surviving the Second World War, of keeping her two children safe from bombs and military occupations, of hiding clothes and making food with nothing with a husband gone for four years fighting for fascism in Africa. She told me of her three-week journey, at war’s end, on a ship whose name she always remembered, to join her husband in the land Mussolini had tried to conquer for the expansion of Italy’s glory. There she lived and raised her kids, in Eritrea, under the reign of Haile Selassie, a would be colonizer, until she retired back to Italy some dozen years later. She and my grandfather bought a house in Rome, in which she lived until her death at age 96.
My grandmother was a formidable woman. A difficult, stubborn, fierce woman who never backed down from a fight. Her universe centered on her home and her family — her husband, two kids, six grandkids, and seven great-grandkids. The center of her home was the kitchen, the smallest room in a large house crammed full with appliances and a tiny kitchen table. That table was the most special place in the whole house for me. My grandmother and I would sit there and have cafe latte in the morning, dunking home-made ciambella into it con gusto, as she said.
Her eyes would sparkle as she watched you enjoy her food. Because food, you see, was love to her. We would travel to visit her from Ethiopia–where we still lived even after she moved away–every year. And every year, without fail, she would open the giant wooden door to her house to welcome us. We would be greeted simultaneously by her smiling face and the smell of mouth-watering meatballs simmering on the stove. After hellos, we kids would sneakily make our way to the kitchen, where she had a loaf of bread waiting. We’d rip out a piece, dunk it in the meatball sauce, and feast. After fake protestations, she’d fork out a meatball and hand it to us with a grin, and there was no surer sign in the universe that this woman loved us with every fiber of her being. That’s how it was with her. Food was love, she would hand it out at every occasion. For snacks, she would reach into her freezer, filled to the brim with cornetti, Italian ice creams with a waffle base, vanilla cream and chocolate and nut toppings. Or she would offer us grapes, which she peeled by hand for us. By far the most important display of love was at the dining table, where we assembled for lunch and dinner without fail for the duration of our stay. She would spend all day in the kitchen preparing these elaborate meals, all exquisite. She would relish in the sight of us sopping up chicken cream sauce from our plates with bread, or fighting over the last meatball, or taking three helpings of her roasted red peppers. She was a difficult person, and this was her way of connecting.
As I grew up and she grew older, I came to realize that she would not live forever. So I would spend my time with her in the kitchen, learning her dishes, eyeing her technique, trying to figure out just how she managed to make everything so delicious. It was impossible to pin down a recipe, because her measurements were her hands, and every dish was tweaked every time, based on taste. She taught me many things. For one, that there are no shortcuts in the kitchen worth taking. Cook using low heat, she’d say, use only the freshest ingredients, and make sure they are always the best quality. Most of all, use love and pay attention to the food. That’s why her meatballs were so amazing. She would first put together the tomato sauce, then painstakingly make the meatballs, then simmer them in sauce all day until the were so tender they literally melted in your mouth.
It was not easy, but it was absolutely unforgettable. So, earlier this week, as I was feeling sad for the loss of a friend, overwhelmed, and in need of love, I found myself in the kitchen. I pulled out my tomatoes and my knife and my cutting board and spent the evening making her sauce. Following her steps one by one, finding comfort in the easiness of it, now, after so many years of stumbling. As her stories and memories of her will inevitably start to fade, I find myself deeply comforted by the knowledge that she lives on in her food every time I make one of her recipes. Or really, anytime I step foot in my kitchen. Her food, her passion for it, her stories about it, the way that she made it, the way it felt to eat it, the importance she ascribed to it…all of these factors come together in how I relate to food. It’s her history living inside me, and the history of her mother before her, and so on. Most of all, it’s her love that lives on within me, and how I have learned share it, almost a century later, that brings me joy.
Rest in peace, Nonna.