“Smile,” the man said in a thick accent, maybe West African? I wasn’t sure. “This is a happy time.” It was. But there was a moment when, as I stopped to breathe, I thought of my mom, and how she would never make it to Italy, the place her parents came from.
My only connection to my Italian heritage had come from my mother’s kitchen. My mom, while an average cook when it came to standard weeknight meals like meatloaf drowned in Heinz catsup, was a master chef when it came to Italian meals. And it was through pasta and salty cheese and dried spicy salami and fried eggplant that I came to know Italy. And how I came to know my mom, playing behind her on the linoleum while her fingers worked pepper biscuits into circular shapes or she layered meat and cheese between layers of lasagna noodles, still hot from the boiling water. I wasn’t a picky child, I ate like an adult from the beginning, spicy or not. I ate greedily and I guess haughtily, never believing there would be a day when the chef would no longer be available.
My mother got sick, and after a three-year battle with cancer, she passed away when I was barely out of college. I was young, grief-stricken and trying to figure out who I was in her absence, so the fact that I’d never learned to cook any of the dishes she’d made so often over the course of my life was the furthest thing from my mind. I cooked a little; sometimes with a group of friends at work and a few times alone in the tiny kitchen of my tiny apartment, but I existed mostly on Progresso soup and Lender’s bagels and Bird’s Eye vegetables for the remainder of my twenties. And as far as my mom’s recipes, they were in her mind and her heart, and she’d taken them with her.
my picky husband was expecting, but it was delicious. Our second meal was pizza and red wine. “This is what pizza is supposed to taste like?” the husband said. He’d never understood the American obsession with pizza. And more delicious discoveries followed; fish and polenta, prawns and pasta. And more wine. Tiramisu for dessert. Cappuccino that kept us up all night listening to the gondoliers sing under our open windows.Our first meal in Italy was an appetizer of thinly sliced salmon Carpaccio set before us in an outdoor cafe in Venice. It wasn’t the Italian food of my childhood, and it certainly wasn’t the meal
We were in Venice only two nights, that’s it. Two moonlight gondola rides. Two strolls over the Rialto bridge. Two picnics of cheese and wine in Piazza San Marco. I fell in love with the city; but with every new experience I thought of my mom, who was timid by nature and had traveled very little in her life. This is what you would’ve eaten, mom. This is where you would’ve walked. But where I thought I’d feel her presence everywhere, I realized this wasn’t her home any more than it was mine. While Venetian food was beyond amazing, it wasn’t my mother’s food, and it didn’t bring me back to my spot on the linoleum floor. From Venice, we traveled by train to Florence, the Amalfi Coast and Rome. More food. More wine. More cappuccino and espresso and Italian beer. More of everything delicious and life-affirming (If you don’t think a great meal can do that, you’re not eating the right food). Less of my mom.
culinary curiosity in me that helped shape who I would become in my own kitchen: What was in the pasta? How did they prepare that fish? What type of cheese was in that dish? How did they get that bread so crusty? In attempting to recreate the dishes I ate there, I brought back the sights and sounds of Italy; the tenor voices of the gondoliers, the lovers ducking down alleyways with an open bottle of wine, the swish as the oar cut through the water, the feeling of getting on my first transatlantic flight.In fact, nothing I ate on that trip was reminiscent of my childhood, but that was okay. Nothing was really all that reminiscent of my mom, either. Instead, Italy opened the door to a
canned fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes with my in-laws, scattered sun-warmed, torn basil over pizza margherita, drizzled truffle oil over risotto, riced potatoes for gnocchi, sprinkled pine nuts and oil over fresh fish and of course made more than my share of cappuccino. These days, the foods of Venice have blended in my memory with the pasta I ate in Rome, the limoncello I drank in Positano and the pizza I ate on a roof in Florence. The wine, the streets, the people of Italy have amalgamated in my memory as well as the hotel rooms and the balconies and the open windows and the sunsets. With every meal I prepare, I see myself not sitting on the linoleum, watching my mother cook, but riding a train through the Italian countryside, swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea or climbing to the top of the Duomo in Florence.My mom will never go to Italy; she’ll never see the art, the architecture. She’ll never taste the food. My mom will never teach me how to cook, either. But twenty-three years after she passed away, and sixteen years after I boarded that plane, I have kneaded dough for homemade Ciabatta, learned to make my own mozzarella, worked my biceps cranking out fresh pasta (on a manual press passed down from my husband’s paternal grandmother, an amazing cook in her own right),
The food of Venice and the rest of our Italian honeymoon opened the door for me to be the cook I was destined to be, and my cooking has evolved in so many directions. My interests today are varied and all-inclusive. Today I cook everything from Sichuan Shrimp to Ethiopian Doro Wat to New Orleans Gumbo. I’m inspired to cook whenever I travel, and I cook dishes from places I’ve only seen in books, places I may never visit. My husband and I do not have children; no one sits behind me on the tile floor watching me cook (unless you count my cat, who is always eager for fallen scraps). My husband, though he loves my homemade pizza is not an adventurous eater. So when I cook, I cook for me, for the me I have become. And I am never happier than when I am planning a dinner party for friends, spending a snowy weekend morning inside baking fresh bagels or conquering a new recipe.
I think my mom would be happy with my food journey. I think she’d be glad I figured it out, even if it had to be without her.