Italian Mammas in the Kitchen
Last week I was on a panel at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center in Tuckahoe, NY. The topic was “The Enduring Presence of Mamma in the ITALIAN Kitchen” which is something I know quite a bit about. I was lucky to grow up with amazing Italian mammas who rocked the kitchen. And if I’m being perfectly honest, there were just as many Italian pappas who made the kitchen sing.
It was a wonderful presentation by John Mariani, author of “How Italian Food Conquered the World”. He shared so many interesting facts about Italy and the life of Italian women through the years. What struck me the most was how the image of these women being mostly home-bound housekeepers isn’t quite accurate. Italian women have consistently worked outside the home for their families, as well as bringing work into the home, for example, as seamstresses or laundresses all the while maintaining their household duties of raising the kids, keeping the house clean, and cooking the meals.
In my own family, my grandfather was the proprietor of butcher shop, V. Zito & Sons Prime Meats at 162 Mott Street in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy while my grandmother ran Nancy’s Delicatessen at 1088 Morris Park Avenue in the Bronx. Yeah, food was always the focus! I never saw Nonno at his job since we lived in the Bronx but I have vivid memories of Nanny in the store. My grandmother would make dinner for my grandfather every night plus each week she’d serve the whole family a FULL Sunday Gravy, by which I mean antipasto, macaroni, gravy meat, then a roast served with at least 2 side dishes and salad, then fruit and nuts, and finally dessert and coffee! My dad, his brother, and sister all picked up the cooking mantel in their homes. Although my mother made dinner every night, my father would get into the act all the time. She’d cook more simple meals and he’d happen by the kitchen and improvise them into gourmet decadent dishes.
When I say my mom cooked simple meals, that doesn’t mean “plain” at all – her dishes were just as flavorful and delicious but they were more health conscious, fast, and easy. Her family included parents who always shared kitchen duties for their 5 girls. Although they made many delicious morsels, the standouts to me were Grandma’s mashed potatoes – the creamiest with just the right amount of chunky potato bites I haven’t had since hers. Grandpa’s pizza with his puffy amazing dough was pure magic. I haven’t gotten either of them “right” yet but I’ll keep trying!
Now let’s get back to the panel! John moderated a panel consisting of me, Rosella Rago of Cooking with Nonna, Mariann Raftery of Somebody’s Mom, Lynn Del Guercio Di Menn, and Rosealine Moranadi. Everyone had a wonderful take on their experiences of and as Mamma in the kitchen. We answered some questions, even fielding the age-old one “Gravy vs. Sauce” posed by audience member, playwright Joe Gulla. What a trouble maker! Haha!
No matter what side of my family I’ve been with, who cooks, or who is at the table wherever that table is for that meal, all great things happened in and around the kitchen and food. That’s the enduring presence for me. I have embraced this family legacy of loving edible interaction, not only teaching friends and kids, but I’m sharing it all with you, my “adopted” extended family! Isn’t life delicious!