Reliving the Past
The arguing over “Mommy’s” food started over the telephone weeks before the dinner. After asking Aunt Denise to participate in my project by commemorating her mother and my grandmother Barbara Mary Denni, my mom walked into our living room, sat down beside me, and grabbed the phone to tease her about the responsibility that she had just agreed to. Denise is an anxious person: she knows what she likes and sticks to it. That means my aunt rarely veers from the comforts of her daily routine, so my mother felt the need to remind her older, more shy sister that she would have to follow “Mommy’s” recipes, not her own. My aunt seemed to expect this conversation with my mom because she quickly rattled off her ideas to make her mother’s stuffed peppers, salad, and some store-bought Italian bread. The sisters went through the process together on the phone, my mom loudly chiding my aunt any time Denise deviated from their mother’s recipe. Eventually my aunt agreed to follow my grandma’s recipe exactly but there was one compromise between Denise and my mom: my aunt would use bacon bits (not real bacon) in the stuffed peppers. “They honestly taste the same. Just saves me time.”
This meal wouldn’t be the first time that my mother and her siblings had tried to recreate their mother’s food: almost every time Denise, or my uncles Chucky and Tommy visit, my mom tries to make Mommy’s sauce or salad or pot roast or roast beef. The siblings take the reproduction of their mom’s food very seriously: criticism of one another’s culinary chops does become personal but the praise that comes with a successful dish can make the night memorable. My mom’s frequent attempts to cook her mother’s food with her siblings is what inspired this project. I was intrigued by their intense emotions and stories that would come up when my aunts and uncles came to my parents’ house to eat my mother’s—their mother’s— food, as well as my mom’s persistence while never being completely satisfied with the end product. She always tells me that she can never make her mom’s salad right. She can’t explain it.
A few weeks later, I took the 45-minute drive from Massapequa (where I and both of my parents were raised) to Farmingville to meet with and shop for ingredients. On the drive to the supermarket, we caught up on family matters and discussed the meal that we were shopping for. Being Italian-American (but also having grandparents from France, Germany, and Russia), stuffed peppers were a on my grandma Barbara’s dinner table, a dish that Denise and my mom had on a regular basis. The same salad and Italian bread were served alongside every dinner at my grandma’s house. My aunt’s choices reflected her desire to recreate a typical family meal she had growing up, rather than a meal for a special occasion like my grandma’s favorite: roast beef. I think it is significant that this meal was also the cheapest of the three dinners I did: the receipt totaled $21.39 to feed seven people. Such a cheap meal was financially feasible for my mother’s large, middle-class family, an early sign that Denise was commemorating her childhood family meals more than her mother directly.
When we parked, grabbed the groceries, and set up in my aunt’s kitchen, I grilled my aunt with questions about her mother’s food. The conversation quickly moved to some of my aunt’s last moments with her mother, oftentimes around the dinner table. My grandma Barbara struggled with cancer in her last year or so. She was first diagnosed with lung cancer and it quickly spread to her brain. I was only five years old at the time and I have very few memories of her, the most indelible of which are images of her with oxygen tubes hanging from her nose and wrapped over her ears while sitting at the dinner table. At an early age, I had to come to terms with my grandma’s disease, but I was too young to understand or even care what it meant for her children—my mother, Aunt Denise, and my uncles. In her kitchen, Denise told me that it hit her really hard at first: she’s not a very emotional person, but Denise cried almost everyday for the first few months. Mirroring her feelings about her mother’s passing, Denise periodically cooked stuffed peppers and salad for the after the funeral. However as time passed, my Aunt realized that she had stopped thinking about it and was much less affected by her mother’s passing. She felt her mother’s absence most during that first . My aunt told me about the first Thanksgiving everybody had at my grandfather’s house after Grandma passed away: she was fine, wasn’t sad at all, but when my aunt went to the counter to wash dishes, she broke down in tears. Denise had no explanation for the outburst. She had gone a long time without crying, and it wasn’t the first time that the whole family had gotten back together. It just hit her all at once in this Thanksgiving family meal.
Soon, my cousins Jake and Jessica joined my Aunt Denise and I in the kitchen. We were still talking about my grandma’s last few months. Like me, neither Jake nor Jessica remembered much about our grandmother (Jessica is a year older than I; Jake a year younger). I brought up that lasting image of my sick grandmother sitting at the dinner table, the entire family in the kitchen/dining room with her. I thought that this was a dinner around Christmas time but Denise corrected me, saying that it was probably for to be one of her last after my grandma’s cancer worsened. She told me about how my Uncle Tommy took my grandma’s orders and cooked her roast beef, acting as my grandma’s eyes and hands because my grandma had lost her eyesight and physical dexterity in her final few weeks. My grandma couldn’t eat at the time but she remarked that it smelled just like she’d made it. My aunt seemed glad that she could tell her kids and I this story about our grandma.
We got started with the cooking: Aunt Denise took out her “” which she took from her mom’s kitchen after she passed away, and began heating the sauce with herbs and the bacon bits. She stuffed with a mix of rice and ground beef before arranging them in the steel pot in a . She covered the peppers and let them cook for about an hour on low heat.
While we waited for that hour to pass, my mom and my Aunt RoseMarie (my grandma’s sister) arrived, and Uncle Peter (Denise’s husband) finished the yard work that he’d been working on all morning. My cousins and I know to prepare for the loud conversation that ensues when our parents are in the same room. Our parents start teasing each other about the drive (my mom and Aunt RoseMarie aren’t ones to venture too far from their own neighborhoods) and catching up the way that I did with Denise hours before. All caught up, I shifted focus back onto my grandma Barbara.
Denise started making “Mommy’s” daily : a very simple salad of iceberg lettuce, onion, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, salt, red wine vinegar, and Mazola corn oil. The salad being as simple as it is, the small details in preparation make a big difference: my grandma broke the lettuce up with her hands, not with a knife; she used Mazola corn oil, not some other brand; she salted the salad a few minutes before she dressed it with the oil and vinegar; she tossed the salad with her hands, not tongs or spoons. Every time Aunt Denise, my mom, or my uncles Chucky and Tommy make the salad, they go through these details with each other, reminding the cook of every step, and keeping them from cutting any corners. With Denise making the salad that day, my mom and Uncle Peter joked and about making the salad correctly, ultimately chiding her for not smoking enough cigarettes. Unfortunately, the salad won’t be seasoned with nicotine.
The discussion about the salad and my grandma’s smoking somberly led us back to that lasting memory of mine, the one of my grandma at the dinner table with an oxygen mask and the whole family surrounding her. My mom began with that Aunt Denise had told, confirming everything her sister had said. It was just days before their mother died: sensing the end, everyone got together on a Monday, my uncle Tommy cooking the roast beef and getting a salad together, my grandma giving orders from the head of the table. The only difference though was that my mom said that the salad wasn’t the same as her mother’s. It seems that for my mother, replicating her mom’s food is about more than just following a series of steps. As I’ve mentioned in the section on Ruth Strohl, cooking is a way of caring for another person. Even if my aunt, uncle, or mother can make the salad taste like “Mommy’s” did, the food lacks the love and care that only a mother could give to her children.
As Denise finished up the salad, we all moved to the table. Jessica and Jake set the table and the rest of us sat. I gathered everyone for a quick or . Once the food was passed around the table, the room got pretty quiet except for the customary commenting on how much the food resembled their mom’s. The stuffed peppers were apparently spot on except that there was not enough salt: Denise used less salt in consideration for those who don’t use much salt, but my for the amount of salt she used. After the stuffed peppers, everyone seemed pleased with the salad. It went very quickly and my cousins mopped up the extra dressing with Italian bread. My mom and Uncle Peter complimented Aunt Denise on the salad. It was about as close to “Mommy’s” as it could get.
The conversation at the table turned towards various childhood stories at my grandma’s house and at their earlier home in Arverne, Queens in the 1960’s. They talked about playing with their other cousins on the block, everyone getting together for big meals, and some of the old neighborhood’s eccentricities. They missed those days before they moved to Massapequa, before Denise moved to Farmingville, Tommy moved to Florida, and Chucky was around more regularly. In the midst of all this nostalgia, Chucky (the eldest sibling) called to say hi to everyone and apologize for not being able to make it for the meal. After his call, Denise brought out a strawberry shortcake which was my grandma’s favorite dessert, a treat they had for any holiday or special occasion. The focus continued to shift between a commemoration of my grandma and a celebration of their family through the years.
Even though the meal could never live up to the standard set by their Mommy, we tried our best to create a loving atmosphere that both recognized the past, their mother’s absence in the present, and the exciting times ahead involving my cousin Jill’s (not at the dinner) upcoming wedding. It was clear to everyone that grandma wasn’t there. The love that she had for her children, and the enthusiasm she had for showing that love with her food, set an example for us all. Although Denise and my mom will never eat Mommy’s food again, they’ve carried their mother’s recipes and her desire to get the whole family together into our lives—mine and my cousins’ lives—to teach us one way to love each other. We should do that more often.