September 2, 2014

Take a Bite

There I am in the kitchen last night, mixing up cinnamon muffins from a box. I silently lament, “It’s too bad I was so stressed this weekend. It would have been nice to make something.” You’re quick on the uptake; you’ve already realized that I was in fact making something at that very moment. It took me a few more minutes to realize that I am the rare person who considers making muffins from a box mix “buying muffins from the store” as opposed to making them at home, i.e., from scratch.

The light bulb goes on, and all I can do is shake my head at myself.

It reminds me of a time a few years ago when we were staying home for Christmas and didn’t have a huge crowd coming in. A neighbor asked what we were doing for Christmas, and I said we’d probably just make spaghetti. The sweet lady gave me a look—eyes narrowing, head tilting. She tentatively asked, “Spaghetti? You’re more than welcome to come over…”

I looked back her, my head tilted, puzzled eyes, and after a good 30 seconds realized what the problem was. In her mind having spaghetti for dinner meant a jar of sauce from the store. For a lot of people it’s probably one of the simplest, lowest stress meals you can prepare. It’s definitely not worthy of the celebration of Christ’s birth. What she didn’t realize is that I’m Italian. We’ve been having sauce on Christmas my entire life. It’s made from scratch. It takes at least six hours. When my mom does it, it takes the form of a lasagna capable of feeding about 30 people. There is also anti-pasto salad, garlic bread, and bowls of pork and sausage cooked in the sauce. This is followed by Christmas cookies of every description, all made from scratch, and cream puffs, also made from scratch. No one leaves the table hungry—for anything—ever again.

I feel like this topic of food has come up several times now because I keep finding myself relating to food and its preparation in ways that seem to vary—sometimes wildly—from the norm.

We spent three weeks waiting for our household goods to arrive from the other side of the state. My neighbors have been so amazing. We brought some basics with us: a 6 quart pot, a griddle, a 3 quart pot, and a colander. We also had a few spatulas, can opener, etc. There were a few things I had to buy, like a cutting board and a cookie sheet. I borrowed a set of mixing bowls from a neighbor. But still, I managed to make chicken pot pie and blueberry cobbler. We only increased our meals out when we realized we could charge them to the incompetent movers.

Is that weird? It reminds me of my grandmother, who, when they camped had my grandfather improvise an oven so she could make stuffed peppers and bake a cake. They had the most popular campsite. Kids would wander over and return to their own campsites demanding to know why they were stuck with hot dogs and beans.

That’s weird, right?

The only explanation I can provide is that I’m third generation American. It’s actually kind of crazy. There’s a single branch of my family, the Sterners, that goes back to the Revolutionary War. Everyone else came from Italy in the early part of the 20th century. All the other great grandparents were born in Italy. My dad’s mom spent World War II in Sicily after her family was trapped there when they went back to visit. Her dad was a fascist. She worked as a translator for the Allies after Sicily was liberated. My great uncle was part of machine gun crew for the Italian army. My mom grew up living above her Italian grandparents. Grandma Miraldi spoke to her in Italian, and my mom answered in English. My dad was the secret translator for his siblings when his parents spoke Italian.

It’s a different tradition when your family’s cultural heritage is still so close. My parents both grew up on Staten Island. They went to the Italian stores; they lived practically next door to their entire families. My dad has a picture of somebody’s birthday, black and white, and around the table are bodies packed just wall to wall. He can name almost every one, and they’re just about all related to him. And if you thought that description earlier of Christmas dinner was crazy, try it at my dad’s house growing up. First you had an entire pasta meal, all the trimmings mentioned above; then you had a turkey or a ham or both; then you had fruits and nuts and cheeses; then you had dessert. It took hours. And it was like that at every holiday.

I can guarantee you that none of it was pre-prepared or store bought. Of course, that’s partially because those things didn’t exist in the 1950s, but mostly it was because that’s not how it’s done.

This isn't my actual family, but you get the idea.

I will definitely continue to laugh at myself for baking “store bought” muffins from a mix. But I’m so proud of my heritage and the skills that have come with it. H loves to cook with me, and I’m so happy to pass that knowledge on to her. Not only does it mean a chance to teach her tradition and heritage, but it also means learning to understand food and appreciate it in its many wonderful permutations. Being able to cook gives you a freedom to control your destiny, while still honoring the past.

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