In memoriam, Joseph R. Salierno, 1908 – 2002
And thou shalt treat the food that touches thy lips with reverence, in recognition of the labors and traditions of thine ancestors, and in communion and fellowship with those to whom thou art tied with bonds of blood and love. Thou shalt serve first the pasta; then the meat, fish, or fowl; then the salad; and thou shalt sprinkle no grated cheese on the fish. Thou shalt give thanks before the meal and kiss the hand that feeds thee. Thou shalt not neglect to share the fruits of the earth with thy neighbor. Thou shalt not neglect to feed the old and the sick. And, except in condition of necessity, thou shalt not eat in haste, in distraction, or alone.
These are some of the commandments I took in at my grandparents’ table, along with string-bean salad, chicken cutlets, potatoes and eggs, stuffed-and-roasted mushrooms, and thinly sliced beef rolled and tied with string. In my adult life, I’ve broken them all, except for the commandment not to use grated cheese on seafood. That one I’ve kept.
I spent much of my childhood in my grandmother’s kitchen. As I watched her cook, she would give me something from her preparations to assuage my hunger — a carrot, a piece of celery. She was blamed for making me a fat child, though I don’t think it was her fault. Even if she had a taste for sweets, our diet was not especially indulgent. At lunch, she’d ask what we wanted to eat for dinner: most of the foods she prepared took time. They needed first to be “cleaned” — trimmed of fat, organs, and bones in the case of chicken, meat, or fish; of stems and seeds in the case of vegetables. Then basted in egg and bread crumbs, for cutlets and zucchini flowers, or stuffed, for mushrooms. Then cooked and dressed, in the case of pasta or salad. String beans had to be snapped at both ends, and after they were cooked, each one had to be carefully sliced along its length.
The foods we ate all became associated with the time it took to prepare them. “Such a big bag of string beans your grandfather brought me,” my grandmother would say. “It’s a lot of work to clean so many. He doesn’t know the time it takes — a whole hour, it took me!” She often cleaned the food under running water, and her hands were rough. Once, I tried to squeeze the peeled tomatoes through a strainer the way she did when making sauce. I couldn’t do it; it made my knuckles raw.
My grandmother never loved to cook in the way she loved to sew. For one thing, with sewing, all the work remained laid out in satisfying rows. The food disappeared almost as soon as it was done. “All the time it took to make it, and we ate it in no time!” she’d exclaim. These were often the first words to break the silence my grandparents preferred while eating. When I chattered, merrily rushing through my food to get my words out faster, they’d chasten me: “Eat slow; you can talk after. It’s no good to eat fast.”
When my grandmother’s “nervous tension” — a blend of fatigue, anxiety, and tears — became overwhelming, she went on strike from the kitchen. Then the depression would feed on itself, as she punished herself with the idea that, by not cooking, she was a terrible disappointment to us all.
When she was ninety-one, the pain in her feet and legs made it increasingly difficult for her to stand in the kitchen and cook, and her depression returned with a vengeance. That year, she was hospitalized twice for trying to die. Left alone, my grandfather (only a month younger than she) struggled to learn to cook.
When I went to visit him, bringing a box of linguine and a jar of marinara sauce, he already had some tomato sauce simmering on the stove and jars and packages of Alfredo sauce and bags of egg noodles out on the counter. I think he was going to mix it all together. That’s his idea of cooking: mixing, the way he used to mix plaster or cement.
My grandfather told me that a home-care assistant might come a few days a week after my grandmother was released from the hospital. “But do they cook?” he asked rhetorically. “Those people, they don’t cook. At most, they open the can of soup — at most. Do they know how to prepare the spaghetti marinara?” He laughed.
We had some linguine in the tomato sauce, but his stomach was bothering him; nothing seemed to sit well. “I have to push it down with a stick,” he said, making a gesture like forcing a balled-up rag through a length of pipe. “Not to enjoy it — just to live.” He’d lost his appetite for eating ever since my grandmother had lost hers for living. He was becoming confused, off balance; he no longer felt like driving or shopping or planting his garden, all things he had loved to do. Even when my grandmother returned home, he was not the same.
“All he wants is soup,” my grandmother declared. “He says he’s not hungry for anything else. He just wants soup, soup.”
“Nothing,” my grandfather said. “I have no appetite whatsoever.”
I scanned their refrigerator shelves: no fruit, no vegetables, no cold cuts — nothing fresh. Later that afternoon, I announced that I had to go out to run a personal errand.
At the supermarket, I stocked my cart with sliced Italian bread from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx (famous for its Italian bakeries), the ground turkey my grandmother likes to use in low-fat meatballs, the waffles they like for breakfast, the bananas (easy for my grandfather to digest), the zucchini (easy for my grandmother to prepare), and some chicken, carrots, celery, spinach — the fixings for a homemade chicken soup.
My mother’s own illness keeps her from filling her traditional role of caretaker. As my mother’s only daughter, I often think I should be living with my grandparents, shopping and cooking for them — and for my mother, too. That’s how things went in the old country, and who’s to say there isn’t poetry and justice in it? To prepare for one’s elders the kind of food they prepared for you, in the way they taught you to prepare it, is an act that goes beyond a means of survival, something that can’t be replicated by home-care nurses or ready-to-heat meals.
That’s what I think, but I live more than an hour away and have one of those professional jobs that devours all my time and is never satisfied. And so, a dozen times a week, I eat alone, in a way that goes against my family’s religion. Should I tell the priest, next time I go to confession, the number of times I’ve taken food in vain? In the kitchen (where so many Italian American women once ladled out the years) I spend only a little time at the beginning and the end of the day, eating while reading the mail, paying my bills, and listening to the radio news. It takes me longer to do the dishes than to cook — which is not saying much — and what I do cook, I eat heedlessly. I make quick-and-easy versions of Italian comfort food: frozen tortellini or gnocchi, boiled and then sautéed in a pan with some garlic, oil, and frozen peas. The results are unlike anything I knew in childhood, and the leftovers harden in the fridge.
As I drove back from the supermarket that day, a strange, potent fear washed over me: I was suddenly terrified of getting into a car accident and never returning with the groceries that might sustain my grandparents a while longer. Was it a subconscious fear of losing myself — the fear that if I set off down that road of caretaking, I might never come back? Or was it the fear that, despite my best efforts and intentions, I would ultimately end up failing the people I loved?
I wasn’t quick enough getting back to make them dinner. Since my grandfather had begun feeling poorly, he’d become ever more insistent on dining at precisely 5 P.M. At 5:30, I found him already eating some glutinous leftovers from lunch. Still, I made a salad with some ricotta sprinkled on top, and beets, and corn on the cob. The food seemed to go into him like water into the leaves of a drooping plant, perking him up.
“A balanced meal is very important,” he declared. “I think that’s part of why I got so weak. You can’t eat just pasta, pasta, pasta. You need to have a balanced meal.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been around to cook something once in a while,” I said, feeling now the unimportance of the obligations that had occupied my time while my grandfather had gone into decline.
“Oh, no, my dear,” he said. “When opportunity knocks, you have to take it. That’s the way it goes. One leads to another. You have opportunities, you take them.”
Before I left, I made soup. I removed most of the skin from the chicken and baked it first so the broth wouldn’t be oily, as my grandmother had taught me, and I set the garlic, onions, celery, and carrots simmering. Then I added the cooked chicken and the spinach, and boiled the soup. The broth turned a rich auburn-olive color; it smelled delicious.
Whenever we hear of a friend concerned with family illness or need, we Americans have learned to say, “Don’t forget to take care of yourself; make sure you take care of yourself” — but it rings to me a little unconvincing, a little hollow. It’s a calorie-counted, no-fat meal that doesn’t completely satisfy. Is others’ need really such a threat to the self, to our idea of what the self is? The American self is the doing, achieving, self-realizing, independent self. A self rattling freely in the large jar of the world. Zooming along in a car, stopping off to refuel with gas and pizza before getting on the road again, the forever youthful, autonomous American self needs for true nourishment only the air of liberty. Yet the world is continually telling us its truth of universal need, of mutual dependency.
What if the self does not end at the borders of the body, but is a small constellation of elements that includes those who need us? If that were true, then, in taking care of others, we’d be taking care of ourselves, too. Such care is rewarding, nourishing. Women have always known this, have always attended to the larger self, doing whatever is required of them. And yet, too often, they’ve lost themselves completely, burying their own talents and desires beneath their families’ needs. And then, when they’re no longer needed, what is left for them? Frustration, anger, depression. I sometimes think there is an unspoken epidemic of depression among older Italian women, who’ve ladled the pot of nourishment dry. A lifetime spent feeding their families, and somehow they’re left hungry themselves.
Around the time my grandfather started to feel better again, my grandmother’s sister died, and my grandmother slowly took another turn for the worse. It became an effort to get her out of bed to eat, although my grandfather tried his best to nurse her. Sometimes he ordered pizza or Chinese food, or heated restaurant leftovers. Just having to think about meals was beginning to wear on him. “Three times a day, someone has to cook!” he said in amazement. Even taking into account illnesses and occasional meals out, my grandmother had prepared on the order of seventy thousand meals during seventy years of marriage. No wonder she had gotten tired.
With practice, though, my grandfather got better at it. When I came to visit on Sundays, he already had pots bubbling on the stove. He put a bag of store-bought baked chicken into a pot of marinara sauce from a jar and added a lot of a lemon-pepper-garlic blend. He said he was going to open a trattoria like the one his parents had in Naples.
As my grandmother, on new medication, began to feel better again, she criticized my grandfather’s cooking without mercy. He prepared meatballs shaped like squat sausages, which I left too long in the oven. “He can’t cook at all. Those meatballs were terrible,” my grandmother said. That she took enough interest to complain was a good sign.
“I just don’t feel like cooking,” she lamented the following week. “But he can’t cook. He’s a man. What does he know about cooking?” I told her that men cook, too, that most famous chefs were men, but she wasn’t convinced. In truth, she didn’t want to be convinced — she wanted to be needed.
I, too, want to be needed — but not too much. When my grandfather tells me that working women have put an end to family togetherness, to the evening meal around the table, I ask him if he thinks I should spend my life in the kitchen. He doesn’t have an answer. Nor do I have one for him, for his sense of a world wobbling free of the axis of the family dinner table, of women’s self-sacrifice. I only try to convince myself that it is necessary, also, for me to do the other things that I do, to share some of what I find foraging outside the kitchen and the store.
To feed others as we have been fed, to eat and be eaten, a good priest says, is an embodiment of our greatest commandment. In his words, nourishment is spiritual, metaphorical, yet palpable and real. Still, the literal hungers of those near to us seem infinitely renewed. The vat of soup is soon empty and washed. Love refills it. How many times? Seventy times seventy? A thousand times seventy?
“Eat slow,” my grandmother would say, “and tell me afterward.”