I can see her in the pantry off the kitchen, standing in front of the special kneading table as plain as day; floured hands and fingers flying over the home made pasta noodles. She had a light complexion for someone of Italian decent. It was her dark eyes, wavy hair, hot temper, and great cooking that gave her away. This incredible woman kept up with 3 kids, a hard working husband, and 3 households: her own, her mother’s, and her mother-in-law’s. Funny thing: these three strong women were all similar in personality, but not in how they cooked. No one messed with their kitchens or their recipes.
One day I was having what seemed like a pleasant conversation with my mom. “I love it when you make the noodles at Nana Vengenza’s house Mom. It’s so fun to watch and they’re delicious.”
Mom sighed and looked at her sturdy arms, “They are a lot of hard work, but I agree that they are really tasty.”
“I have a lot of fun when you throw little pieces of dough to us and let us make noodles too,” I giggled. Innocently enough I said, “I like Nana Philomena’s meatballs better than Nana Vengenza’s.”
It was soon clear that I had said the wrong thing when mother flew into a mild rage exclaiming, “Nana Philomena uses parmesan cheese and oregano! My mother would NEVER do that!”
“Sorry Mom,” I gulped.
I didn’t have to make a mental note to remember never to criticize Nana V.’s cooking. The little scene was forever etched in my mind.
The three powerful women were very adept at their specialty foods. Nana V. made her meatballs firm, smooth, and perfectly round. I’ve tried for many years to make them as round and I cannot. She did everything fast and excellent. ‘Lots of practice and patience I suppose,’ I would often think. But I’ve never been able to duplicate her handiwork.
Nana Vengenza also specialized in elaborately braided sweet breads and fried dough with fish inside at Easter. Ricotta cheese pies, large, soft, raisin filled sugar cookies, and giant sized ravioli were the tradition at Christmas. The teenage boys of the family would have a contest to see how many ravioli they could eat. A cousin ate thirteen of them once. It was the talk of the day. Most people could eat three of them and be full.
Saturday mornings at Nana Philomena’s were my favorite. When I spent the night, no matter how early I tried to get up and help, she had already filled the large porcelain basin with flour, water, and a cake of yeast. This yeast cake looked like a small tan bar of soap, but it had to be dissolved in water and mixed through the dough for bread and pizza. Even though I missed the initial stages of making the special dough I was there to help shape the round loaves of bread and place them into the seasoned pans. I would often remark, “Nana, you make your loaves so fast and they turn out perfect every time.”
She would smile, wipe her brow with her sleeve and say, “You will get better with more practice. You need to come and see me more.” And the kneading, plopping, popping the air bubbles out, and shaping would continue in a lovely rhythm.
“Yes Nana,” I would agree as I struggled to form a loaf because of the sticky gooey mess I was making. ‘How does this happen?’ I would wonder over and over. ‘I never see Nana getting this yucky.’
No doubt trying to establish herself as a good baker in the midst of legendary cooks, my mom’s specialties were more modern and usually had something to do with desserts. Neither I nor my sister have ever been able to copy her chocolate peanut butter icing for the moistest chocolate cake in the world. And her pie crusts were superb. I remember crust after crust being rolled out and thrown away or baked in pieces for a snack as she worked hard at getting it just right. When the crust was perfect, anything that was poured or placed inside was delectable. My favorite was a tart cherry pie made from the cherries picked from our backyard tree.
When I reminisce about being in the kitchens of my mom or grandmothers, I mostly see their hands working steadily, nimbly, and swiftly to create mouth watering dishes that pleased throngs of relatives and friends.
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