Pressing my nose against the cold school bus window, I felt my heart racing. Only one more stop until I’d see Nonnie.
Nonnie is the Italian word for grandmother. I’d lived next door to mine for the first nine years of my life. She’d been as much of a mother to me as she’d been a grandmother. Then one day my parents announced we were moving six hours away. They promised we’d visit Nonnie often, but I feared I’d never see her again.
Finally, Nonnie was coming to visit us.
Exiting the bus, I walked as fast as my now ten-year old legs could carry me in my oversized winter boots. With each crunching sound of the snow beneath me, I imagined her saying how much I’d grown. I pictured her smile, felt her hug, and wondered what presents she was bringing.
I prayed that she’d bring me those little boxes of white Italian nougat candies with almond pieces tucked inside two wafers. Just thinking about those sweet treats made my mouth water. I stuck out my tongue to catch falling snowflakes, imagining they smelled like my sweet almond treats. The very thought of them caused me to walk faster along the winding wintery walk leading home, to Nonnie, and to my candy.
When I burst through the front door, the aroma greeting me was not the one I’d been imagining. The whiff I breathed in wasn’t sweet at all. In fact it was spicy, pungent, laden with fresh herbs, and oh so familiar. I’d recognize the smell of Nonnie’s spaghetti sauce even if my nose was pinched shut with a clothespin. She made her signature sauce from jars of hand-packed tomatoes grown in her summer garden, lavished with fresh basil, flat-leaf parsley, and homemade wine. My sweet taste buds stopped salivating as quickly as my spicy ones kicked in.
After the hugs and customary two-cheek kisses, Nonnie stepped back to size me up just as I’d imagined. However, she didn’t spend as much time fussing over me as I’d previously thought. Instead she handed me an apron.
“You’re ten years old now young lady. It’s time for you to stop watching in the kitchen and start working instead. While I knead the pasta dough, you’re gonna make meatballs.”
“But I don’t know how to make meatballs,” I whined as I slipped the huge white chief’s apron over my head. “Besides, I’ve seen mommy put raw eggs in the meat and squish them with her hands. That’s gross. I’m not touching raw stuff.”
“If you’re gonna be a good cook you gotta use your hands. I started making meatballs at your age, so did your mother, and now it’s your turn. Everything you need right here on the counter. Just put everything into the bowl and work the chopped meat with your hands.”
“But Nonnie, how much of this stuff do I use?”
Nonnie’s dark brown eyes sparkled as she smiled from ear to ear, “Until it tastes just right.”
I could feel my eyes opening wider than they’d ever opened before. “What?” I screeched. “Taste raw meat and raw eggs? Oh no, not me.”
I began to take my apron off as my mother entered the kitchen with that look on her face. That look of hers would make an entire army stop dead in their tracks before crossing her path. I was sandwiched between my cannibal grandmother and fire-breathing mother. I uttered a silent prayer, begging God not to let me die before I got to wear my first bra, then I washed my trembling hands.
Sparingly I added the grated cheese, bread crumbs, and spices. Picking out the tiniest possible piece of the raw mixture that I could find, I touched it to the tip of my tongue.
“Yuck!” I wrinkled my nose while wiping the stuff out of my mouth.
“Like this,” Nonnie laughed, putting a larger piece into her mouth. “Yuck is right, not enough seasoning.” Since I didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like, after each addition Nonnie tasted too until it was just right.
After the meatballs were done, Nonnie gave me a little box. That sweet nougat erased the taste of raw meatballs from my mouth. God answered all my prayers. I lived to wear a bra and survived menopause too.
And when people ask me the secret to my meatballs? I smile and say, “I use my hands, and taste the raw mix until it tastes just right.”
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