My grandmother, the godfather

She who stirs the pot, wears the pants


Camille Peri
July 28, 1997 9:15PM (UTC)

Johnny Fontaine, the Sinatra clone in "The Godfather," is
caught in a private moment of weakness in the shadows of Vito Corleone's
study, away from the adoring swoons of his female fans. His face hidden in
his hands, he whispers that his voice has gone weak and his career is
faltering, thanks to a certain female actress who has made him lose his
senses. "You let women dictate your actions and they are not competent in
this world, though certainly they will be saints in heaven while we men
burn in hell," admonishes the Don, exhorting him to stop whimpering about
his voice and act like a man. It is the kind of wisdom about family and
manhood and business that the Mafia hero dispenses throughout the film --
and that took on a jarring new dimension when author Mario Puzo announced this spring that
the old Don himself was actually based on, well, his mother.

"Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the
voice of my mother," Puzo confessed in the new preface to his novel "The
Fortunate Pilgrim," which was re-released in April. "I heard her wisdom,
her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life
itself, qualities not valued in women at the time."

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Certainly, those qualities were not valued in Puzo's Italian-American
female characters. Locked out of the family business, the women who
were married to the mob seemed to have little to do beyond looking pretty
and getting blown up. His men, on the other hand, were dynamic
supermen -- cold-hearted killers, yes, but also devoted family men, guys
who could go to work, knock off a few enemies, carve out a little more
territory and still remember to bring home the cannoli. They were the
inspiration for the generation of rising mobsters that included John Gotti.
The Dapper Don with the sunlamp tan and Brioni suits carefully cultivated
his image after that of Puzo's mobsters. Now, it turns out, the Dapper Don's
role model was really a welfare mom who held her family together in the
tenements of Hell's Kitchen while her husband broke down under the stress.

As much as I loved "The Godfather," Puzo's sex roles never rang true to me.
My Sicilian-American grandmother had no Mafia connections to speak of, but
she definitely controlled the strings in her family. With an eighth-grade
education, Mary trained herself as an electrician and bookkeeper. She did
all the household repairs, sewed her own clothes, crocheted beautifully,
made beer and was a gambler and card shark, the only woman allowed into the
poker games after family dinners. She was strong-willed: When she developed
Parkinson's paralysis at a tragically young age, she fought it by expanding
into intricate crocheting projects that required ever greater degrees of
precision. "She would try anything and could do everything," my father
recalls. "She was the strong one in our family, but as an Italian wife, she
had to make my father feel like he was the strong one."

"She made all the decisions in a way that made him feel like he had made
them," interjects my mother.

One of the few acceptable places where Italian and Italian-American women
of her generation could show off their competency, of course, was in their
cooking -- which could partially explain why Italian food ranks as
one of the two premier European cuisines. Carol Field's newest book on
Italian cooking, "In Nonna's Kitchen," a collection of regional recipes,
folk wisdom and family histories from Italian grandmothers, provides a
glimpse at how cooking was both oppressive and liberating, and how the hard
life helped shape a tradition of home cooking in which imagination and
resourcefulness were lifted to an art.

The first thing that struck me about "In Nonna's Kitchen" was the name.
My nonna never cooked in her kitchen. In the days when most lower-class
American homes did not have furnaces, the kitchen, with its wood- and
coal-burning stove, was the warmest place in the house, and Italian-American family life centered around the kitchen table. My grandmother's
kitchen was always kept gleaming and spotless, the place where the rocking
chair displayed her handmade lace doilies, where the family sat around or
listened to the radio at night, taking turns on the chair nearest the
stove. "I grew up believing there were two kinds of people," says my
father. "The Italians, who lived and ate in the kitchen, and the people who
had everything -- cars, furnaces, vacations. They were the Americans."

Now my nonna's back porch was a different story because it was the
tradition of many Italian-American immigrant women to do their cooking
there or in the basement. The porch was the headquarters of Mary's family
empire, where the endless rhythms of the laundry and the endless tasks of
cooking somehow meshed together in the steam and the San Francisco fog. On
a single gas stove, she fried up "skinny steaks," simmered spaghetti sauce
and boiled the laundry in a huge kettle, stirring it with a long wooden
stick. On one end of the clothesline, drying ribbons of pasta dangled
overhead like ropes of licorice; on the other, shirts and trousers puffed
and fluttered above the chickens and herbs in the yard. Like all
self-respecting Italian-American women, my grandmother was
armed with cooking utensils that could easily have doubled as weapons,
from the bastone -- a huge, clublike polenta paddle -- to the mezzaluna, an
ultra-sharp, crescent-shaped blade with handles on both ends.

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"The beauty of the house is order," reads the spidery handwriting in Mary's
book of cooking notes, and her house was so well-ordered that the weekly
menu plan is stamped into my father's memory like the mass in Latin: fish
and polenta on Friday, pasta and pot roast Saturday, chicken fricassee and
risotto on Sunday ... The rotating main course was preceded every night by
homemade soup and salad and followed by a slice of Parmesan cheese and a
homemade dessert.

Grandma's cooking in any culture is "make-do" cuisine -- and especially in
Italy, where even "haute" chef Marcella Hazan says there is no such thing
as "haute cuisine," only family-style cooking. On this side of the
Atlantic, my urban grandmother was blessed with an exceptional array of
ingredients to make do with because my family exemplified nearly every
Italian-American stereotype with the exception of Mafia membership. Fresh
fish came from her father, a Sicilian fisherman who shoved out before dawn
every morning from San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. From her
father-in-law, my paternal great-grandfather, came bouquets of leeks,
pearly green cabbage and other fresh vegetables. An orphan in Genoa who had
lived largely on chestnuts and rice (and saw meat just once a year at
Christmas), he became renowned for the produce he sold from his cart to the
plush Nob Hill hotels. My grandfather, Ernest, a teamster by profession who
sang a booming "Pagliacci" at family dinners to the endless embarrassment
of his Americanized grandchildren, stomped grapes to make his own wine and
aged it in barrels in the basement.

For holidays, Mary prepared elaborate multi-course meals that included her
specialty, hundreds of delicate homemade ravioli -- a remarkable feat in
the days when food had to be bought and prepared fresh every day. (My
old-country grandfather actually resisted buying a refrigerator until
1972.) Some modernized Italian-American women had begun to cut corners by
bringing bowls of their homemade ravioli filling to the delicatessen to be
wrapped into ravioli, while they stood guard to make sure that no one
absconded with their filling. But my grandmother was not about to share
credit for her signature dish with a delicatessen. So for two solid days
she cooked, rolling out thin sheets of egg pasta on every flat surface on
or near the porch and shaping it into ravioli, roasting turkey and ham,
preparing homemade pies (the only food ever cooked in the wood-burning
stove) -- and stopping only to attend mass and to cook and clean
up after the other family meals.

My grandmother died when I was small and most of her cooking secrets died
with her. Sadly, although I possess her recipe for Genovese-style ravioli,
I have neither the energy to make the pasta nor the stomach for the
filling, which quite adamantly calls for "four brains." Fortunately, "In
Nonna's Kitchen" fills in for women like me who don't have a nonna in the
kitchen. Because these days I don't try any recipe longer than a page, many
of those in the book are, for me, pure food for thought, voluptuous-sounding
dishes that I would rather just imagine, such as ravioli filled with prunes
and figs and laced with cinnamon butter, a traditional Christmas Eve dish
in northeastern Italy, or Pasticcio de Maccheroni, an elaborate concoction
handed down since the Renaissance, which is actually several courses
and sauces contained inside one delicate pastry crust. But the recipes that
won me over are those with names that suggest a quiet victory over
leftovers, such as Spaghetti Made Just a Little Differently and 'Ncip
'Nciap, a scramble of leftover chicken, red onion and eggs that is named
for the sound of the chopping knife.

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Most interesting are the nonnas themselves, whose stories and
personalities spill out of the pages and enrich the recipes. Though they
range from rural, white-haired contadinas who remember when all bread was
baked in communal ovens to chic urban grandmas who wear miniskirts and
watch American soaps, they represent a tradition of cooking and a way of
life that has been disappearing rapidly during the last 50 years as Italy
has become more urbanized. (Interestingly, where
la cucina della nonna is being preserved, it is often by grandsons
and male chefs in trattorias and small restaurants.) It is a style of
cooking based on simplicity and need, and on a philosophy that nothing
should be wasted. After cooking over wood gathered from the yard, one of
the women recalls slipping the leftover embers between the sheets to heat
the family beds, then reserving the ashes for washing clothes. Warming up
around a kitchen stove would have been an unspeakable luxury; another
woman, a communal farmer, remembers evenings spent in the animal stalls,
heated by the breath of the cows, husbands talking while the wives sewed.

The lives of these women make that of my grandmother -- who actually got to
sit at the table with the men and boys after serving them -- seem downright
liberated. There is, for example, the story of Antonietta deBlasi Rocca, a
Sicilian woman whose family traveled to the sea every summer. While the men
and boys swam daily, the women were barred from the beach because it was
believed that immersion in the water would irreversibly "deplete their
energy." Mysteriously, however, the men's
energy could be replenished by eating large quantities of hard-boiled eggs.
So for two months, while the men bathed every day in the blue waters of the
Mediterranean and got fatter, the women sweltered in the kitchen, trying to
come up with new and improved ways to serve hard-boiled eggs. Only tears of
frustration could have led to Antonietta's exotic recipe for fried
hard-boiled eggs in a saffron onion sauce!

In fact, the collective philosophy of cooking presented in the book is so
unfussy, so sensual and creative, it makes you want to stew the Martha
Stewarts in their deglazed, reduced and worked-over juices. These are women
who have built entire cuisines on leftover bread (and used the leftover
leftovers to make children's dolls), who invented treats for their
grandchildren by filling thimbles with chestnut flour and toasting them
over an open fire, who can demonstrate how to get 28 pieces out of a
chicken or make a single egg feed four.

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In the days when many of our grandmothers scramble egg substitutes and
swear by their microwaves, these nonnas are still tossing fistfuls of pasta
into the pot and drizzling on olive oil with abandon. Some of them throw
their hands up in exasperation when Field tries to pin them down on
measurements or ingredients. Even just reading the recipes, you feel them
at your elbow, instructing you to set pheasants in a pan "one next to each
other, like fiancés," or to add a little pasta cooking water to the sauce,
or to judge seasoning and doneness by touch, never taste. "Touch with your
fingers, your hands," says one. "You'll know when it's right. Just look."

My favorite piece of wisdom came from Ida Lancellotti, a woman
known for her light and crispy gnocchi. She used to fry up to 500 of the
potato dumplings at a time for the village workers who came to her family's
osteria in Soleria. When the men came in on their morning break,
they ate them for breakfast with onions, pork cracklings, prosciutto and
salami, chunks of parmesan and wine -- until, she recalls wistfully, the
day a stranger showed up requesting brioche and a cappuccino, and it was
the beginning of the end of an era. Ida believes ambience in the kitchen
(or, I would add, on the porch) is the most important ingredient in
cooking. As she rolls the dough gently between her fingers, she warns that
her recipe may not turn out as well for someone else; she is convinced that
it is the warmth of her hands that makes the dish. She's probably
right.


Camille Peri

Camille Peri is the editor of Mothers Who Think.

MORE FROM Camille Peri

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