Friday, June 21, 2013

I Guess I Must Be Hungry . . .

That's what I said to the checker at Trader Joe's tonight as I pushed my nearly-full cart up to the register.  The woman ahead of me, who had just finished paying for her groceries, turned to look at me and laughed.  "It's very dangerous to shop when you're hungry," she cautioned, but of course I knew that.  Still, what's a person to do when the shopping needs to be done on a week night, and the most convenient store to stop at happens to be on the way home from work?

Sometimes shopping for groceries is just a boring but necessary chore.  Sometimes it seems more like an adventure, and tonight's trip was one of the more inspirational ones.  Everything looked good, and there were SO MANY foods available to spark the culinary imagination.  No wonder my cart was packed!

Driving home from the shopping trip, I thought about the past.  When I was a child, food and its preparation were central to our family experience.  My father's people came from Italy and his parents were the first generation born in America.  When my grandmother and grandfather spoke to one another, chances were very good that their conversations would be peppered with words in Italian--they would alternate back and forth between English and Italian, particularly if they wanted to say something they didn't want little ears to understand.  Every Friday, whenever they could make it, my father and his three brothers would gather at my grandmother's table for the midday meal.  Sometimes all four would be there, and sometimes it might just be one or two, but a hearty Italian meal at midday on Friday was a family tradition up until the time my grandmother was no longer able to cook.  I remember my uncle Charlie, a cop, would walk in dressed in uniform, and the first thing he did each time was to unholster his gun and reach up to put it waaaaay back on the top shelf of the coat closet, out of harm's way.  "It's not a toy," he would tell us, refusing to let us get any closer for a good look.  Some years later--and I guess I was a teenager then--my uncle Charlie killed himself.  Isn't it funny that my most enduring memories of him were at those Friday meals?

In the old Italian households, a wedge of good Parmesan cheese was prized.  A trip to replenish the supply was a momentous occasion.  I remember going downtown with my grandfather, walking down the street hand in hand.  We would turn into a shop where he would loudly greet the man behind the glass fronted deli case with the Italian equivalent of "hale fellow well met."  After the initial greetings, they very seriously got down to discussing the relative merits of the different types of Parmesan cheese available and the cost of each before my grandfather made his choice.  Soon, he would reach across the counter to take possession of a parcel of Parmesan cheese wrapped up in brown paper and tied with twine.  Mission accomplished at last, we would retrace our steps to wherever grandfather had parked his Cadillac and head home to bring my grandmother the gift of the best Parmesan cheese wedge my grandfather could afford.

My mother's people were a mix of French and English.  My grandfather on my mother's side was born in France and was destined for priesthood until he decided to run away and take a job on a cargo ship bound for America.  That grandfather died of cancer before I turned a year old.  My grandmother on my mother's side was not nearly the cook my other grandmother was.  Still, she DID make an excellent applesauce cake--something we looked forward to at Christmas time each year.  Her other favorite dish--one she made and gave to people every now and then, whenever the occasion warranted--was tamale pie.  I never did like it--it was always bland and mushy.  My mother didn't like it either.  Is it any wonder, then, that my mother turned away from her family's culinary roots and learned to cook Italian?

Growing up, I, too, learned to make my family's favorite Italian recipes, and I particularly recall working with two essential tools:  a wooden bowl with a curved chopping blade that we used for chopping parsley and green onions, and a grater/grinder that we used for grating cheese and making bread crumbs.  Long ago, that wooden bowl cracked and has not been satisfactorily replaced, but I still have the grater/grinder.


Functionally, both of those tools became obsolete once the modern food processor came along.  But somehow the meals don't taste quite as good now, whether it's the quality of the food, the fact I no longer use the old tools, or simply the lack of ceremony and tradition that was served up along with those past family meals.  And, of course, we're missing those people who are no longer with us.  But no matter what the present holds, gripping that old grater/grinder in my hand reminds me of my culinary heritage and the people who passed it on to me.

17 comments:

Donna said...

My grandmother was a baker. I still have and still use several of her baking tools. I hope that some day my children and grandchildren have the kind of memories about us that we have of our grandparents and parents.

Donna said...

My grandmother could not boil water without burning the pan or some kitchen disaster. I do have memories of Gran in the kitchen * those memories involve such phrases as "run for your life!" and "NO!" She has been deceased for years yet a few of her culinary attempts still bring laughter at family events.

Raewyn said...

So intersting to read your tale Kim. A meal is much more than the food being eaten. Thank you for sharing.

dianne said...

my nonna would hold her piece of cheese on her lap and let the scent waft up to her nose during the meal so she could savor it as long as possible ... i don't remember that myself, though - it's a story that i was told ... i think it must be true because she was a frugal woman by necessity, not choice...

Anonymous said...

I grew up in NJ in an old Dutch farmhouse from the Revolutionary War. My best friend's family were Italian, and from the grandparents down, Italian was spoken at home. I used to go down to the basement fridge with my best friend and grate cheese in a grater just like yours for the family dinner. Fun to bring up that memory and the smell of the wedge of cheese. Stephani in N. TX (Tomaec@aol.com)

Denise in PA said...

What a great post, Kim - I loved getting a glimpse into your family! I love a good wedge of parmesan myself! o:)

Tammy said...

What wonderful family memories, thank you for sharing. Isn't it wonderful how many memories revolve around a family meal.

Miss Jean said...

Sweet, sweet story!

Rabid Quilter from CA said...

I love reading your posts and this is the best yet! My parents were both 1st generation Americans and both families (German on my mother's and Italian on my Dad's) cooked odd dishes by today's standards. The oddest: My grandmother called it "Popeye", mostly beans and spinach in a tomato sauce, everything from her garden.

Deb said...

Isn't it funny how those things come to mind when you think of your grandparents. My husband and I were just talking about my grandmother a couple of nights ago and how she made homemade noodles for chicken noodle and dumplings, and she made this best sauce with rhubarb that we put over bread, yum! Miss those old days, things are just not the same today.

Sandy said...

I'm with everyone - I do enjoy your posts. I have a grater just like that but then again I'm old!

Laura K said...

Oh I hope I am passing on culinary traditions to my kids! I grew up with a mom who hated to cook, who grew up with a mom who hated to cook! I have always been interested in cooking. When I was 16 and I got my first job, I bought myself a paperback version of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. It has almost 1000 pages and has all sorts of different recipes in it. I literally wore mine in two. I tried to replace it but the recipes in the newer versions aren't the same. So I turned to ebay and found a brand new book that is the exact same version I had for ten cents! I was so excited. Now I don't use it as much because I cook on a whim a lot but that was the cookbook that started it all and it will always have a special place in my heart!

Kim said...

What a great post. I too have great memories of my grandmother's cooking. I can smell her kitchen right now! My own kids often request that I make certain foods for them, or teach them to make them, so I am confident they will remember my cooking. Now, to give those memories to the Grandkids!

Jessica Wilson said...

I don't comment much, but I just wanted to say that this really spoke to me :) Thank you so much.

EJ said...

thank you for sharing.

My mom has gone thru several of these grinders. Oh the christmases they've seen and the cookies we've enjoyed.

It is so true that our meals are more than just food. They are comfort and lots of good memories.

Sandra Coleman Clarke said...

Kim, I too enjoyed your post about your grandparents and family togetherness. I always enjoy your posts but this one was extra special.

DangAndBlast! said...

I love my mouli grater. People keep saying you can't get them anymore, but ours is from bed bath and beyond! It's much more convenient for cheese grating than the Cuisinart or a box grater (or, horrors, a handheld square grater thing)!