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.