As the child of a Sicilian father and French Basque mother, my fondest memories are tied to the kitchen of my childhood. Nothing terribly unusual about that. To one degree or another we are all transported by food. Rossini is said to have had perfect recollection of the risotto served at almost any party in his honor, but no recall of the host’s face. Proust may have been the best to write about the visceral connection between a taste and things past, but he certainly wasn’t alone in his observations.
My love affair with the foods of my youth, however, exceeds mere reminiscence. At its core is a singular way of communicating with those I love most, a remnant of my past when overt affection was rarely demonstrated and sentimental declarations were relegated to a world behind closed doors, away from children. Yet my siblings and I felt deeply loved, for in place of fond expression, we had the sublime language of food that emanated from my grandfather’s kitchen.
It hardly seems shocking that food rather than words became the preferred vehicle of communication in our home. My Sicilian grandfather spoke to my father almost exclusively in his native dialect, while my grandmother spoke Basque, a language so incomprehensible that legend has it the devil returned to hell rather than continue his futile attempts to learn it. We youngsters rarely felt inclined to weigh in on conversations we only vaguely followed. We concentrated instead on oregano-infused pizzaiola, melanzane alla parmigiana and manicotti baked to perfection by our grandfather.
An unassuming man who could barely piece together a sentence in English, my grandfather could unfailingly intuit his grandchildren’s needs. He simply knew the exact dish that could soothe a terrible hurt, assuage a bruised ego or brighten our darkest mood. Words would have been superfluous on those occasions when he dried our eyes with one hand and offered us fresh cannoli with the other. Never so much with a smile, as with a self-assured look that made us believe that home—his kitchen—was the best of all places to be.
Years later, when my three children were young, I rationalized the hours spent in the kitchen as my simple desire to expose them to the cuisine I so adored. As they grew, however, and our personalities clashed, I took refuge in my kitchen. Forget psychology learned in college. I knew that peace could be brokered over just the right dish, meticulously prepared.
When my 21-year-old daughter recently announced she was bringing someone home, my youngest accused me of subterfuge as I stood over a simmering pot of Sicilian ragù.
“Mmm. Smells good, Mom. Who’s coming?
“Your sister, and she’s bringing someone.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, isn’t it kind of like baiting him?”
Outwardly, I dismissed this as nonsense. Deep down, I had to admit he was right. No one could resist the urge to stay on in a room heavy with the scent of this sauce.
On a recent weekend when calculus and chemistry were treating my middle child less than kindly, I suggested a trip home.
“Can’t, Mom. Too much to do.”
Hesitating on the phone, I feigned casual disappointment, then shamelessly went for the kill. “Do you know what I was thinking of making . . . ?”
Such tactics are reminiscent of the Sicily of my grandparents, where such manipulation was acceptable if the end stood to strengthen the family. How much I still resemble the great-grandmothers I never knew, women whose fierce determination to keep their children close was the overriding goal in their lives. Somehow, centuries of enlightened thinking have done little to diminish that legacy in our house.
A tavola non si invecchia, the Italians say. “At the table one never grows old.” When my children consider me a bit Old World for suggesting that a plate of this or a forkful of that will make life better, I think back on that bond forged long ago in my grandfather’s kitchen. Words were not necessary then, and sometimes they are not even now.
ELISE MAGISTRO, ’78, teaches at Scripps College.