Updated: Mar 29, 2020
Carne a bagnomaria
She stirs the wooden spoon in the simmering sauce, adds a dash of sugar to take away the sourness of the tomato, squirms after tasting the pasta too much al dente—then wipes her hands in a checkered mappina that hangs on a hook near the stove. For secondo, she is making carne a bagnomaria: veal cutlets, thin, fat trimmed off, dressed with garlic, olive oil, oregano, and salt, cooked on a battered aluminum plate, covered with a lid and placed over the boiling pasta pot. On the table, there’s tomato salad she has dressed with salt and oregano earlier. Just before pasta is ready, she sprinkles dark-green olive oil and red wine vinegar from unmarked bottles. The oil she gets in large quantities—in kilos--a parti i casa, from families who own oliveti, when the first oil of the season is ready, in October. Vino veccho, olio nuovo--old wine but new oil, people used to say. She takes a round loaf of bread with a hard brown crust, wrapped in a clean mappina, holds it against her chest, and cuts two slices. She makes this bread herself once a week. The day-old bread is not stale, just chewy. When it gets hard, she dips it in soups or makes mollica for cotolette, polpette, frittata. Sometimes she makes a lemon salad with chunks of hard bread, oil, lemon, water, salt, and pepper, an old, resourceful recipe. Her apartment is on the first floor and she can hear the voices of the children calling out to each other; she hears laughter and shrieks of fear and delight as they chase each other. Once in a while, she goes out on the kitchen balcony to check if the laundry is dry. She has to collect it before it hardens in the sun. There, the spaghetti is ready. The table is set. She calls out to the child. Her voice is clear, firm, but there is a softness to it, and promise in the call. Edvige, Edivige, Edivi, Ediii. Like a chant, echoed by the voices of the other women in her building and those around, mothers calling out--Antonioooo, Salvatoreeeee, Robertinoo, Angiluzzu, Mariii. The children break their games and scatter. Bells ring, door open and shut, shuffling of slippers, pounding of heavy leather shoes, dragging of chairs, china and cutlery clinking, water and wine flowing. And then it will quiet down, though there will not be silence. There will be noises, noises of families in dozens of kitchens in blue and pink and green formica, slurping, sucking, chewing, swallowing, sipping, gulping down. The occasional yell of a father, at times followed by the resounding slap of a hand, the threat of the belt unraveling, the cry of a child, a mother shushing. Grandmother and granddaughter sit, the child at the head of the table, the woman on her right. The child is four years old. The woman is fifty-three. Her hair is grey, but her open, round face is smooth, her skin soft. Nel nome del Padre, del Figlio e dello Spirito Santo. Signore benedici… The child’s palms meet, fingertips perfectly touching. She looks up and smiles at her grandmother. The woman ties a napkin around the child’s neck, tucks one inside the opening of her housedress. Buon appetito… altrettanto—il pranzo begins. The child tells the woman about her games, talks excitedly about her mother who will visit in the afternoon, wonders whether Robertino, the boy who lives in the apartment across from theirs, will play with her after the afternoon nap. The woman wipes the sauce streaks off the child’s face with her own napkin; she pulls out a crumpled handkerchief and blows the child’s nose while the child is already on her feet restless.
She pulls her granddaughter close, wipes the drip, then shoves the handkerchief back into her sleeve. “Sciatuzzu miu,” she whispers. My breath, my little breath.
I am Edvige (Edi) Giunta. I am sixty years old. I was born and raised in Sicily. In 1984 I came to the United States to study and I have lived here ever since. I teach creative writing at new Jersey City University. I’m married and have two children.
This piece (originally published in Italian Americana) is a memory of my childhood with my maternal grandmother, Nonna Nunziatina, who taught me all the ways you can speak the language of love, beginning with food.
Photo credit: Edvige Giunta
Thank you Edi, for bringing us into your Nonna's kitchen. How unforgettable these moments are... when we are fed love.