Essay Corner

A special person in my life sent me a copy of Gastropolis: Food & New York City.  I turned immediately to the Italian chapter, entitled “Cosa Mangia Oggi?”  What’d ya eat today?

It’s one of those Italian Grandmother reminiscences, written by an Annie Rachelle Lanzillotto.  Annie was born about a decade earlier than me, and is from the Bronx, not Staten Island; and of course, her grandmother’s southern Italian, like everyone else’s American-emigrating grandma.  Given all those things, it was truly amazing all the parallels that I could relate to.

  • Her Grandma Rose was born in 1900, same as mine.
  • Grandma would embarrass her by picking dandelion greens out in center field during her ball games.  Mine would embarrass us picking them at the cemetery.
  • My grandma made polenta.  Her grandmother called her “polenta” when she was laying around being lazy.  But both hated laziness.
  • “Menza menz” her grandma would say when asked how she was.  My mother said that all the time; sounded like “mizza miz.”  The “z” pronounced American, not Italian.  Means “so-so.”  What a great honest answer to “How ya doing?”
  • “When carrying an Italian bread home in its white paper sleeve from the corner store after Mass, bite off one end of the bread before you make it up the stoop into the house.”  Every single aspect of this sentence is important, not just scarfing the end piece of the bread, the best part.  It has to be in a white paper sleeve.  Has to be after 12:00 mass.  Has to be before reaching the “stoop.”

It was almost too much.

I loved the part where she tried to decipher her grandmother’s written recipes.  Here, her grandma definitely had an edge over mine: Carmela was illiterate and could only sign her name.  Anyway, Grandma Rose’s recipes were part Italian dialect, part phonetic English.  The best was trying to decipher “begn polvere.”  She enlists help from other relatives.  “Polvere” is powder.  But “begn…” she had to pronounce it out loud, various ways, before she stumbled upon it: of course.  Begn powder.  As opposed to begn soda.  Similarly, “1 bottiglia di greppe giuse.”  Just say it out loud.  The accents all come pouring back.

And Annie writes with some phonetic emphasis too.  Ricotta is never spelled as such, but is ‘riGUTH.’  Now, we were northern Italians, so we never ate ricotta OR “riGUTH”, but we did eat “riZUTT.”  And both Annie and we ate “bisCUT.”  That was what my grandmother would have for breakfast, with coffee: Stella D’Oro Biscotti, pronounced strictly as “bisCUT”.

It was all almost too much.

So, cosa mangia oggi?  I can hear one of my own relatives asking this with kind of a singsong lilt.  Or my mom, no trace of accent on her except for New York; she’d have phrased it, “What’ya makin tonight, something good?”  I’m gonna make a big salad, ma, with asparagus and spinach, in a vinaigrette.  “Mmm!” she’d hum approvingly.  And I made cornbread to go with it.  I thought of a nice crusty Italian bread, but Xopher likes cornbread, plus that will go good with chili I’m gonna make later this week.  “Nice!”  She’d approve.  Sorry Mom.  Sorry we didn’t get to have more of those conversations.

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