The house is warm and smells like tomato sauce and mint…
When I was very little, before starting kindergarten, I stayed with my grandmother everyday of the week while my parents were at work. This was my grandmother on my dad’s side and they were all from Sicily. When I walked into my grandmother’s house from the side door you could see straight back into the kitchen where she would be standing over the stove.
I do think cooking is an act of love. I have come to realize this act is inherited, and thinking back to my time with my grandmother, I see that I got my love for cooking and providing comfort through food from her. I think this comes out in a lot of ways – if a friend is sick I make them soup, if we’re having girl’s night I bring a decadent treat, if I want a self-care day I take the time to cook a meal for several hours. I think one of the things I’ve missed the most during COVID-19 is cooking meals with and for friends.
My mom would drop me off early in the morning and my grandmother would always have sauce cooking on the stove. The aroma of tomatoes and garlic would fill the whole house.
A recipe that is associated with this memory, and with my grandmother in general, is her sauce and meatballs. I was too young to cook with her so she wasn’t able to teach me the recipes, but I’ve sourced from other family members what they think she did. There were no real measurements, she did everything by look and feel, but I think I have a gist of the recipe and want to try to recreate it. The meatballs have a secret ingredient – mint – and my dad made them one time many, many years after her passing. When he said he was putting mint in them I was so confused, but as soon as I ate one the memory of that flavor and my grandmother came flooding back.
My grandmother always wore a babushka, a moo-moo and a button up sweater. Her sweater had Catholic saint charms on a safety pin that she wore like a brooch. The house is warm and smells like sauce and I am realizing that the warmth of the room is coming from the stove and the cooking.
Cannolis are another potent food memory for me. I don’t remember my grandmothers ever making them from scratch, but around Christmas my dad and I would make the dough and fry the shells together and my mom would make the filling. We used to make most of the traditional Christmas pastries. I have not mastered all of them (there are a lot of different kinds) but I have a friend who is Sicilian and his family owns a top notch Italian bakery here in Chicago. They make all traditional Sicilian treats, including cannolis, and whenever I visit the bakery I feel like I’m a child again.
I would hear three bangs on the rim of the pot with a wooden spoon each time she was done stirring. Usually I would be upset for a few minutes after my mom left, but then my grandmother would give me a spoon with a little taste test of whatever she was making and all would be right in my little world again.
I have not thought back to these food memories in a long time but working with Candid Fare helped me to remember and now I’ve been thinking about them more and more. This is probably the earliest memory I have that contains the most detail. This memory isn’t a fleeting moment or single event, it encompasses many days a week for a lot of my early childhood. I think both watching her cook and spending great amounts of time together showed me how cooking is an act of love.
When it was time to have late morning/early afternoon pasta (this was the first pasta course of the day) my grandmother and I would sit on the couch with our bowls and watch Catholic mass on TV. I didn’t understand anything because she watched it on a Spanish channel. She never learned English, but Spanish was close enough to Italian so she could understand. After mass was over we would watch the Spanish soap operas together.
Food is comforting, food brings loved ones together. We Americans are always going, going, going but I really enjoy when I get the opportunity to cook and partake in big, slow and meaningful meals with others. Both of my grandmothers instilled this in me and made a lasting impression on my relationship with food. They were both Sicilian, and they had the magic, grandma touch in their cooking. I think I also have this magic, grandma touch and will continue to pass it along to my family’s next generations.
[ Vincenza LoBello is photographed in her home in Chicago, Illinois on 120mm film. ]