Nana & Cooking, A Labor of Love

by Lynn Maria Masiello


I love to cook.

And on the occasion when I sort through the torn-out recipes that I've saved over the years for exotic and ethnic dishes and fancy party food, I always come across a very plain, precious item that I will never discard.

It's a record of sorts, a glimpse into my past - a faded piece of plain paper containing a bread recipe, crudely written in the frantic pencil scribblings of a child, the words running in a jagged, uphill slant.

The child who wrote it was me, of course - probably when I was 8 or 9 years old.

And I remember as if it happened only yesterday, that I wrote it as I sat on the cold linoleum floor of my grandmother's kitchen in New Jersey.

Pencil stub in hand, I was feverishly recording ingredients for Italian Easter bread, as my grandmother made the dough.

"What's next Nana?" I'd ask.

And since she was a Nana, she baked as Nanas do - by eye, by feel, by instinct.

"But Nana, how big is "a shot glass full of oil?" I'd implore?

And, "How do you measure "a handful" of flour?" I'd whine.

And so our discussion would go.

She, providing me with a vague idea of quantities and I, struggling to make sense of it all.

Of course like so many projects that the average, restless child begins, I eventually abandoned my seat on Nana's kitchen floor, pursuing instead those things that interest adolescents, most specifically, the misery of my hormonal changes and rebellion against all things practical.

But something curious happened, many years later.

When I was in my thirties, that old recipe fever took hold of me again and with it, a need to record Nana's culinary legacy.

There were many reasons for my inspiration, not the least of which was the sudden popularity of Italian American, pseudo-family cookbooks, written mostly by celebrities and restaurateurs.

To say that those books were my true inspiration would be untrue however, because it was Nana who really inspired my love of cooking.

And I had to face a sad fact with this new experience - she wasn't getting any younger.

The implications of what this meant broke my heart and tightened my throat.

The child in me desperately wanted to hold onto her - all of her - the stories she told me, the breads and cookies I watched her deftly bake, the comforting smell of her house.

I couldn't bear to think that any of it, especially Nana, would ever be gone.

I had to save it all somehow and I felt a sad desperation to do so.

So I started writing a cookbook comprised of Nana's recipes.

And once again, as I had as a child, I took my seat in Nana's kitchen to write down her recipes as she cooked.

Like most Italian-American families, we weren't a mirror image of the unflattering stereotypes that are shown on TV. And we weren't gangsters either, despite the Sicilian heritage on my grandfather's side of the family. Working hard to pursue The American Dream would more accurately describe us. For example, Nana left school at 15 to work in the factories of Newark.

She continued to work for the better part of her young life - first to care for her ill mother, later to ensure an education for my mother and my aunt. And, since cooking was a natural a part of a woman's education, we took for granted that the kitchen was an integral part of our lives.

Whether it was cooking or eating, food was always the centerpiece of our social settings and the focal point of our lives together as a family. No one ever had it so good either, as far as comfort food was concerned; a bowl of Stracciatella (egg ribbon soup) when you had a bad cold or a plate of hot Pasta E Fagiole (macaroni and beans) smothered with parmesan cheese and black pepper.

But I digress. This is fodder that every Italian American family can wax poetic about.

I'm talking about holding onto all of it ... forever!

I started to compile a book - a combination family biography, family tree and cookbook.

I alternated between cooking at Nana's elbow as I had as a child and experimenting with her recipes in my own kitchen. I often brought the finished product to her house to share with her and to get her opinion on the end result. Authenticity and accuracy was important here - the family members and the stories that lurked behind the history of each dish were just as important to me as the ingredients. And I tortured poor Nana in my attempt to gather these details, although for her, it was hardly a chore to tell me a story. When we made her recipes together, I could almost sense my great grandmother watching over Nana's shoulder, making sure she made each one properly.

And, as Nana told her tales, I envisioned her mother - the petite matriarch that I never knew.

In an ironic twist of fate, Nana's cooking ultimately became a wordless form of communication between us toward the end of her life. As her mind slipped away, so did her desire to cook.

Eventually, she didn't speak anymore, which broke my heart. But I'd like to believe that when I delivered goodies to her, at the nursing home where she eventually lived, that she knew who I was.

I saw recognition in her eyes as she bit into the cookies that I brought on my visits, made from the very recipes that she had imparted to me. I'd see a glint in her eye as she nibbled one of her Knot Cookies, a smile when she crunched on a Biscotti. And for Christmas, her eyes would grow wide and she'd break into a grin when I'd bring her the soft and chocolaty Mostacciolli cookies that our whole family loved, filled with figs and scented with clove.

I baked her creations on every holiday, not solely for her enjoyment, but so that no one would forget her. On Easter, there was sweet bread, baked with whole eggs pushed into the top.

For Christmas, my mother and I fried Struffoli dough and baked Mostaccioli cookies, regardless of the back breaking work they entailed.

So, as I said, I wrote a cookbook filled with Nana's recipes and interlaced with her stories and her love. A REAL Italian American legacy. Then, I tried to publish it. And no one was interested.

I was told that ' You aren't famous ... no one has ever heard of you ... no one will buy your book ... '

Just as I began to feel more defeated than I ever had in my life, I remembered the true reason behind the writing of my book - it wasn't for money or for fame, it was for Nana. And my mood softened.

This was a precious gift that she had given to me. It was something to share with my family!

Nana, my grandfather, our family and friends, most of whom are gone, will live forever in the pages of this book.

I'm grateful for all that she gave to me to remember them by.

As I bake, I know that she's there, watching over my shoulder, and I whisper,

" Nana, how do you measure "a handful" of flour? "

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