As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a great cook. My grandma taught me why that mattered.
In the early ‘50s my granddad, Salvatore Cuomo, set sail for England from Naples with his new bride. See, my granddad was a POW in Nottinghamshire during World War II. After the war ended, something compelled him to stay. And so he hung around, picked up a job, and fell in love with the English way of life. He secured a well-paying job and needed a homegrown woman by his side — my grandma, Gerardina. Nonna (the Italian for grandmother) came from a large family — she had seven brothers — and always had plenty of people to take care of. Shoes to shine, laundry to fold, dinner to cook. Transplanted to the UK, she was suddenly at a loss. Salvatore worked all day. She didn’t speak a lick of English. So what did she do?
Along with the trinkets and keepsakes stowed in their luggage came customs and traditions. For granddad, this was the knowledge he’d accumulated through years of working on his family’s land, mainly on orchards and vast vegetable plots. A tree bearing three different pear varieties — a testament to his gift for grafting — still stands in their back garden, a stranger in a strange land amid the typical English fruit shrubs. His suburban allotment even landed him a full-page spread in the local telegraph.
For Nonna, all that produce, countless bags brimming with purple sprouting broccoli and spires of succulent carciofi, gave her a chance to reach out to the community. She might not have been able to say more than a quick greeting to her next-door neighbors, but she spoke the lingua franca of cooking. I don’t know how she rustled up the fortitude and resolve to face the stovetop, thousands of miles from her loving family. That’s what Nonna impressed upon me: Don’t moan, do something about it — not that she’d put it quite that way, her words a melodious stream of Neapolitan dialect interspersed with the occasional fleck of Midlands slang.
Over the years her circle of friends grew. Passing acquaintances turned to lifelong pals over piping hot cups of espresso and crunchy biscotti. Home was never far away when those same scents rose in wisps from the simmering pots and pans, and in time, that tiny, cramped kitchen became our family’s culinary lynchpin.
It wasn’t easy. Especially with such high cooking standards woven into her DNA as a proud Italian woman. Certain aspects of dishes that had to be done just right required a re-think. How do you make pastiera napoletana (a traditional Easter cake) without the key ingredient of cooked wheat? I can’t do it. It’s fucking impossible. I sprouted three different grains this year and none of the three cakes I made came out right.
Somehow, Nonna made it work. She muddled through figuring out how to procure a food mill so she could grind tomatoes to make authentic passata, the main bulk of her tomato sauce, which is the main part of her lasagnes. Italian cooking is simple, but damn, it takes time to get it right. She became a thriving member of her local church thanks to those mouthwatering lasagnes, always a massive hit at St. Albans’ fundraising bazaars.
She befriended the postman, the window cleaner, the dustbin men. No one could step foot inside her house with being asked “Do you want something to eat?” It didn’t matter if you said no. She’d throw together a little bowl of pasta, tossed in rich ragu, with crumblings of fresh ground pepper melting into the grated parmigiano. I collaborated with my uncle Frank on her eulogy; the laughs and smiles from those gathered came at the mention of her legendary banana cake.
It’s no wonder that Nonna provided so many people that warm, satisfied feeling in their bellies. She was essentially toying with their biology. My father asleep on the couch at Christmas, a half-torn crown from a Christmas cracker balanced on his head? That was sleeping off the strain of alcohol in granddad’s homemade wine that keeps you relaxed.
The reason the old lady over the road, Mrs. Hall (“Missus Saul” as she would say), was happy to let Nonna trot over every night to bring her dinner? The intoxicating happiness that’s unleashed when you inhale a plate of parmigiana melanzane or chicken cacciatore is apparently a result of lower-stress levels, thanks to the brain’s way of taking things down a notch when you sample the tasty flavors of comfort food.
If you want people to let their guards down, ply them with warm food and good drink. To Nonna, it was an art — and maybe a science.
Nonna took her skills, embraced her strengths, and made herself invaluable to her environment. Six years ago I found myself in that same position. A couple of months in San Francisco visiting my now-wife, I had a lot of free time and not a lot of friends. My wife’s roommates were the community I hoped to be welcomed into. So I cooked. I baked. At the time I was a staunch vegan and the city by the Bay was the perfect place to locate non-dairy substitutions. Converting Nonna’s five-cheese, egg-heavy, meat-based lasagne without any meat or dairy was tricky. Somehow, through an amalgam of fancy formaggio impostors and ingenuity, it came out tasting just like Grandma’s. From thereon a stream of adapted dishes flew out of that kitchen in the Inner Richmond. A giant pan of pasta e fagiole, the aforementioned lasagnes, and arance sott’olio (oranges in olive oil, sliced garlic, and salt and pepper) were demolished. And that’s just the Italian stuff. Even more tricky to master were the traditional English dishes — my other Grandma is from Yorkshire — that included vegan sticky toffee pudding and tiffin. Living now in the Pacific Northwest, I’m off the meat-free regime and a full-time omnivore. Another era of life that required further adaption.
I wanted to make braciole. In our family, it’s small rolls of delicious tender beef, wrapped around thinly sliced garlic and flat-leaf parsley, seared and cooked slowly for three hours in a pan of marinara. It’s all very Goodfellas.
Moving from the UK to the States, thankfully I don’t encounter the language barrier Grandma faced, but I do regularly tangle with groceries. Braciole requires braising steak beat to translucence. Thing is, every joint of every animal in the States has a different name to its UK counterpart, so I’ve befriended the butchers in my two local supermarkets who’ve helped me figure out which cut is suitable for which dish. The internet’s great, but there’s nothing like hearing it from a guy wearing a bloodstained apron. A bond was forged. They don’t bat an eyelid now when I ask for as much raw suet as possible so I can render it down to make a jam roly-poly from scratch — saving whatever’s left for the homemade mincemeat I create in huge batches each year for the Christmas mince pies. Which have been gluten-free for the last two years on account of a questionable gluten allergy diagnosis. To the drawing board I returned once more, to recalculate and research how I’d now create a flaky, buttery pie crust senza gluten.
None of the dozens of pies stacked up all over our countertops stay in the flat for long around the holidays. They’re often carted off in tupperware to workmates and friends. A few are kept aside for when the window cleaner pops by. They’re homemade, naturally — and they’ve helped me to make this a home.