When my grandmother died, on July 30th of 2001, she left me all her diaries – 30 years of life from when I hadn’t born yet to the day of her death, when my grandfather wrote ‘fine’ (the end) on the last page.
The last time I went back to Italy, for Christmas, in 2017, Ben and I flew with extra empty suitcases, so that we could bring all the diaries back home to Los Angeles.
“Do you think I’m invading her privacy?” I had asked my mom before opening the first one.
Did I have the right to read what she confided to the page in secret? As a writer myself, I had to ask such a question: where is the line between private and public, when it comes to writing? Where the line between sharing with the reader, and sharing with the page, with yourself, with God?
“Why don’t you ask her?” my mother suggested. “Ask what she thinks, stay still, in silence, and you will hear her answer. She will speak to you.”
And so I did. I sat down quietly before opening the first diary, I closed my eyes and I asked her: “Give me a sign, Madri*. Can I read your diaries? Am I doing the right thing?” There isn’t a day when I don’t feel her presence in my life, her protection, her comfort, and her guidance. One of her diaries is always on my desk, the one from 2001, and it is from the desk that she also looks at me, through the film of a photograph; she looks melancholic but smiles genuinely, elegant, with perfectly sculpted thin eyebrows and no makeup other than red lipstick. She looks exactly as I remember her, loving and yet austere at times.
Madri is always with me, whether I go to the grocery store or out for dinner with Ben, to the movies, or to the gym; wherever I go, I bring with me the rosary she brought me from one of her yearly trips to Lourdes, one that becomes fluorescent in the dark, and I also keep her ID in my wallet.
So that day, when I asked: “Can I read your diaries? Am I doing the right thing?” she made sure I could hear her answer; all of a sudden, I experienced a renewed sense of serenity, her warm embrace, something in the air and throughout my body that made me feel okay. It wasn’t happiness, it wasn’t joy, but a sense that everything was taken care of, and that I was on the right path.
And there I was, starting from 1982, the year I was born…
I read every story, every good day and every bad day, weeks of sun and weeks of rain, from the mountains or from the beach; I read every menu, every bill that my grandfather and her paid, every joy, and every frustration.
The sense of discomfort that I’d sometimes experience when coming across episodes of my childhood that I only vaguely remembered, or sometimes wasn’t aware of at all, soon became acceptance, understanding, and compassion. Some details I could have guessed, others left me helpless, full of regrets, and very sad. I hadn’t known how much my grandmother loved me, but I knew how much we shared, how much we both suffered, and how much the act of writing about it gave us some relief. But there was one more link between the two of us, because even though her stories were often permeated by sadness, by difficulties and hardships, she always wrote of what she ate, what she cooked, the menus at events that her and my grandfather attended, and the food she ate in the hospital, when she was hospitalized for depression – and the quality of hospital food didn’t actually help her feel better.
“Ben, read this,” I’d call to him at almost every page. “I so remember when she’d make kale and potato soup, or tuna with eggs and tomato sauce…I loved it.” To be honest, I remembered much more than I initially thought, like going mushroom picking with her and my grandfather, going to say the rosary in the month of May in the sanctuary by the lake, or daily slivers of life together such as walking from my elementary school to their place every day for lunch. The school was just around the corner, a ten-minute walk from their house, and my grandfather walked me (and then my brother) back in the afternoon, after we had eaten. Playing in the garage with my brother was also very clear in my memory; we usually played there when my grandfather was fixing shoes in the back, and we had fun gardening, planting tomatoes and kale, and then drinking fresh water from a metal cup that seemed to have been forever there, by the sink, just next to the wine barrel.
I remember taking a bath there, every Tuesday night, when we’d sleep over; their bathroom, with its dark orange carpet, was very small, and it always smelled like my grandfather’s shower gel – pine tree. The tub was so short that we couldn’t completely lie down; it was more of a ‘sitting-bath’ situation. In my mind, even though the room was somber, the view from the window, over the other small orchard they had, made the bathroom look royal, part of a castle I was lucky to inhabit.
A smile on my face appeared every time I’d read of the long afternoons playing in our bedroom, which used to be my great grandmother’s, and in which Madri kept most of her accessories, hats, sewing kit, and knitting tools. I used to wear her clothes, her jewelry, and the wig she would wear when she wanted to look different for a night out with my grandfather, and I’d pretend to be an old lady, with Madri’s hair which always seemed to have some glitter hair spray on it. This is what food does to me: it takes me places, it takes me back, it awakens memories, and it heals the sense of loss, of regret, and of fear. Food brings me closer to her, to my past, and to what I strive every day to preserve and share with my family and friends.
Among the many things that have changed since then, since the days when I used have lunch at my grandparents’, is my diet. After 15 years of eating disorders, of fighting for a body that was unhealthily thin, and after years of using food as a tool to be heard, to feel better about myself, and to control life, I realized how much food had actually helped me be who I was. And so I slowly began to love it, to study it, and to actually pay attention to where it comes from, to how it’s produced, and to what its presence on my plate entailed, socially, historically, and ethically.
I have followed a mostly vegetarian diet for three years, and as I kept reading a page from 1995, recently one day, I thought: “Wow, most of my favorite dishes were meat! I wish I could cook all her recipes for my child, one day.”
A few years after moving to the United States, after getting sober, and after selflessly becoming more involved in society, in my community, and in doing my part in giving my child a world as similar as possible to the beautiful one I was handed by my parents, I became a vegetarian. But I did it for ethical reasons. I loved meat; I still love meat; I will always love meat.
But I couldn’t possibly accept what human beings were doing to animals, especially in this country; I couldn’t accept that in order to have steak cows were tortured, fed corn and hormones, taken away from their babies and force-fed so that they could be slaughtered young and fat. I couldn’t eat chickens that had been kept in a cage and fed chemicals, etc. I couldn’t possibly eat an animal that had suffered to be on my plate. And if you are wondering what the difference was, when I was a child, in the 1980s, in Italy, I can tell you that we knew where the meat we ate came from; we knew the butcher, we knew how the animals were treated, and it wasn’t torture. Meat, back in those days, was also much safer, as I recall eating albese (raw ground meat) seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper, or eating raw sausages. Things have changed in 30 years, and not for the best.
It was my grandmother’s cooking that influenced me the most; everything she cooked was a feast, for me. Every lunch I had at her house, which was every day after school, was for me the most beautiful time of the day, and her tiny kitchenette with turquoise table and cabinets my culinary Disneyland.
“What’s for lunch, Madri?” I’d ask, always hungry.
“Hearts and lungs,” she would say one day. I’d smile, helping my grandfather to set the table, and counting down the seconds to finally eat one of my favorite delicacies. The kitchen was so small that I after I sat, with my back against a long cabinet, the pushed the table toward me, so that three or four people would fit, usually my grandparents, my brother and me. My grandfather always sat at the end of the table against the fridge, and he was in charge of the wine (that he made in the garage across the street) and of grating Parmesan cheese for everyone. Madri sat at the other end, with her back to the window, and with easy access to the stove and the sink.
I can still see her, standing by the stove, turning off the heat and walking to the table, where my grandfather and I waited. I loved my grandparents.
The stew of beef hearts and lungs, with onion and red wine, was one of her specialties; she served it regularly and I couldn’t get enough Also because my mother hated onions, so she would never cook them at home. I loved onions, and my grandmother would always find endless ways to serve them on the table, whether stuffed with meat, in the stew, in a frittata, etc. The sweetness and the embracing, gentle flavor of onions is one of those that I recall the most, and that bring me back to that house, to those years, to the past.
If I close my eyes today, years later, I can still taste the onion meting in my mouth, cooked for hours in the stew, and then the crunchiness of the hearts against the irresistible sponginess of the lungs. Today, the only term that can describe that dish is umami; when I was 7 years old at Madri’s house I had not yet heard of the word umami, but I unconsciously knew what it meant: pleasant savory taste; I experienced its magic in my mouth every time that my grandmother made hearts and lungs.
I could write a book of all the dishes that my grandmother made, dishes that turned me into a food lover, into a food writer, and into a food activist.
I loved her stuffed bell peppers, her stuffed onions, and her stuffed zucchini, that she made with meat, cabbage, eggs, and lots of Parmesan cheese. Every week, on Wednesday, I believe, we would have granelle (Rocky Mountain oysters), and the rest of the week was always a surprise, breaded veal brain sautéed with butter, ground raw meat salad with carrot salad, tongue with green parsley sauce, kidneys stew, chicken liver with onions, Milanese, spezzatino (beef stew) with wild mushrooms, wild herbs frittata, wild herbs soup, milk and rice soup, breaded trout, handmade gnocchi with tomato sauce, and agnolotti stuffed with her secret recipe of veal, pork, and cabbage.
Every time we had rabbit, another traditional dish where I am from, my grandfather and I would share the head; I can still taste the crunchy little tongue, and soft, creamy brain. My favorite part was the meat around the chest, so that I could clean (eating) every little bone. After lunch, Madri would wash the dishes, looking out the window where my grandfather’s orchard was, rich in spinach, kale, collard greens and several varieties of salad. My grandfather made the coffee and cleared the table; he would always shake the tablecloth outside, so that birds could have their lunch, too.
“Can you wash this, please?” I’d ask handing her the jaw of the rabbit, where the two front teeth were still attached. She would clean it and hand it to me dried, and I’d play with it as she and my grandfather drank their coffee, in a drinking glass, with sugar but no milk. I’d sit with them playing with my new toy, and I waited for the bottom of their coffee, where some of the sugar had not completely melted, and that I would eat with a spoon. I never had a sweet tooth, but that coffee-flavored sugar was my treat after the meal.
I decided to write about my grandmother’s non-vegetarian cooking as a tribute to her, of course, but also because I miss it, and because I wish that human beings would treat animals fairly, with respect, and love, so that we could still taste the delicious gifts they offer us, without carrying the moral crime on our hands. I wish we could just be grateful for their offering.
I loved my grandparents, and I will be forever grateful for Madri’s diaries. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to cook for my child every recipe that my grandmother made for me, but thanks to her writing I’ll be able to share the stories, the ingredients, her passion for food, and how special that time was.
*short for madrina, godmother