The young mothers – or ladies on the block – get together every weekday to pick up the kids from school, and on Sundays to go to Mass as a family. They trade recipes, make suggestions for getting the most out of their treadle sewing machines, and plan a schedule to bring dishes to a new mother. No conflict, then, exists between those ladies whose families came from Naples, Calabria, Abruzzi – or even Sicily.
The nonnas, though, never forget where they came from, and they often find it difficult to be gracious toward those who arrived from another province, never mind an island. And the former island-dwellers will often stick it to the former mainlanders by slipping in a word or two in their own dialect when conversing with them. This causes the mainlanders to be on their toes in all meetings with the islanders.
But the groups coexist peacefully enough at church gatherings, neighborhood weddings, and, of course, funerals. A death in the neighborhood brings the opportunity to earn a thousand friendship points. The nonnas can present a generous donation in an envelope at the wake, offer enough money to the priest to have an “announced” Mass said for the dead, or prepare a meal for the family. (See The Food’s Upstairs, The Wake’s Downstairs.)
So cordiality often reigns among the dissonant factions, until the ladies bring them together in a situation that emphasizes their differences. Take, for example, two ladies renting family vacation cabins next door to each other. One lady is Sicilian, the other Neapolitan. Of course, each has a nonna who joins the family on vacation.
For the nonnas, the highlight of a week in the country is the opportunity it gives them to pull more weeds than they could in their city gardens. And if a nonna meets a nonna while hanging swimsuits out to dry, their conversation is about — food. “What are you making for dinner,” one asks. “Caponata,” says the other. Ah! A Sicilian dish that’s prepared by mainlanders, too.
After dinner, the two families gather around a fire and watch the kids toast marshmallows. It’s a pleasant, relaxing occasion until a nonna quietly starts to sing a Sicilian folk song about a donkey, ”Ce una scicaderru . . .” From the other side of the fire, in an edgy voice, the other nonna starts to sing a Neapolitan song about a donkey, ” E tire, tire, tire i ciucciarella . . .”
Mothers and kids drowsing by the fire take up the cry. Tales of the two donkeys grow louder and louder. Just a typical night in the country, orchestrated by the nonnas.
Serves eight as an appetizer or side dish
- 1 one-pound eggplant, unpeeled, diced into 3/4-inch cubes
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 1 head fennel, thinly sliced
- 6 stalks celery, sliced into 3/4-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup Sicilian olives, diced
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon tiny capers, rinsed, dried
- 1 eight-ounce can tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large nonreactive pan, warm 2 tablespoons oil.
- Saute each vegetable separately, adding more oil as necessary.
- Remove each vegetable from the pan when golden; sprinkle with salt and papper.
- Combine the browned vegetables and their juices in the pan; add olives, capers, and pine nuts; stir.
- Add tomato sauce; stir; bring to a simmer.
- Add vinegar and sugar; stir.
- Simmer partially covered 25 to 30 minutes, stirring often.
- Serve at room temperature or chilled.