A tribute to the nonnas (the grandmas) some of us knew — and to those we wish our children and their children could have known.
The nonnas a half-century ago in any metropolitan area: You see them in the fish market, in church, sitting on folding chairs at the curb on hot summer nights. They watch the world pass from their second-story window or toss coins from the window to their grandchildren for ice cream.
You recognize them with their determined stride, pocketbooks clutched firmly under their arms, stockings knotted at the knees in warm weather. In fall, a pristine front apron adds color to their unbuttoned black coats. In winter they wait for the price of a live Christmas tree to go down to fifty cents. You remember them dragging the tree up the neighborhood’s steep hill and the three flights of stairs to their tenement apartments.
You watch them selecting a fresh-killed chicken in the poultry market, haggling with the butcher, the fishmonger, even the vegetable man. They fail to believe the baker who tells them the bread came out of the oven a half hour ago, so they pinch the loaves with such force (to find out if they’re fresh) that crumbs scatter all around, forcing the baker to sell the loaves to them at a discount.
The nonnas create dishes—served at tables in tenement kitchens– with produce pulled from little city gardens, and from slatted wooden crates stacked outside vegetable stores, and with soup bones stewing to make a rich broth. They share a caustic sense of humor, an attitude of seeming nonchalance while working night and day, and a vibrant love for anything related to family, faith, and food.
It’s the little things they do, some funny, some moving that mark them indelibly and lovingly. For one, before sitting, nonnas pass their palm over the seat of a chair in a home they’re visiting. Then they brush their hands together to rid them of dust, real or imaginary. When visiting another nonna’s home, they do it when the hostess has her back to them.
The nonnas minor OCD is the result of their quest for clean and neat. They sometimes spend 20 minutes talking about the merits of bleach—Aqua Lina, bought at the grocery store, versus Javel Water, delivered to homes. For relaxation, they iron clothes they have dipped in boiled starch and dried. They micromanage each pleat into submission and no ruffle bears a crease.
They eat their lunch standing over the kitchen sink, even though there is a table and four empty chairs in the room.
They put affection and care into the booties they crochet for a new arrival, and in assembling a basket of food that could feed twelve for the new mother. They take pride in a cake they bake for a pastor’s anniversary celebration.
With a sigh, they dig into their bank, a sugar bowl, for a two-dollar bill to deliver in a Mass card to a nonna whose mother has died on the other side.
Coffee is their beverage of choice, no matter the time of day. It’s their morning pick-me-up, their afternoon cocktail, and their evening cordial with a drop of anisette. After dinner, they take a walk, a passegiatta, stopping at one nonna’s house for coffee. They recount the events of the day and throw a barb at an absent nonna who did something to displease them that afternoon. Perhaps, the offender failed to “use enough oil in frying her peppers.” But all the nonnas rally to her side the following morning when she needs help getting a grandson off to school.
They have managed to get their family through the Depression, keep their children safe from crippling polio, work in neighborhood sewing factories that materialize the way pop-up shops do today, and skillfully handle household funds — all without a GED.
Resourceful, they serve food on plates and saucers they got when local theaters featured Dish Night during the Depression. They took home a free soup bowl for the price of a movie ticket. As intent as they are on showing their individuality, they ignore the fact that every china closet on the avenue is filled with identical tureens, coffee cups, and platters, courtesy of Fred Astaire films.
They speak deferentially to the man of the house, “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” “Anything you say, sir.” Then do exactly as they please – all without advice from Betty Friedan. In the words of “She’s Always a Woman,” Billy Joel sings, “she’s ahead of her time . . . and she never gives in, she just changes her mind.”
Their feisty streak becomes most pronounced where their cooking is concerned. Despite the affection they have for their neighbors, cumari, sisters, sisters-in-law (even), caring for them when they’re sick, making sure their grandchildren cross the street safely, and helping them shop, they defend their dish to the death. It is unequivocally the absolute best—and worthy, in their opinions, of more superlatives. As a result recipe-sharing is not common. But if they must share a recipe, you surmise (rightly so) an ingredient or two is missing and adjust it a bit to avoid failure.
One of the few times nonnas provide a recipe intact is if the recipient is pregnant. No nonna can resist a chance to fulfill an expectant mother’s yen, or voglia — or as the nonnas call it a woollee.
The kitchen belongs to them exclusively, except for those minutes on Sunday mornings when the nonnos approach the pots of simmering gravy to dip in a crust of bread and find out if the sauce is “sweet,” or to sneak a just-fried meatball before it makes its way into the gravy.
Men are also welcome, invited in fact, to sit at the kitchen table when the holidays are approaching— Easter and Christmas. Then they are allowed, encouraged, and sometimes begged to enter. The men slice ends of soppressata, prosciutto (the cheapest cuts), and basket cheese for Pizza Rustica at Easter. They knead dough, form it into ropes, and slice it into pillowy struffoli at Christmas. Their work-hardened hands move gracefully at these chores.
Nonnas are not fond of having their daughters in the kitchen. The young women studied home ec in high school and learned how to cook “American,” bathing cauliflower and canned tuna in cream sauce. The nonnas’ answer to such dishes is: “Bah!” But they make a besciamella, a traditional cream sauce (the same as the one their daughters learned at school) to gloss vegetable lasagna, brimming with mushrooms, spinach, and Parmigiano. The money they spend on food is minimal; they buy the best produce, meat, and cheese, and wear down vendors to get the best price.
It’s their credo to never set foot inside a restaurant, Italian or otherwise. Their reasons: “not clean enough,” “the olive oil is spoiled,” and the clincher, they saw “the waiter blow his nose.”
They are locavores who are masters at gardening—city gardening. A windfall of zucchini embraces their basil, where blooming tomato plants protect its tender leaves. Tendrils of all three push up between ragged slabs of pavement in their tiny backyard gardens. If there are no backyard gardens, their tiny front lawns are home to tomatoes, basil, and yes, zucchini. Their favorite squash is a lime-colored, satiny skin cucuzza, at least a foot long. The length is most important—a point of pride. Nonnas whose gardens produce a cucuzza as tall as a four-year-old command the respect of the neighborhood.
They cross themselves when the church bells toll and when they pass a church; they have taught their children and grandchildren to do the same. They walk, always accompanied by at least one grandchild, on Sunday mornings (after church) to visit older relatives and friends who live nearby. On the way, nonnas tweak the ear of a misbehaving grandson to get him in line. (They gently tug his lobe to wish him congratulations on his saint’s feast day.) When the hosts greet them there is an exchange of cheek-pinching that leaves the grandchildren of guests and host eager to get away and play together.
Their devotion to the Church is second only to their devotion to their families. Scrub the sanctuary floor, wash, starch, and iron vestments, and [sigh] arrange flowers for the altar: This is their wonderful, magical Friday afternoon—better than a matinee. And they socialize—around the church—accompanying one another to novenas, Rosary Society meetings, confession, and more novenas. The nonnas also attend wedding ceremonies — they’re not invited but they believe as long as they’re in church for confession, they have a right to stay and see the bride. The wedding is part of their Saturday routine. They scrub the stairs, sear a steak, and show up at church to atone and exclaim, all before six pm.
Despite their devotion to the church, they indulge in their own “spiritual” activities. When a grandchild is sick, thoughtful nonnas show up at the bedside carrying a vial of chrisma, or holy oil. In Italian they mutter a Hail Mary or The Lord’s Prayer and make the sign of the cross on the patient’s forehead. Does this speed the recovery? Only a doctor knows for sure. And, although they don’t rely on her, they still hope to run into the neighborhood folk healer and discuss their grandchild’s illness.
On rare occasions, they use the mal’occhio, or evil eye, to wish ill on someone they either envy or dislike. They are convinced that if they accompany the gesture with a compliment about the target something evil is sure to follow. They know, of course, that a red ribbon or string wards off the evil eye. This is why nonnas make sure that a downy, white organdy-covered bassinette is home to a variety of red ribbons. This keeps a newborn safe from evil
Their spirituality borders on superstition in their interpretation of dreams. They believe (or say they do) that a dream of a happy occasion, say, a wedding, is sure to lead to someone dying or suffering a tragedy. This has yet to be proven despite their recitation each morning of the marvelous wedding reception they danced at in their sleep.
The nonnas try not to show their constant sorrow at leaving their parents, family, and fondest friends, but certain songs remind them they will” never forget their first love.” They sing il primo amore non si scorda mai. Such a song may cause them to shed a tear. They weep silently when they listen to songs extolling the virtues of mamma, especially at Christmas when they miss their mother most. And they weep openly when a letter arrives telling one of them “che non c’e piu mamma,” they no longer have a mother. Friends and relatives bring baskets of fruit, pots of chicken soup, and tins of biscotti. They have Masses said. And the nonnas determinedly make their heartache work for them, giving them the resolve to live for their families in America — with little mention of home and a tear to flow only in private.