Most of the nonnas sew piecework in a factory five days a week  to earn a living; they sew  for their family at home in the evenings and on weekends to relax. Once they lay out the pattern and pin it to the fabric, they are convinced that the work is practically finished. It does not matter that they have not sewn a stitch. The most challenging parts of the operation–purchasing the pattern and selecting the fabric, or “material” as they call it, are tasks they liken to pushing a large boulder up a mountain. When they are satisfied with their purchases, they have won the battle.

 On this cold evening, the battle is beginning.  The nonnas are in the dry goods store to pick out patterns, compare cottons and corduroys,  match thread to fabric, and search for contrasting rickrack. Each is  leafing  through a pattern book selecting a pattern for a dress for a granddaughter. They are being extra-courteous to one another, since they have already had a  tiny tiff over who would get the pattern for the dress with the Peter Pan collar. The dispute resolved itself when there was only one  pattern left in the size they each needed. But emotions are still simmering as they make their way down the narrow aisles filled with bolts of fabric.

Each nonna must be wary. The bolt she is  pulling by its end from the table may be seized at its other end by another nonna. Whoever eyed it first should have first dibs, but nonnas believe that they simply must have whatever appeals to another.  A mild tug of war takes place until one spies a better-looking bolt — swiftly leaving the nonna at the other end struggling to hold onto the bolt that has begun to waver like a strand of overcooked spaghetti.

The owner of the store remains unruffled as he follows the nonnas around, rolling up the lengths of fabric they have unrolled to measure the yardage. Their measuring stick?  The distance between the nose and the fingertips at the end of an extended arm. The technique gives  them an almost  harem-dancer look as they cover their mouths with the fabric.

For the nonnas, buying fabric by the yard is only okay. What they really seek are remnants — end of  bolt pieces — that they can claim for a dollar or less. The owner is aware of their scheme as he hurriedly makes his way to place those remnants with the most yardage  at  the bottom of the pile, leaving the nonnas to dangle skimpy quarter-yard pieces in their hands. All the while they curse their stars that they are unable to find any two-yard or three-yard pieces. Gloom turns to triumph when one of them notices a thick edge of  folded fabric sticking out of the bottom of a pile.  Discovering gold in their own backyards would not be as gratifying as ferreting out a remnant of printed percale.

Each carries a bolt or a remnant as she makes her way to the cutting table. Now the craftiness of these crafters comes into play. “The edge is crooked there,”  a nonna says to the young girl measuring. “So you have to allow for that. Maybe add on another, say, eighth of a yard –free — please.”

The owner seeing the sales assistant’s baffled look says to her,”I’ll take care of these lovely ladies myself.” Although he isn’t Italian, he  repeatedly “signoras” the nonnas until they melt. He has bested them without giving away even an extra  half-inch of fabric.

When they leave the store and are walking up the hill, they quibble a bit over whose house  they are going to for coffee. “I made Regina cookies this afternoon,” one says.

The rest start talking all together, all at once. “Yes, okay.” another says. “That’s fine. Not too much trouble if we come over?”

“No, we can look at the patterns– you know, the one with the Peter Pan collar — while I’m making coffee,”  she says, needling her nemesis.

Regina Cookies

Makes 20

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten well, 1 tablespoon set aside
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon  pure almond extract
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1 cup sesame seeds
  1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Mix flour, salt, and baking powder; set aside.
  3. Combine the 1 tablespoon beaten egg with the milk; set aside.
  4. Cream butter, sugar, and extracts together.
  5. Add remaining egg; combine well.
  6. Add flour mixture; beat well.
  7. Divide dough; roll between palms into into 4 logs.
  8. Cut each log into five 3-inch pieces.
  9. Brush each piece all over with combined egg and milk mixture.
  10. Roll each in sesame seeds.
  11. Place cookies on parchment-lined baking sheet.
  12. Bake 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
  13. Place cookies on wire rack  to cool.
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