I’m about to confess something that will shock the conscience of Italian families everywhere – I am the descendant of Italian immigrants and never cooked an ounce of Italian food until I was over thirty. There, I said it. For those who grew up in and around Italian neighborhoods, such a confession is hard to believe. When so much of Italian culture is based on culinary traditions and inspiration from childhood memories of cooking with family such an anomaly is unfathomable. I guess I was a late bloomer. But this is not about me. It’s about cooking with Gus – my Italian grandpa – Augusto Ricardo Ciriello.
My grandpa Gus was born in Venzone Italy on January 15, 1921 and like many immigrant families of his time moved to the U.S. for the promise of a bright future. He would return to Europe several years later as a soldier in Patton’s Third Army where he saw heavy fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. I believe it was this experience that instilled in him a profound sense of loss and perspective that he never lost because he worked hard, never complained and always maintained a sense of humor-even in the face of great challenges and adversity. Lucky for me, he passed through Texas on his way to the war in Europe because that is where he met my grandma. After the war, they settled in a small town in central Texas where I was later born.
Growing up a young girl of Italian descent in a small central Texas town could be an isolating experience because as strange as it sounds there were no other Italians around me outside of my immediate family. This is always a fact that is difficult for my east coast friends to wrap their minds around since they grew up in cities with vibrant Italian areas. As a young girl, the only Italian cooking I recall was a large pot of tomato sauce cooking for hours each weekend on grandpa’s stove. Grandpa would take off the top and stir the simmering mixture explaining to me the sauce cooked for so long to make it taste better and that it was how grandma (his mom) used to make it. When I was still very young Grandpa showed me how to twist my spaghetti around my fork because he said I needed to know how to eat my spaghetti right-like a real Italian! I twisted with great earnest trying to perfect his technique. We would sit side-by-side eating our spaghetti and sopping up the left over sauce with bread. In true Italian form, grandpa never wasted food. These are some of my most cherished childhood memories.
I was able to put this spaghetti twisting skill to good use when I traveled with my grandparents to Italy when I was a young teenager. I felt like I finally fit somewhere. I looked around and it was like looking in a mirror-people who looked like me. I had finally discovered the origin of my Roman nose. I walked around the streets of Milan with Grandpa Gus and Uncle Leno taking in the sights. Everyone and everything seemed so unique and beautiful-unlike anything I had seen before. I loved the energy and pace and was inspired by the architecture and history. The beautiful stores sold clothes that looked like works of art. I am pretty sure this is where my love of Italian designers was born! But the thing I remember most was the food fresh packed with flavors I had never tasted before-with homemade pasta that melted in my mouth. I secretly wondered if I could ever make anything that tasted that good. I made a pledge to myself at that moment that I would learn to cook food as delicious and inspiring as what I had in Italy. I returned to the states with a new identity but would not return to this pledge until many years later.
The personal promise faded as college, law school and 15 hour work days seven days a week took priority. Soon dinner meant a microwave or if I was feeling adventurous-a box of Kraft mac-and-cheese. As the years passed by, I became convinced I could not cook. This long hiatus came to an abrupt halt during a trip to the mall with my close friend Bethany. She detoured me from my mission to seek out a pair of Gucci flats into the Williams Sonoma where she was purchasing the latest in the Barefoot Contessa book. I guess she could see the intimidation on my face. She suggested I get a copy but I could not imagine it. Me trying to master the Barefoot Contessa was like trying to go from crawling to running.
She looked at me and grinned. Her words still resonate. “Of course you can cook silly. You’re Italian. It comes from the same place as your ability to dress great and pick out fabulous shoes. It’s in your genes!” She turned and headed for the counter to pay for her book. Her words triggered my memory. I remembered the pledge I made to myself as a young girl in Italy. In what was a stroke of divine intervention, I turned around and knocked over a display of vegetarian Italian cookbooks. It seemed the universe was sending me a message. And with that I picked up the glossy book and flipped through it. I was instantly brought back to my childhood and felt at ease. After all Bethany said it was in my genes.
I like mushrooms so I decided to start there. The yummy aroma of the baking mushrooms brought a homey feeling to my tiny studio apartment. After immediately downing half the pan of warm stuffed mushrooms I realized Bethany might be on to something. Maybe I could master this cooking thing after all. The next day I went back to the book and made risotto. I stirred patiently babying the rice with care. Finally the moment of truth… I tasted the creamy mushroom mixture and was shocked at the result. It was so good I could not believe I made it! I was shocked something so good came out of my kitchen. I was ecstatic. I called my grandpa immediately to share the great news. He was impressed and encouraged me to keep cooking.
One recipe turned into another and soon I had made every recipe in the book. On my weekly call with grandpa I would share my cooking progress. He was proud and soon began to share anecdotal advice and recipes handed down to him from his mom and grandmother. We would often chat while I stood at the stove trying a new recipe. Within months I was making sauce with fresh tomatoes and cooking regularly without recipes. My friends were shocked—except for Bethany of course. As the years went by I started to write down these tips and before I knew it had a box filled with recipes and tips passed down to grandpa from his ancestors. Since his cooking stories were always accompanied by family stories we became closer and I learned so much about my family I otherwise would never have known. I always looked forward to weekly chats with grandpa and loved hearing his stories about growing up as a boy in the “old country” as he called Italy. I had no idea how much these recipes and family stories would come to mean for me.
Grandpa Gus unexpectedly passed away. Instead of having a Sunday dinner that was planned with the neighbors we found ourselves planning his funeral. It was hard to believe he was gone since he was so full of energy and life until the end. Grief is a mysterious emotion. The things we remember and the things we miss cannot be explained. Many weekends I would still call him and realize that he was longer there to answer the phone and hear my new cooking adventures. After weeks of no appetite following his funeral, I finally got hungry for comfort food which meant it was time for risotto. As I pulled out my recipe box of family recipes and began to cook, I remembered his funny stories and felt less sad. I could almost hear grandpa telling me not to go so heavy on the garlic and that turned my sadness to smiles. Looking through the pile of paper in my box, I realized that I had compiled a family history that would live on past him and past me.
So much about cooking these days seems focused on precise recipes, presentation, and sophistication but it’s about so much more. Cooking and food is a way of connecting family and generations – a kind of living history. Every time I make Grandpa’s sauce I am connected to him and to those who passed the recipes down to him-ancestors from Venzone who I never met but whose legacy will always be passed down. It all started with a cookbook and a pan of stuffed mushrooms. That book still sits on my shelf – with many of its pages stuck together and stained. The box of family recipes sits next to – a living legacy of culinary adventure waiting to be shared with future generations.