I hardly remember my Nonna outside the kitchen. It was like there was an electric fence, and that ever-present apron was her collar—only, it wasn’t confining. Like most Italian grandmothers, she knew the kitchen was the soul of the home.
Nonna passed away this past fall at the age of 95. I’ve struggled with her death. Italian women are resilient. When it seems like it’s time for the last rites, they swat it away, like hands trying to sneak a taste before the meal is ready.
I’m too selfish to survive only on memories. I wanted something tangible to keep her with me. I needed to cook a pot of her special Sunday sauce.
Our family gathered around her table—and not just for special occasions. She loved to cook and feed those she loved, whether it was a cup of tea and a piece of cake or a made-from-scratch multicourse meal.
“Sit. Talk. Eat,” she’d say, tapping on the table. Plates were never empty. She moved from one to the next with remarkable speed. And, of course, if you didn’t clean your plate, she took it as an insult. “You didn’t like it!” she’d lament.
I never got step-by-step instruction in how to cook. I simply watched Nonna. Italians never measure. They go by eyeballing ingredients and the weight of something in their palms. Once the process begins, they use smell and taste.
Nonna was farm-to-table before it was trendy—snipping pieces of basil, jarring tomatoes, and picking heads of lettuce from my grandfather’s garden. She spent hours at the store—faithful to Genuardi’s, then Wegmans—closely examining what she’d buy. It was never a Supermarket Sweep-style dash. It was about quality.
No matter how tender the veal or fresh the pasta, if the sauce is off, the meal is ruined. And, yes, I call it sauce. If someone called me a “fake Italian” for not referring to it as gravy, I’d challenge them to a duel, where we’d compete to see who could slice the garlic thinner.
Nonna handed down her backup sauce pot to me. The heavy-duty iron-and-blue-enamel vessel was a near-permanent fixture on her back burner. Still, she wanted me to establish my own culinary identity.
There’s so much that goes into an honest, home-cooked meal. It’s not just about being with family and friends. It’s an invitation for those who’ve passed on to join us. I can feel their presence. They can smell the garlic sautéing in olive oil and know they’re not forgotten.
Katie Bambi-Kohler regrets that she can’t share her recipe for sauce or meatballs—mostly because she doesn’t measure anything. Visit her website at www.katiekohler.com and follow @chzstkprincess on Twitter.