20 September 2013

Pizza Wood


My grandmother lived to cook and to feed people. I know this is true of so many such women of her generation, but I really do consider what she practiced in her kitchen to be art. The older I get, the truer it becomes to me. Her food was always simple and direct, but honest and balanced in a way that I find hard to describe. In the Summer, she kept things light, relying on all manner of fresh New England fish and the plethora of vegetables that my grandfather grew on his tiny patch of urban garden. As the weather cooled, things got more robust. Autumn was a time for packing and curing sausages, hanging them in strands from hooks on the ceiling of our enclosed back porch, occasionally curing an entire pig's leg into prosciutto for months on a hook in the basement. And then there was the polenta.

These days, any gourmand, or for that matter anyone who has cable or has heard of Mario Batali, knows what polenta is. In my youth, only Italians, and Northern ones at that, ate it, and only in the Fall and Winter.  Originally food for Roman soldiers to march on, the stuff is basically a dense cornmeal mush, not a high ticket gourmet side dish. Like so many things we now consider "gourmet", its beauty and essence originate with the poor people.

Nonna would make it sometimes for Sunday dinner after church. She had a stove and table set up in the cellar, separate from the kitchen in her apartment. She'd get a sauce cooking early in the morning, filled with her own homemade sausage and meatballs, and the tomatoes from Nonno's garden. It would sit on low simmer for hours. Then, down in the basement, the two of them would make the polenta together. In a huge pot of boiling water, she would add the cornmeal a handful at a time, letting the grains slip through her loose fist. He would stir constantly, with a big wooden pole. When it was ready, they would take the pot together and dump it onto an old wooden board, about three feet by two feet. The polenta would run and spread, but cool quickly before it ever ran over the edge, forming one giant piece of dense yet fluffy Italian cornbread. 

My brother and I would be called to the cellar to carry it up. It was too heavy for them to do it in their old age.  We would carry the board to the table and set it down, and she would spread the sauce over it, complete with meat and sausage, and then grate pecorino cheese over the whole thing. We'd all sit around it, six of us: Nonna and Nonno, my mother and father, my brother and I, each with a fork in hand, and proceed to eat from that one large piece. The grown-ups would wash it all down with plenty of Carlo Rossi Burgundy, while the kids would get Fresca, with just a whiff of wine. The we'd cut the leftover into squares and eat that for two or three days to follow.

These days I live in the apartment where they lived, cook in her kitchen, and am fortunate enough to use some of her things. Chief among them is the cast iron pan I simply couldn't do without, but the most soulful of her things that I have is the wooden board we used to serve the polenta. I use it when I make homemade pizza, and we all eat from it, no plates, just like the old days. My kids call it the "pizza wood".

If this all comes off as a whiff maudlin, please accept my apology. I just got tired of talking AAW business with you all, and I couldn't come up with anything fresh to say about oxford shirts, navy blazers, penny loafers, striped ties, Brooks Brothers, thrift shops, or jazz.




25 comments:

LarryB said...

Memories are a powerful thing. Thanks for sharing this. It made me think of my own childhood in my half-Italian, half-Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, with it's fig trees wrapped in insulation for the winter and omnipresent (and excellent) bagel shops. And of the peaches in cheap burgundy that we put up every summer to eat in the winter and spring.

Unknown said...

My wife and I have been in Italy this week, enjoying that same kind of simple, authentic food. I am glad to hear such a wonderful story about your family. It makes me miss my parents and grandparents.

Anonymous said...

Not maudlin at all; a lovely memory. While I appreciate all of your clothing posts, I also enjoy greatly posts like this one. Keep up the good work!

Jack said...

I'll be honest (and also admit right from the start that maybe "It's not you, it's me")--- at times, I get a rather smug and all-knowing vibe from some of your clothing /thrifting posts. Not so today. What I get from this post is an authentic and heartfelt love for your heritage and your family-past and present-and a sincere desire to keep that heritage alive and well. I think this is you best post ever.

Anonymous said...

What an unexpected but lovely and touching post!

Anonymous said...

Yup...Liked the post...made me think of my Italian in-laws in Erie, PA and their love of food, family, and the two together. Thanks for sharing.

NCJack said...

Sounds a lot like grits and ham gravy, a southern US staple, but I think Nonna's sauce is a few lengths ahead.

Anonymous said...

This was beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post. I too and from the Boston area (North Shore). My maternal grandparents were from Sicily. I have great memories of Nonna hanging the home made pasta and sausage on the wooded clothes rack in the kitchen. Her home made soup with the tiny meat balls, macaroni (not pasta) and beans, a case of Moxie in the hallway. All wonderful memories. Thanks.

Ian said...

Not maudlin at all and it fact a very touching post.

Thinking about it all ties in with the approach of the blog - the love of old used things which have a definite purpose and are imbued with the history of the people who used them and the people (like us) who pick them up and continue to get use out of them. This applies even if they're just a hunk of old wood used in the kitchen.

I suppose the difference with this one is that you know the provenance of this old thing and its history is your history, rather than the unknown story behind old guys jacket.

Scale Worm said...

Very heartfelt and true post.
Items of the past connected to those we love are the best.
Thank you

Anonymous said...

Best post yet!

Anonymous said...

I am curious about your origin story with regard to polenta. Considering that corn was a New World crop, and therefore unavailable in Europe until at least the early 16th century, was the polenta used by Roman soldiers made from a different grain? And if so, do you have any idea what that grain (or grains) might have been?

Mason said...

What a thing it would be, to learn cooking from family such as that.

Northmoon said...

Beautiful post, you are very lucky to have this direct connection to memories of your grandparents.

Jho78 said...

Sauce recipe?

Anonymous said...

Lovely way to start the week! Such posts are why this old clothes lovin' grandson of a Greek seamstress from the other Commonwealth (VA) remains a fan.

Butt-Head said...

You said "wood."

Huh-huh, huh-huh-huh.

Felix Castaneda said...

I once dated an older woman who was Italian. She invited me to her birthday dinner and it was a lovely meal. Part of the main course was polenta, or as her father called it, Italian concrete. It was delicious! We all passed around the platters around the table. Just an amazing meal with a beautiful Italian family.

Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke said...

Agreed, a lovely post and memory I too have a few things hat were part of my maternal grandparents' kitchen and dining room. There continued daily use keeps my grandparents fresh in my mind.

Best Regards,

Heinz-Ulrich von B.

Anonymous said...

Va bene, Joe! Thanks for the heartfelt post -- raising a glass in your honour here in Australia.

Phil said...

Wonderful! I am slobbering at the mouth and unfortunately the only part of that story I can get my hands on is the Fresca. Darned diet.

Chris said...

This is one of my favorite posts you've made in a long time...it reminds me of what my grandfather has told me about his parents. His dad made wine in the cellar, and would go down periodically to "check the furnace" and come up with red stains on his shirt. He butchered a pig every year, and they used everything but the oink. My great-grandmother made homemade ravoli in huge amounts on the dining room table, and her own tomato paste by leaving it out in the sun. Sure wish I knew how. Thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

Lovely story.

Anonymous asked: "was the polenta used by Roman soldiers made from a different grain? And if so, do you have any idea what that grain (or grains) might have been?"

An answer is at http://www.sostanza.com.au/polenta_history_6.html

Anonymous said...

don't apologize!!! Wonderful post. While my old fashioned food is not Italian, we can all relate.