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.