I like to eat. Because I like to eat, I like to cook, especially for friends I like to eat with. That’s what this blog is about: what I like to cook for people I like to eat with. In this I am my mother’s son, who says, “I like to feed people.” She’s Italian.
My friends like to call me a gourmet, but I’m not a gourmet. I’m a home cook, and a bigoted one: I only cook the food of my people, because I think the food of my people is better than the food of any other people. By my people I really mean my mother’s people, from a mountain town in Campania east of the city of Salerno, called Sacco– my mother is a "Saccatara".
What my friends love about her cooking is that it’s so tasty. Like her native land, it’s also golden, glistening, and rosy. It has the lively sound of their chatter (no lethargic simmers, no violent searing). It’s highly aromatic—the aromas waft out the window and tease the passers-by, Italian and Gentile alike. It makes you eat too much. It makes you want to forgive your enemies and your family. It makes you friends.
My mother and my father were part of a late immigration of Italians to Brooklyn in the 1950’s. They came from parts of an impoverished post-War Italy where their life more resembled the 19th century than the 20th. When these fugitives of post-War poverty crossed the Atlantic, they crossed centuries. The cuisine they brought with them was the distillation of generations of local tradition, and they were keen to preserve the integrity of their native cuisine in this foreign land in a way that the Italians they left behind were not. Those Italians modernized.
My mother did not.
BUT, she did mingle with other immigrants, and all these émigrés of South Italy to South Brooklyn synthesized their inherited cuisines with one another and with the abundant fruits of American prosperity. In a new world they cultivated an ancient cuisine. Out of American soil they raised up an Italian cuisine not to be found in new Italy. This all happened in Brooklyn, in my mother’s kitchen, among others.
She learned old dishes from new friends by eating their food with them at their tables. Then at home "la Saccatara" gave her own turn to each dish "all'improviso", as seemed right to her in the moment. I'm the one who, after the fact, interrogates ("I'm not one of your students," she bristles), verifies by experiment, and then writes it all down. You need me to tell you how my mother cooks, or rather, used to cook, before she moved to Jersey and forgot how she used to cook it when she cooked it right!
(I call her "Americanizata").
When my friends call me a gourmet, I retort, “No, I’m not a gourmet; I’m a slavish imitator of my mother’s peasant cooking.” That retort is a bit hyperbolized, in that, if it’s true I’m an imitator, it’s perhaps not as true that I’m a slavish one; and if it’s true that my mother’s cooking is Italian, it’s not quite true that it’s peasant cooking (both my grandfathers were merchants, in fact, albeit impoverished ones).
The hyperbole is just my way of resisting gentile gentrification of my people’s cooking. My mother cooked her food for her blue-collar family. That we ate better on most weekdays of my childhood than we well-to-do professionals do today at our weekend dinner-parties is one of the ironies of social history. It takes a 'Saccatara' all day to make the food she makes for her family. My parents did not eat to work, but worked to eat, together with us, at table, every night.
My mother’s food tastes so good because it’s so simple. That probably sounds attractive to you, gentle Reader, but it may yet prove your vexation. Since the ingredients are very few, they must be very good and very fresh, or the food falls flat. Since the combinations are simple, proportion and balance are decisive, or the food falls flat. Too little salt, or too much garlic, or sauté the onions too little, or cook the fish too long, the meat not long enough, and the food falls flat.
Tasty food takes time and tender loving care. That fantasy you have of tossing a splash of wine into a crackling pan with one hand while sporting a cocktail in the other, gossiping all the while with your friend on the kitchen stool, is deluded. You must reverently attend upon what you are cooking, as the grace of the moment. Art is but half of what you need; 'sive Deus sive natura' must vouchsafe the rest. Be attentive to the grace of the present moment. Be a humble steward before the food before you. Be suppliant before nature. Don’t gab while you cook.
The reason you need me to learn to cook the way my mother does is that my mother can’t explain herself. Trust me on this. You try to cook it the way she says she does; it comes out disastrously; you call her up, and she says, “Well, didn't you add water?” – No, you didn’t say to add water. – “'Ma, non e logico, bella mamma?' Do I have to tell you everything?” – YES!!! You have to tell me EVERYTHING!!! –“You don’t cook; you play house.”
You see how sweet my little Italian mother is not, when she wants not to be? And so, as did Aaron with Moses for the Israelites, I'm going to interpret my mother for you. And for good measure, I’m going to throw in all my own opinions about eating as a human being should want to.
Knowing my family history is good for you, gentle Reader, because when you get annoyed with me, as you surely will, and work yourself up into a contrarian mood about my blog, you can take her side against me. This way we keep it all in the family. That’s how my family likes it.
A Postscript Contra gentiles
I now and again receive queries I take to be complaints about my use of the word Gentile. One reader, for example, posted this comment: "Not to begrudge what must be a deeply held familial tradition in word choice, but “Gentile” refers not to non-Catholic, but to non-Jew."
That comment amuses me, so let me make hay of it.
First of all, it’s not a family tradition, but a joke, and a sufficiently learned one that most of my family wouldn’t get it either. As for my family, their custom is the usual one of naming other peoples by their given names rather than by a single name meaning Not-Us. As for the learned joke, insofar as it is funny, it may well cease to be so once I explain it, but here goes anyway.
As a joke on my avowed chauvinism, I variously use Gentile (as proper noun, or else gentile as adjective) to refer to anyone outside my mother’s family (including my father); or else any Italians outside Brooklyn (including Queens, the Bronx, and certainly Long Island); or else any Italians outside New York (including Italian Italians); or else any Europeans who are not Italian, but most of all Europeans north of the Alps—and by extension their North American progeny, especially in this land of my exile, by which I mean the Mid-Atlantic city I now live in, in exile from Brooklyn; and most generically I mean white people, where white is a color of soul, not skin (which means you can have a pale soul even if you have olive skin, and an olive soul even if you have pale skin, even though clearly it's best to have olive skin and an olive soul).
Now, in its defense, my usage does have the warrant of birthright. With all due respect to Jewish anglophonics, the word is not Hebrew, Aramaic, or Yiddish, but Latin, a common Latin word used by my Roman forebears long before Jews merited their notice. The Latin term has the generic meaning of foreigner, and this is the meaning it retains in St. Thomas Aquinas’s 13th century missionary handbook of apologetical theology, Summa contra gentiles, where the Gentiles meant are Jewish and Muslim critics of Christian beliefs.
But my ancient Roman forebears had also used the word more specifically to name the foreigners north of the Alps, the conquered tribes that in a later reflux invasion poured back over those Alps into the Italian peninsula to conquer their conquerors. Those poor Northern Italians absorbed the brunt of that Frankish invasion, and so ended up the Samaritans of the North, so to speak, as Sicilians are of the South, as ancient Greco Roman civilization retreated to the relative purity of middle South Italy, the homeland of my mother's people, and thence to middle South Brooklyn.
But at the heyday of the Roman Empire, the Latin word "gentile" was used to translate Testaments both Hebrew and Greek into Latin, the emergent lingua franca of Western civilization. In the apostolic Church, the name is used to distinguish Greek converts from Jewish ones, especially by Paul, who is dubbed the Apostle to the Gentiles when, after a dramatic fall from a horse, he converts from the zealotry of his Pharisaic Judaism to the zealotry of his charismatic Christianity, and sets out as a missionary to preach it to Gentiles from Jerusalem to Rome.
It is an amusing conceit of the Blog that I am a culinary Paul on mission to convert Gentiles from the profane ways of eating passed down to them by their people, to eating the way a human being should want to—the way of my people, mostly my mother’s people.
IN SUM, as this blog presents itself as a protracted profession of culinary chauvinism, in that spirit I make use of the term Gentile not only as a term of contradistinction, but also of reproof, yet charitably, for your good, gentle Reader, for is it not written that if the just man strike or reprove me, it is a kindness?