Top | First Person
(article, Suzanne Cope)
When my Nani died, she left a freezer full of lasagne and manicotti for my Papa. Each pan was wrapped in foil and then in plastic wrap; between these layers were reheating instructions written on squares of colored paper, most likely snipped from the envelopes of the get-well cards she had been receiving daily.
Of all the things she did not want — to miss seeing her grandchildren grow up, to leave her family, to die — the one thing Nani seemed to spend the most time preparing for was ensuring that her husband of more than 50 years did not go hungry.
Our family did not go hungry. When Nani was young, her father walked miles to and from work as a bridge builder on the outskirts of town, often leaving and returning in the dark. Yet even during the Great Depression, her family never went hungry.
Great-Nanu Galofaro took great pride in the fact that his family always had ample food on the table and meat for Sunday dinner. Two generations later, pride came not from whether there was money for food — the family had finally become members of the middle class — but rather from who was there to cook it. It then became Nani who made certain that no one would starve.
[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Lasagne left for a loved one."]
But was it not, of course, about more than food? It was not simply that everyone’s belly would be full three times a day, but rather what it was filled with.
The meals I remembered most from my childhood consisted of sweet and savory green-flecked tomato sauce, bubbling pans of cheesy lasagna, rich pot roast falling apart strand by strand, fried patties of a strange weed that was picked from the side of the road called “burdock.”
Nani was not filling us with mere nourishment — in fact, one could question exactly how nourishing her made-from-scratch peanut-butter pie was — but she was filling us with her: the smell of her kitchen, the memory of those countless Sunday dinners spent yelling and laughing around the dining-room table with our extended family, the taste of her baked ziti.
In the last months of her life, when she prepared dish after Italian dish of hearty meals for her soon-to-be widower husband, she was saying “Remember me” with every bite. And also, “I love you.”
I left for a long weekend recently, and after I packed my carry-on and tidied up the clothes strewn around my side of the bedroom, I prepared a quick pan of lasagne for my husband and wrote a note with cooking directions. He is a decent cook, and had, in fact, cooked for himself for many years before he met me. Yet I have taken on the role of our cook.
I had the rare opportunity, since we merged households, to be home most afternoons, and had thus taken on cooking Nani’s classic Italian dishes — soups with vegetables from our garden, as well as stews and roasts. I loved that he could smell his dinner from the foyer in front of the downstairs neighbor’s apartment. I take pride in creating delicious and healthy dinners on our adjunct-professor-and-working-musician budget. Even more, I savored the hour or so we would spend talking about our day as we ate.
While I could not package our nightly conversation when I would be away, I felt that I could at least prepare the food to be eaten.
“I do know how to cook, you know,” he said, with a hint of annoyance. “I did actually eat before I met you.”
Yes, I did know. But he did not eat my food. He had yet to rave about my sauce or my pot roast. Maybe part of me did not want him to forget my list of delicious attributes while I was gone. Or maybe I wanted to remind my husband how much I loved him at every meal.
Perhaps this is why Nani worked over a hot stove until she could no longer stand, exhausted from the chemotherapy and the cancer’s war against her strength. To stop cooking would be to stop loving, and along with that would come the irrational fear that someone would forget to return that love.
I see now that both of us, in our own ways, meant the same things as we painstakingly wrote down the oven temperature and cooking times for our beloveds: “Don’t forget me. Don’t forget that I love you. And eat! Eat!”
p(bio). Suzanne Cope teaches writing at Berklee College of Music and Grub Street. She has contributed essays and articles to publications including Edible Boston, Edible Cape Cod, and New Plains Review. Her memoir, Locavore in the City, will be published in 2012.