Given the fickle nature of our memories (like how my wife can remember how I forgot to call her 12yrs ago when I said I would but can’t seem to remember if she turned off the coffee pot 2 minutes after turning off the coffee pot), its not so surprising what can trigger a memory to flicker to life in our minds. Growing up in an Italian family, it should come as no shock that food could be one of those triggers.
My family lives by three main rules. Hugging and kissing anyone and everyone within arms’ reach, trying to talk louder than your great aunt who has been deaf since the Reagan administration and is sitting right next to you, and eating.
Meatballs, parmesan’d anything, peppers and oil, Italian chicken, lasagna, the list goes on and on (I won’t even mention the desserts). And maybe more than the food itself, the smell of the food can be like a high speed train, transporting you back to a time and place you hold dear. I rode that aroma train the other weekend.
My wife and her best friend were going to be getting a lesson on how to make homemade sauce and meatballs from my mother in law. Like Padewans learning from their Jedi Master the ways of the Force, these two ladies would be learning from a true master of cooking. My mother in law is not Italian, but just like the Corleone’s made Tom Hagen family, my mother in law has proven time and again to not only be Italian at heart (she’d hug and kiss a tree ‘hello’ if we invited one over for dinner) but to be Italian in the kitchen as well.
So the girls worked on their Italian feasts (I sat in the living room with 911 ready on speed dial just in case).
Suddenly, I began to smell something. Something I had not remembered smelling in a very long time. The aroma filled the house. I could not have escaped it if I wanted to (and I didn’t). That smell of homemade meatballs and slowly cooking sauce unlocked the door to my memories. I was with my Grandmom again.
I could “see” her standing in front of her stove. Every burner accounted for with a pot or pan. Her kitchen table looked like the Pillsbury Dough boy blew up on it. Flour, rolled pasta dough, and cut linguini stands were everywhere. The sizzle of meatballs, the bubbling of boiling sauce rang in my ears. Grandmom was wearing green slippers, red slacks and a white shirt that was peppered with both new and old sauce stains (she was cooking, not walking down a runway). The former opera singer in her would always come to the surface as she cooked. She was singing, cooking, and waiting for someone to come and eat.
And the smell. The smell of all of her food cooking at once was there. That same smell that now hung in my living room.
Grandmom would always acknowledge you when you walked in the room and then quickly turn back to her food (not before she asked if you were hungry…and you had better been hungry). If you walked up behind her and gave her a hug and kissed her on the cheek, you were sure to be the recipient of the first fully cooked meatball on the end of a fork. Then you would sit at the table and push the flour into tiny mounds with your fingers while she kept on stirring, taste testing, and offering you another meatball. We would talk. We would laugh at the sight of her shirt. She would burn her arm reaching across the stove no less than four times and let out a curse. We would tell her to be careful; she would tell us she was fine and urge us to finish the meatball. Besides her family, I think my Grandmother’s other real love was feeding her family.
I have missed that smell. I have missed that time and I have missed my Grandmom singing in front of her stove, stained with sauce, waiting for a hug and a kiss in exchange for a meatball. That afternoon, the smells coming from my kitchen got me back to my Grandmom’s kitchen. That afternoon, as my wife and her friend cooked, I gave my wife a hug and a kiss on her cheek. I wanted to say ‘good job’ but I also wanted to say ‘thank you’ for my Grandmom again. And she said ‘Your Welcome’ the best way I could have hoped for…by handing me the first fully cooked meatball on the end of a fork.