My Nonna immigrated to Canada in 1959, with her husband and two daughters (the youngest of which is my mother). What she lacked in material possessions, she made up for with a strong work ethic, a fierce love of her family and an arsenal of dishes, recipes and kitchen skills that I have spent my entire adult life striving to replicate.
When Nonna wasn't working—at her factory job, in her garden, at her sewing machine—she was cooking. And even when she wasn't at the stove, she was always thinking about food: what tomato plant was ready for harvest, which neighbour's basement-cured salami would be ready for pickup, how much canned tomato sauce was left in her stone-floored cantina, when would we be arriving for dinner, because she'd need to start cooking a couple hours in advance. She had a deep-freeze always packed to the bring with stocks, stews and sauces, and even the shed in the backyard—full of seeds and bulbs for next season—played a part in her never-ending kitchen production. She was frugal, diligent, wasted nothing and considered everything. And she never rushed.
Some of Nonna's recipes exist as actual recipes, but in the kitchen, she was guided by instinct. Wherever language failed her, her cooking—a 24-7, 365 labour of love—did the talking. Nonna's food united my family around the table, and it drew a straight line from our family in Guelph to her heritage in Italy. And, of course, it was damn good.
Nonna is in her mid-80s now, and lives in a retirement community. She hasn't cooked in a while. But her two daughters, and their children—my sister and I, and my two cousins—still cook Nonna's food, whether we know it (when we follow a recipe) or not (when we throw in about half a cup more butter than is strictly necessary). I have inherited one of Nonna's old wooden spoons, it's edge worn down at an angle from stirring, I assume, risotto (more often than not made with radicchio from the garden). Whenever I doubt my own cooking, I grab that spoon. It might not actually help, but it makes me feel like she's here, suggesting—as she almost certainly would—that it just needs a bit more time.
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