Growing up in a two-country, two-culture household is not easy but never dull. Our refrigerator held Velveeta cheese along with some cheeses so smelly that they had to be double-bagged. We had sandwiches made of Wonder Bread, but pulled pieces off the large Italian loaf sitting on the kitchen counter to dip into whatever sauces my mom had on the stove. Crisco was always in the cupboard but we also had olive oil imported from Italy (there was no other option in those days) that came in a one-gallon metal container. One unexpected benefit of this life came from having two grandmothers – both very different and yet alike on the really important things. Grandma Stahl – my mother’s mother – was amazing. Her parents had come over from Germany and she used to live in Manhattan. Their brownstone was located where the Chrysler building is now. (We know this because the address is the same.) She was a slapdash cook – sometimes her food was great and other times… not so much. Once she mixed three kinds of pickles into one jar – dill, bread & butter, and sweet, and didn’t understand why that was a problem. They lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse with a “gentleman’s farm” which meant a little bit of everything – fields of vegetables and a fruit orchard, so we ate fresh produce all summer, and home-canned all winter. I never realized that the rest of the world didn’t eat homemade applesauce with dinner and homemade jelly every morning on their toast – pulling off the layer of paraffin when opening a new jar. Her jelly was the best I’ve ever eaten. Ever. Nonna Muto – my father’s mother – was amazing. They all lived in a home close to Boston and my Nonna’s tomato sauce – made with tomatoes, basil, onions, oregano and parsley grown in her garden tucked behind the garage – had to be tasted to be believed. When she knew we were coming into town she started a cooking frenzy. Pizza, pasta, pies, special Italian cookies waited for our arrival. Nonna didn’t speak any English so the first Italian word I learned on my own was “basta,” enough. Her pizza had a thick crust like good Italian bread but made with plenty of olive oil. She would cut garlic cloves into tiny slivers and slit the raw dough to tuck them in so it flavored everything. She never used a recipe. She didn’t need to. Everything came out perfectly, and perfectly wonderful. If you didn’t leave her table literally groaning in pain, there was something wrong with you.
My Grandma Stahl taught me how to sew and embroider. I still have my first embroidery project somewhere – an extra-large four-petal flower with maybe a total of 20 stitches. I sat down at my first sewing machine in her kitchen and we were allowed to play in her scrap basket and her button box. My sisters didn’t have much interest in sewing and my mother was an indifferent seamstress at best, so Grandma was thrilled to pass along her skills to me. Sewing and embroidery, hooking rugs, all of these and more my grandmother learned to create beauty in her home despite limited funds. That’s her heritage to me and I still love to sew, and make something beautiful out of nothing.
My Nonna Muto loved to spend time in her garden, and she would recruit me to help whenever I came to visit. When she was in her seventies I remember helping her tie up tomato plants with pieces of pantyhose and separating and transplanting hundreds of tiny basil plants from the bathtub-planter at the side of her garden to the rows that gave them enough space to grow. The woman used a lot of basil. And even though she had 50+ years on me I soon realized that I simply couldn’t keep up with her. She was so physically strong. My heritage from her was a true appreciation of how a kitchen garden can convert your cooking from the plebeian to pure magic. I still love to garden and use the freshest bounty of the earth in my meals.
Grandma’s parents were both doctors, and she ended up keeping house for her brothers and sisters. Her mother had invested any extra money in education and private art and music lessons for the two oldest children, who both died of Tuberculosis in their teens. When my mother and uncle were young, my grandma did laundry for her brothers and mother for the dollar a week it cost for her two children to get piano lessons. She could make $20 last longer than anyone else. It was the depression and she had to. But both her children graduated from college and did well in life. She had a lot to be proud of, my grandmother did.
Nonna grew up on a farm in Southern Italy and her father took her out of school in the second grade because he didn’t want her to be able to read and write well enough to exchange notes with boys. When she moved to the United States, my grandfather wouldn’t let her take English lessons because he didn’t want her wasting time chatting with other women in the neighborhood when there was work to be done. During World War II when my grandfather was in the United States and cut off from the family, she survived by running the family winery and olive oil orchards. Two of her sons went to college and became doctors and one took over the family business in the states. One daughter joined a convent and became a mother superior, the other married and took care of her mother until her death at 96. She had a lot to be proud of, my Nonna did.
They’re both gone now, but the stories still run through my head. Like the letters my grandma wrote me when I was in college, enclosing five dollars and telling me not to spend it all in one place. Or the times my Nonna would buy the overripe bargain bananas at the grocery store to bury in her garden and Nonno would wonder how she ate so many bananas so fast.
Two grandmothers, both bright lights in my childhood, both handing me a rich heritage I would never have gotten any other way. I loved them both so and they loved me. How lucky I was to have them, and how lucky I am now to remember them. The world will not see their like again.