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  • Writer's pictureMary Lawrence

My Italian grandmother's kitchen

My grandmother's kitchen was always a busy place, like a takeout restaurant with the most popular review on Yelp. It was a tiny square space with doorways on two sides and an exit to the back porch on the third, and a gas stove tucked into the corner by a closet like an afterthought. There were always people coming and going in one doorway, grabbing a plate of food, and out the other doorway to the dining room where we all gathered. This is one of my earliest food memories, and it stays with me to this day.

Traditional Sunday dinners consisted of Italian favorites like spaghetti and meatballs, and for holidays ravioli, cavatelli, or lasagna. My grandmother would take out the special wooden cutting board that my grandfather made on his tool bench, and when she did this we knew it meant we would be in for homemade pasta. She would form the dough on this board by dumping out a big mound of white flour, dig out a little hole in the center, then crack a couple of eggs and plop them in like a foamy yellow swimming pool. With her bare hands she would swish those eggs together and collapse the sides of the flour pool until everything came together into a sticky gooey mess. Eventually, with enough rolling and kneading, a puffy ball of dough would form. As a little kid I'd watch this process with awe, and was always thrilled when she'd cut off pieces of dough small enough for my hands to roll. I'd form them into little balls that would later become cavatelli with the flick of a fork. Or sometimes they'd become animals or snowmen or just balls to roll around. While my hands were equipped more for play, she'd be working her magic creating long strips of dough which she'd fill with ricotta and fresh herbs. I remember most the yeasty aroma, permeating the warm kitchen, with its intoxicating hint of what was to come.

Then she'd make fresh marinara with tomatoes from my grandfather's garden that had been canned the previous summer. Into the pot they would go, and she'd reach right in to squish them to bits. There was no food processor in her kitchen; her hands were her tools. Everything would be loaded with a generous dusting of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. At Easter time, that pastry board would transform into a place for making holiday cookies like crustelles and macaroons. The Italian ladies would gather around the table in the center of the room, each with a recipe forming her own batch of cookies, and by the end of the afternoon we'd have a pile of them to divvy out. Oh that heavenly scent of dough meeting heated oil and powdered sugar!

These were our family traditions all centered around food, and I think of them often as the holidays approach. Food and family -- the two are inseparable. Even though my grandmother is no longer alive, I feel her with us in spirit when we come together during the holidays to share these traditional meals. This year I'll be making lasagna with sausage and peppers (all vegan, of course!), and serving everything on top of the cherished cutting board which now graces my kitchen.

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