August 5th, 2009
My birthday just passed. It’s not a big birthday—34—and I’m practically 7 months pregnant, so I wasn’t inspired to do anything other than hang with my family and have a nice meal. Despite my specific request for no special events, the ChowPapa went ahead and made plans. He said that, technically, it fell into the hanging with family and eating well categories, so he wasn’t going against my wishes. (Not to mention that the plans were made way before my no-special-events request.) Regardless, it all worked out because he planned a wonderful birthday experience worth the time and energy it took to gussy up this large and in-charge (see photo) pregnant body of mine.
The special event was Dinner with Lidia (Bastianich) and Nonna (her 84-year-old mother), part of a series of special events at one of her NYC restaurants, Becco. Becco’s chef, William Gallagher, prepared a six course menu featuring some of Lidia and her mother’s favorite summer dishes. Lidia and nonna feasted with us, walked around, chatted with whomever approached them, and signed books. They were sure to say hello to everyone in the place and were both so warm and hospitable that it barely seemed like I was sharing the party with (about) 75 other people.
Yup. 75 strangers. I’m not always down with dinner with random people. I have to be in a certain mood. This was my birthday dinner and I was a bit apprehensive about having to make small talk when all I really wanted was to feast and meet Lidia. But we were lucky to be seated with lovely folks. And, in fact, the best part of the night turned out to a be a beautiful conversation about grandmas and how they influenced our great love of food.
What is it about grandmothers? I often joke that I’m doing this food thing so that I can be a grandmother who hosts weekly Sunday meals that no one will miss. Yes, that’s actually a fantasy of mine. And (another embarrassing confession), we often watch Lidia on PBS with Isaac around and tell him that “grandma is on,” probably causing our ChowBaby a bit of confusion. But it just makes so much sense. Because food cooked by a grandma is food cooked with soul, passion, and experience. And that’s how Lidia cooks.
Michelle and I are always talking about how food is the perfect springboard for all kinds of learning. From math to the environment, from manners to history, the teachable moments are infinite. So the thing about grandmas (and grandpas too!) is that they make the connection between food, culture, and life experience concrete. Their food isn’t just a story about indigenous people, culture, or ingredients, but rather the story of someone we love and the family from which we come.
I have to admit, my grandmother actually kind of scared me. She was a very stern woman. But, when it came to food and mealtime, she was my loving, warm yiayia who I could count on to feed the entire family well. It didn’t matter how much money she had or how busy she was, the fridge was always full of healthy, natural ingredients and the table always (completely) covered in food made from scratch. Each and every dish taught me more about her, her life, and where she came from. As a result, each and every dish taught me more about me.
Sadly, my grandmother passed away when both she and I were too young. I never had the chance to get serious hands-on kitchen training. She left us a little notebook where she had jotted down “recipes” in Greek, but with loosely structured notes like a “teacup” of this and a “palmful” of that, it reads more like random reminders than recipes. We’ve tried recreating dishes straight from the notebook but, so far, it’s been a losing proposition. With the exception of a few dishes that I’ve throw together based on my memory of how they tasted. These are the dishes that I cook from deeply rooted memories, from love, from my soul. The same places from where yiayia cooked, so it’s no surprise that they come out well.
So cook tonight (or sometime soon!) in honor of your grandma. If you’re lucky enough to have your grandma around, invite her to dinner or, if she’s up to it, cook together. And whether she can join you for dinner or not, share stories about grandma with your children. Where she came from, a funny anecdote, or just how she helped shape who you are today. Then raise a glass: to all you grandmas, nonnas, yiayias, nanas and the rest—here’s to you!
(And, yiayia, don’t worry—we feed Isaac well, Greek food, too! We all love and miss you very much. Xoxo)