Almost every shirt I owned as a child had a stain in the center of the chest – from the food that dropped from my mouth as I ate. Now that I’m a mom, I realize that it is not unusual for a kid to miss her mouth from time to time. Why I was singled out is completely beyond me. So are you thinking what I’m thinking at this point? Can we say an obvious start to food self-consciousness? Yeah, me too. I’m not sure when exactly I started worrying about eating in front of others. I’m not sure when I started feeling like a clod with no manners, awkward and unrefined, but a niggling in my head is telling me that perhaps “Super Slob” has something to do with it. That and the fact that dinner provided my brothers with an easy target on which to practice their rapier wits and cunning barbs.
You see, dinnertime was the one time that my family sat down in the same room together. Every day. At 5 pm. Sometimes, this would be the first that my brothers would see of me, depending on when we all got home from school or playing at a friend’s house (or later on, work.) I don’t really remember how the conversations at dinner would begin. I do recall feeling on edge, more often than not. On many occasions, my brothers would tease me, often relentlessly about one thing or another. I know that I either was naturally or very rapidly turned into a fast eater – inhale the meal and be excused from the table as quickly as possible. Escape to the relative safety of my room. That was my goal. Maybe that’s why food fell out of my mouth and onto my shirt so often?
My brothers gave me the rest of my nicknames – most were the typical ones that brothers give their little sisters. Jerk and Nerd spring to mind as the unoriginal ones. All were thrown at me at every possible moment. Let’s put it this way – I didn’t realize that my oldest brother knew my real name until I was nineteen. We were in the house alone together one summer’s day. I was unemployed, Cutlery World having been evicted from the Galleria Mall. All of a sudden, I hear a voice call down from the upstairs, “Jeanne?”
I looked around. I honestly wondered who else was in the house. I called out tentatively, “Yeah?” And waited for Johnny to continue, which he did, asking me where mom was or when dinner would be or something. I was too stunned to commit that detail to memory. I do remember thinking, “Wow! He knows my name!” Nice, huh? Of course, what did I expect from a guy who said that I was twelve from the time I was eight until I was eighteen years old. Anyway, one of the more creative nicknames my brothers gave me was “Meatball.” Oh, how I particularly hate this nickname.
My father came to America from Italy when he was nineteen so I grew up with a lot of “Old World” customs. Almost every Sunday, we would head to my grandparents’ house and have dinner with the whole family (or at least most of the extended family.) In their house on Warsaw Street, we would all squish into my grandparents’ large dining room. This room was long and bathed in light from the two lace-covered windows on two of the walls in the room. Two tables were placed together in the middle. In the corner between the two windows, was a china cabinet that held a lovely set of dishes. In the opposite corner, on the other end of the room, was a green couch that faced a TV in the third corner. Above the couch was a 8 x 10 inch photograph of my great-grandmother, Nonna Mima, who died, probably in that very house, when I was five years old.
Nonna Mima spoke only a few words of English and dressed in black every day, as was the custom in Italy for a widow. The few memories I have of Nonna Mima are of her sitting in a bed on the second floor of my grandparents’ house and of the fear that I had when I had to go in to visit her, which was every visit with my grandparents. The room was usually dim and, since Nonna Mima spoke little English, I worried that I couldn’t understand her. My other memory was when my cousin, Roseanna (seven years my senior,) would take me to her room, also on the second floor, that I would tiptoe past Nonna Mima’s room. Even after she was gone. It was like her presence still lingered. A somber cloud that casts its melancholy over the entire house.
Anyway, in this house on Sundays, lovingly made by my grandma’s hands, would be a feast of pasta with meat and meatballs. I was never fond of red meat (at least, not until I became pregnant and craved it.) So, like my brothers, I passed on the beef and dove straight for the meatballs. I loved my grandma’s meatballs. Hated ground beef, wouldn’t touch a burger unless it came from McDonald’s or Burger King, but I would eat my grandma’s meatballs and love it. The only thing I can figure is that my grandma added stale bread to the ground beef and that made it less ground beef-y. That and the cup of sauce that I drowned the poor thing in. As you may have guessed by now, food was ever-present in my childhood. Most of my memories circle around meals or tastes, smells or flavors. More importantly, food, for me, has meaning other than mere fuel.
My paternal grandmother epitomized the stereotypical Italian mom – “Eat. Eat. Mangia.” And if you tried to politely refuse, her reply was always, “No like?” with the teary look as if you had ripped her heart out and threw it in the trash.
The same thing would happen if one refused her cookies, especially her “chocaleet-cheep” cookies which she made special for her grandchildren. These were my downfall. I could never have just one or two. I can still taste the crispy bottom, the huge chocolate chips, the sweet walnut pieces inside – like nuggets of gold in a miner’s pan. Mmmmm. Excuse me while I have a moment with the memory. Ahhhh, mmmmm. Sigh.
I remember the first time I had gnoccis. (For those unacquainted, gnoccis are a type of pasta made from potatoes and are generally made to look like tiny armadillos.) It was afternoon and I sat at the round table in my grandmother’s kitchen. It was just our family on this particular day which means that it was someday other than Sunday. My grandma spooned out a large bowl of gnoccis for me. Not realizing what it was, I dove in, delighting in the soft, yet chewy morsels of pasta. They were wonderful. As I made my way through the bowl, I noticed my stomach feeling full a lot quicker than with my grandma’s usual pasta.
I kept at it though, not wanting to waste this wonderful meal, and when I reached an empty bowl, I sat back. It felt like the gnoccis had all congealed into one large, lumpy mass in the pit of my stomach. Lethargy washed over me, as it often does after a heavy meal. I smiled softly. I loved gnoccis.
My grandmother, dressed in a colorful sweater which she had brought back from Italy and a navy skirt covered with a flowered apron, came in at this point and noticed my empty bowl. She reached over to the serving bowl of gnoccis and said, “Eat. Mangia.”
I looked up at her long, wrinkled face and short gray curls, shook my head, and said, “No, thank you, Grandma. I’m full.”
Then came the look of worry mingled with hurt. “No like?”
My heart wrenched. I had to have more to let her know that I loved them, that I loved her. But there was a rock in my stomach and it was just starting to hurt. If I had any more, I know I’d explode. I pleaded, “Yes, I like! But I’m full.”
I glanced at my dad and saw him smiling. He explained in Italian that I really did love them, but that I was full. I hope he also explained that potato pasta is a lot more dense and thus, fills you up faster than egg or semolina pasta.
All I know is that my heart wrenched each time my grandmother’s face contorted with hurt. In the last years of her life, the pain was out of regret that she wasn’t able to bake or cook much. “No preocupa!” I would tell her when I saw her. It means, “don’t worry.” But she always did. Because, for her, food was her voice. It was how she was able to express her love for her family, how she vented her frustration. It was her passion. But I think it was her passion because her family was her passion. She was born to care for others. Just like I had always thought that I was.
So, food was more than food for me. Food, more often than not, meant love. So when did I start thinking that I didn’t deserve food? That I didn’t deserve love? I can only speculate.