Last week I gathered most of the remaining tomatoes from the eight plants on our patio, leaving only enough on the vines for salads and sandwiches at summer’s end. I could have used the small harvest to add to stews, soup or baked vegetable dishes, but a memory of my great-grandmother drew me to a simpler magic. Nonna and my great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island in New York from Italy in the early 1900s. For the rest of their lives as naturalized American citizens, they spoke little English and clung to the familiar peasant ways of the Old Country. In Nonna’s kitchen, those ways centered on rustic, inexpensive meals.
After World War II, Nonna clucked in disgust when frozen TV dinners and processed foods tried to push aside traditional home cooking. She and Nonno had very little money for fancy foods or other luxuries, until several of their sons became … um … sports financiers, brokering deals for clients who wagered on football games. Less tactful people might have called them bookies. Even when my great-uncles hit a hot streak, Nonna waved away most of their generosity — except for the new dining room table. Family was everything to her, and that table was long enough to seat most of the clan. She also permitted herself one habitual splurge, high-quality pasta, imported from Italy by the local grocer, a fellow immigrant.
Nonna was a frugal culinary witch, conjuring golden meals from whatever Nonno grew in his vegetable garden. For lunch, she often served bowls of tiny beads of pasta in a broth simmered from brisket bones, carrots, celery, parsley and onion. A dusting of fresh-grated Parmesan cheese on the soup and a slab of homemade bread were all the frills she needed. The star of every Sunday dinner was her pasta sauce. She seldom added meat, because beef was scarce and too expensive in the Tuscan village where she’d grown up. Instead she coaxed deep, rich flavor from chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic sauteed in olive oil, and a handful of basil leaves, simmered all day in a cast iron pot. She cooked without recipes or exact measurements, guided instead by taste and scent.
Last week I hesitated when I set the basket of tomatoes on our kitchen counter, knowing that a beloved memory can be as gauzy as a wisp of wind. I realized I couldn’t replicate Nonna’s masterpiece precisely, but simply kept her blessing in my heart. The tomatoes were so perfectly ripe that their skins slipped off as I chopped. The minced garlic needed constant watching, to keep it from browning and turning bitter as it softened in the warm olive oil. I had no fresh basil, so substituted a favorite blend of dried Italian herbs, a dash of salt and a couple of grinds of black peppercorns. With a silent apology, I also added a small tin of store-bought tomato sauce to help thicken my own tomatoes’ worrisome flood of thin juice.
Then I filled my big red pot nearly to the brim and set the mixture to simmer, uncovered, for the rest of the day. Occasionally I stirred it with a timeworn wooden spoon, which carries decades of family tradition and is the only utensil I’ll ever use for the stirring. By evening, that glorious sauce had cooked down to half its original liquidity and produced only a half gallon of Nonna’s legacy. I felt her presence in the fragrant kitchen and knew I’d inherited a bit of her magic. I’ve frozen the four precious pints until I need them for the next time our three generations gather around the table. As my family lifts their forks for the first bite, I will repeat my great-grandmother’s mantra, “Mangia bene.” Dine well.
Sydney Craft Rozen is thankful for an enduring family heritage of joy in the garden and the kitchen. Email her at email@example.com