by Cindi Williams (a.k.a. Cindi with an eye)
As a child I knew it was ‘Italian night’ at our home when I smelled the homemade sauce simmering on the stove top. A peek under the lid revealed that it indeed would be a night filled with pasta and good conversation around our table.
I am the child of a German-American mother and a Sicilian-American father. Notice, not Italian, Sicilian. I was schooled on that very early in life. "You are a descendant of Sicily, be proud of it!" said my father. My maiden name, Mendola, means Almond tree. I guess I always knew we were some kind of a nut. Growing up Sicilian is a lifestyle… and a privilege. I learned very quickly that everyone is my cousin, most of them have a accent, and they are allowed to visit anytime and stay as long as they want. I also learned that mealtime was the center of our existence. Cannoli, Ravioli, Lasagna, Macaroni, Manicotti… these were members of the family… invited to our dinner table at least once a week, if not more. However, my father insisted on homemade sauce. Sauce that was made from tomatoes picked in a field, canned, simmered, and seasoned just perfectly.
As a grown woman and mother of two I was recently invited to learn the secrets of the sauce. It's no secret really, just days of work that turn an ordinary tomato into a sauce to die for! Mangiare o morire!
I was excited to spend the morning canning tomatoes with my mother, Sally. It was several uninterrupted hours spent steaming and peeling, slicing and pureeing. Our joy was not only transforming cases of red, ripe tomatoes but sharing candid conversations about relatives, those still living and those no longer with us. Having that time to pick my mom's brain about her mother and their canning days. She shared with me stories of how her mother canned everything since it was too expensive to buy fruits and vegetables out of season in upstate New York. I remember my grandmother Ruth with a fondness, she smelled of berries and had the softest white fluffy hair. She cooked pies like no one else I knew, I guess it was the fresh fillings that satisfied me the most. My grandmother canned peaches, strawberries, beans, tomatoes, other foods, even corn. They had a fully stocked pantry in the basement always ready to supply a family of six. I wondered at that moment why hadn't I learned to can sooner, all of the food I could have stock piled by now. The savings on trips to the grocery store would be enormous and the security of knowing what I was feeding my family when I opened the can or jar.
The aroma of fresh-picked tomatoes filled the kitchen and my mind wandered to my childhood. The simpler times when I could sit on the stool and watch my momma stir the sauce, swinging my feet back and forth waiting for a sample to see if it was properly seasoned. We canned all morning long and it was enjoyable and rewarding to know I was making food for my family. Good food, healthy, organic, safe and from the heart.
The real challenge came two days later when I lovingly prepared a spaghetti and corn beef meal and invited my parents to our home to share in the meal. I prepared the "sauce" myself, seasoning it with fresh herbs grown in my garden. It was rewarding to enter into my garden in the warm sunlight and snip the herbs I needed for the sauce. I felt the presence of my mother, and my grandmother when I collected them in my hands, hands that were starting to resemble the weathered hands I once watched do this very job.
The table set for my family and my parents was a scene from Sicily. Our screen room filled with filtered sunlight, happy faces, and good conversation. I sat with trepidation as my father took the inaugural bite… Meraviglioso!! That beautiful evening I officially became a Sicilian and am proud to say “I can make the sauce!"