Mamma Maria was the original Italian grandmother for me. As a four year old I had stayed with her in Milan, while my parents were on holiday in Italy. I remember vividly the hours I spent propped in my chair at her apartment’s kitchen table, sticky from the summer heat, waiting eagerly for Mamma Maria warm, soft dishes. Her kitchen seemed endlessly filled with smells and flavors to comfort and distract young childrenme from missing mytheir parents; soups swimming with tiny pastas, creamy curdled eggs, and an endless number of cookies made moist from being dipped in milk. As I set out as a young chef to document and learn Italy’s food traditions, it made complete sense to go back to that beginning and stay with her.
My first night back with Mamma Maria we talked at length about Lombardian cooking and the things she ate as a girl. According to Mamma Maria, Italian food habits were simpler before the 1960s. Rather than the abundance of the current Italian meal structure, with its antipasti, starchy primis, protein-rich secondos, vegetable side dishes, dessert and coffee, Mamma Maria was raised meals that comprised either a starch and vegetable, or a protein and vegetable.
One of the effects of the enforced wartime simplicity was an essentially rather healthful lifestyle. Modest meals were eaten at night, and stronger foods were consumed earlier in the day, when more energy was needed for active work. There was an intimate dependence on one’s garden, on the local trees, on the land and the ocean, on the animals one raised, and the foods and skills you could trade with neighbors. This type of interconnectedness was also mimicked in the family structure. “In the past, when you married, you would go live with your mother-in-law, and your husband’s family,” explained Mamma Maria, “No-one moved into a place alone.”
Mamma Maria’s mother was known by all as an incredible cook, and one who could make a delicious meal out of whatever was at hand, however plentiful or meager. On Sundays she would kill a chicken for the family meal- Sunday was “chicken killing and eating day,” according to Mamma Maria. In addition to chicken day, there was also “a day for eating eggs each week- eggs in frittata, eggs cooked in warm tomatoes, eggs cooked many ways.” Each autumn Mamma Maria and her mother would help to slaughter and butcher the family’s pigs for fresh and cured meat. The special meals were those that contained animal protein; one of Mamma Maria’s favorite childhood meals was stuffed pigs feet with home-grown potato puree.
Mamma Maria learnt to cook by her mother’s side. “You just watch and spend time. You lend a hand. Maybe the first time you make a mistake, then the second time you do it right. It’s not that you are “taught.””