Letter to Grandma on the Day Before Thanksgiving

Dear Grandma,

It is the day before Thanksgiving and I’m so sorry you can’t be with us this year. Thank you for writing down your best recipes for me. I am trying my best to follow them. I know these recipes are dumbed-down because I’ve watched you cook; you never measured anything. You were kind enough to make up measurements for me, and for this white-lie I am grateful. My guests will be too, I’m sure.

It is the day before Thanksgiving and as I cook, I am struck by how tightly bound my memories of you are with food. Whenever there was a family party, you would always come over the day before and take over our kitchen. I would brag to all my friends that Turkey was boring, that you served antipasto, insalata caprese, pasta e fagioli, and tomato pie just for appetizers. For the main meal, you would make braciole, ossobuco, lasagna, meatballs, and “gravy.” I don’t know how many times we tried to explain to you that Americans call it “tomato sauce,” but we never could convince you to stop calling it “gravy.” For dessert there’d be panna cotta, cannoli, mixed cookies from the italian bakery, and coffee… lots of unpretentious American coffee.

While you cooked, that aroma of made-from-scratch “gravy” filled the house. My siblings and I would make sport of snatching meatballs from that enormous pot — the Grandma Pot — that only you used. You’d chase us out of the kitchen with that three foot “pasta stick” you used to roll the dough. There’s a family joke that you served food with a snow-shovel, because you always insisted guests eat a little bit more, but your “little bit” was enormous!

I remember one year I invited a friend and his whole family to come over for Thanksgiving at a moment’s notice. His father suggested I check home first to see if there would be enough food. I told him not to worry. You were cooking so there’d be twenty people over and there would still be leftovers for weeks. It wasn’t until I saw his eyes pop out of his head that I realized how proud I was of my big, noisy, Italian-American family. You presided over a raucous bunch, but we surely knew hospitality.

It’s been twenty five years since you’ve died from leukemia, Grandma. I’m married now and have a family of my own. Work has taken us far from the old neighborhood… far from the rest of the family. The deli’s aren’t same out here. Californians eat sour dough bread instead of sweet Italian rolls and tomato pie is nowhere to be found. Remember how you always sent me to the deli for pounds of Locatelli cheese? I spent years looking for a place out here that sells Locatelli. I know it exists because many of your recipes say “Locatelli, not parmesan!” It took me fifteen years and a business trip to Italy before it was explained to me that Locatelli is the manufacturer’s name and the type of cheese is “pecorino romano.” My informant assured me that you were absolutely right that Locatelli is the best. Now I buy it on the Internet… don’t ask.

As I cook today and prepare for the guests, I smell food and am reminded of family and history.  I start rehearsing stories for my children; old stories.  I will tell them about my childhood, and the stories I was told when I was their age, and I will tell them of you.

More than being thankful, this holiday for me is about remembrance. My children are too young to really appreciate all they have. The stories and the food will help them remember where we came from and why we’re here.


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