MT. VERNON, N.Y. — When I'm gone, who's gonna make the pasta for Christmas, eh?" my grandmother Rosina would ask in her Italian-accented English. "Nobody that's who! You all gonna starve."
Every Sunday morning at 6:30, my grandmother, a short, chunky woman with a robust face, and coal-black hair worn in a tight bun, would sneak into her sanctuary - a small kitchen replete with avocado-green appliances, Formica countertops, and a buckling, beige, linoleum floor. In here, from such simple offerings as flour, eggs, and water, Nonna (as she insisted on being called) would create a venerable blessing - homemade pasta. I, at age 5, would often join her, watching in wonder, listening with ardor, learning the strength of family, and the gift of love.
"In Italia, during the war," she'd recount, "all I could make for my family was the pasta. It's all we had."
She believed that by filling the bellies of her family with her homemade pasta, she was providing a solid foundation from which to draw strength and courage. "Back then, life was very hard, but we have each other. My pasta keep everybody strong, and everybody happy. And you know something? We survive."
Nonna began her revered ritual by putting on her special heirloom - a frayed, pink and yellow apron that had almost completely faded to white, save for the stains etched long ago from her mother's cooking.
Next, she would tune her radio to a program that featured the mellifluous voice of Mario Lanza. With the great lyric tenor singing "Be My Love," Nonna poured flour atop an oversized wooden cutting board and rhythmically shaped it into a ring. Into the empty center went the eggs and water.
With her strong, soft hands, she mashed everything together, transforming the mixture into dough.
I was given the fun job of raising the ball high over my head and slamming it onto the table, where it landed with a listless thud. "Not like that bella," Nonna coached. "Like this." She showed me the "correct" method, which was to knead the dough, lift it into the air and shout, "Madonna buona," as it thumped down onto the table. Knead, lift, slam, bless. Knead, lift, slam, bless. It became our mantra.
After awhile, my role as assistant began to lose appeal. It was forcing me to miss my favorite TV show, "Wonderama"- a 2-1/2 hour children's program.
As I sat just inches from the set, Nonna marched right in front of the television and blocked my view.
"It's two weeks you no help me, signorina," she reported. "If you no learn how to make pasta the right way, how you gonna live, eh?"
"No big deal," I replied, "I'll eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
She grabbed her rosy cheeks and shook her head in disbelief. "Mamma mia! Peanut butter and the jelly? Together?" she shouted. "That's terrible!" Nonna never could bear to watch me delight in that combination, which to her, was "bad, bad American fake food."
Squinting her eyes and pointing her index finger, she seemingly peered into my future and predicted: "When you are a big girl, you gonna have to make pasta. If you no learn now, you gonna have big trouble later."
Warding off big trouble
Nonna always claimed that she could "see" things in her mind's eye, that mere mortals could not. I took her prescient warning of a future riddled with "Big Trouble" to heart, and resumed my assistant's role in the kitchen.
By way of reward, I was allowed to flatten the dough with a large rolling pin. Nonna placed her protective hands over mine, and together we flattened the dough ball into what looked like the thinnest pizza.
Next, she'd roll it like a giant pencil, and, with a long sharp knife, she'd slice horizontally across, creating the pasta of choice; spaghetti (thin), linguini (thicker), or fettuccine (thickest)
The long pieces of pasta fringe were draped over a wooden pole balanced between two kitchen chairs for 15 minutes.
When the strips felt dry, they were ready for the big boil. As the pasta swirled in a large aluminum pot, the gravy - as Nonna called her tomato sauce - bubbled alongside, releasing a redolent scent of herbs and spices. The aroma traveled up the stairs, through the hallway, and into the vestibule to greet my relatives, who arrived every Sunday at 1 p.m. to feast at Nonna's banquet. Following the seductive smell of garlic into the kitchen, they would consume an entire loaf of soft, mushy bread by dipping small chunks into the gurgling gravy. This pre-dinner plunging of bread would naturally upset Nonna.
She grimaced. "How you gonna enjoy my pasta if you eat so much bread, eh? You need my pasta to live. In Italia, everybody sit and wait for pasta."
Nonna's concern would prove completely unfounded, for there was never a problem with being too full to eat her savory pasta. We inhaled every last fringy piece, and wiped the gravy lingering in our bowls with even more bread. Throughout the convivial clamor of these Sunday dinners, Nonna sat at the very end of the table, full of pride and satisfaction, watching, as her family fed upon the most gracious expression of her love.
Many years have passed since my pasta-making classes with Nonna. The Sunday ritual of eating the homemade meal together as a family is now reserved for holidays. But that does not stop my grandmother. Now in her 80s, she still occasionally rises early on Sunday morning, puts on her apron - a new one finally, sent from her sister in Italy - and makes her offering. Except none of us have time to sit and eat together. We pack, wrap, stack, and take the food home.
On a recent visit, I asked Nonna how she felt about that. "Not so good," she replied despondently. "Nobody come to eat my pasta on Sunday no more. Everybody busy. Gotta do this. Gotta do that. A long time ago, nobody busy. We sit and eat together. Everybody happy. Everybody strong."
She gazed her ebony eyes thoughtfully into mine.
"Maybe nobody need me to make the pasta?" she asked. "Maybe, I stop, eh?"
I wrapped my arms around her, assuring that we needed her to keep this tradition alive, now more than ever. "We need to eat your pasta Nonna, just as much you need to make it."
She gently took my hand into hers. "Remember when you were a little girl? You love my kitchen."
Slamming and blessing the dough
"Of course I remember," I said, "slamming and blessing the dough, how could I forget? But my favorite is when you said I would have big trouble in my life if I didn't learn how to make pasta."
"Good," she said chuckling, "I'm glad you remember, because today, I'm too tired to cook. Roll up your sleeve signorina, and you show me what I teach you. And here, put this on."
Tying the propitious apron around my waist, I discovered my palms were sweaty, the pupil being carefully watched by the master during a sacred rite of passage.
"I don't know," I said sheepishly, "it's been a long time."
"Ah!" she shouted, clapping her hands. "It's just like I say. Big..." "trouble," I said, cutting her off.
Wiping my clammy hands, I took a deep breath, and, to my surprise, began maneuvering those eggs and flour like a pro. I even managed to hum a few bars of "Be My Love."
"Brava!" my grandmother said, as I proceeded to knead, lift, slam and bless. "Just bless a little bit louder. It looks like you no gonna have big trouble after all."