Most of the cooking knowledge I had growing up came from my father. He learned from his parents who probably learned from theirs back in the little village of Campolieto, Italy. I guess my lessons go back a long time. I truly didn’t learn how to cook until I was a young adult due to the family circumstances but then I picked things up rather fast.
I can’t say that my dad taught me specific recipes, one at a time, it was more like a little here and there. I distinctly remember though a day when he called me into the kitchen to get the “big lesson” on how to make sauce, meatballs, and braciole. I was probably already close to 23, a mother of two girls and at the time we lived with my dad. We regularly had my sister and her family over for Sunday dinners and any other siblings and their family if they lived nearby. Those were some fun times and great memories for my girls and their cousins.
Back to the lesson…he took me to the store with him that day to shop so I knew what kind of meat to buy and what kind of canned tomato products to choose for the “recipe”. He taught me to use fresh ingredients when possible but also that it’s ok to use whatever you have on hand. He often said to me that any time I rush the sauce, it will turn out bad so to make sure when I cook it, there is plenty of time for it to simmer. I also learned it was best to make it on Saturday for the Sunday dinner so the flavors could integrate overnight and make a better tasting dish. He was right. Sometimes I just don’t take the time for that extra day and eat the end product the day I make it.
One thing my dad did that drove me crazy, which I think was due to my partial OCD ways and we all have those, was to mix things up a bit when it came to cooking and following directions. For instance, he would purchase those McCormick Bag-n-Season mixes for specific types of beef, pork or chicken then use them with a different meat! A pork seasoning bag and mix is not supposed to be used with chicken! At least not in my mind it wasn’t. As I look back on that now it’s kind of funny. I certainly don’t use those mixes any longer preferring to make up my own combinations and skip the powdered mystery “other flavors and seasonings” in those things. And I am very prone to mixing things up a bit in the kitchen.
I am pretty sure my dad would be proud of the cook I turned into and that I am doing the very thing I love these days. Many times my memory is jarred by a food product, flavor or smell that will remind me of my dad. Burnt mushrooms will always make me think of him because he once burned a pot of sauce for an Easter dinner. His parents came to our house for the meal that year, it was the only time I can remember them doing that. I am guessing since they didn’t drive, my dad went to get them and took them home. But that year my dad put mushrooms in the sauce and somehow the heat was too high in the reheating process and the sauce on the bottom of the pot burned. Everything tasted like ashes, it was a flavor I’ll never forget. As a child I was not aware of the tension that must have caused but all was forgiven and there was no love.
When my dad was sick and hospitalized, close to his death, he did something for me and my siblings that was very special to us; he wrote down the sauce and meatball recipe. Many Italian families will tell you there are no written recipes for things like that because we store them in our head. Measurements are never exact because the flavors are allowed to change somewhat. My sister made photocopies of the recipe and gave it to all of us. She framed the original and it’s in her possession. She is the oldest so I am fine with he holding on to it. I was one of the lucky ones who lived with my dad at a time when I was able to be taught how to cook and learned some of his secrets.
This year marks 7 years since my father passed away. I miss him and wish he were here to know what I am doing and ask him questions about cooking. I am thankful for the legacy he left me and that will never fade away.