July 5, 2017
Pasta tossed with a sauce of some sort of vegetable cooked in olive oil is an Italian classic. My mother frequently used either eggplant or zucchini, cooked them until they became very soft, and then tossed them with pasta.
I have one very vivid memory of this dish and it goes back to the summer of 1992.
After my mother was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in early summer 1992, she came to live with us. Until the last few days of her life in early January 1993, she took over our kitchen, a very comfortable role for her.
Over the years prior to her diagnosis, she had become friendly with our next door neighbor, Carla. During the last six months of her life she and Carla spent hours every day visiting and chatting. This was a wonderful arrangement as my husband, Frank, and I were working long hours. (It also led, through a number of interesting steps, to Frank and I becoming the god-parents for one of Carla and Billy’s children a few years later. But that’s a story for a different day.)
Frank had very long work hours a couple days per week. He rarely got home before 10 PM on those days. My mother and I would eat dinner earlier and then she would set aside his food.
But she did more than that.
When he got home, she always warmed up his dinner and then sat with him at the table while he ate. She never let him eat alone. Most likely, I was upstairs in bed. Since I got up earlier than Frank, I tried to be in bed by 10 PM to watch the news and go to sleep.
For some reason, the plate of pasta with zucchini sitting on the counter one evening to be warmed up for Frank’s dinner, knowing my mother would sit with him as he ate, is the mental image I have of this dish. I can’t make this without that image appearing in my mind. I think somehow that dish, made of very humble ingredients, came to represent the best of my mother’s nurturing characteristics.
She was a fierce advocate for her children. My sister and I both started school a year early because my mother thought we were intellectually ready (she was right) and she wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer from the school authorities.
Once, in second grade, my sister arrived home with the hem of her school uniform let down because one of the nuns thought it was too short. My mother promptly hemmed it, even shorter, and sent my sister to school the next day without ever saying a word. The hemline stayed put.
You didn’t mess with my mother where her children were concerned.
She continued cooking for us until less than a week before she died.
In those years we always gave a New Year’s Day party, a casual affair where people could come and relax and chat and eat. The Soviet Union was officially dissolved December 25, 1991. Most of 1992 saw the effects of the dissolution so the theme of our January 1, 1993 party was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
For the party, my mother made 14 dozen stuffed cabbage rolls and 17 dozen potato pancakes!
She sat on the sofa throughout the entire party, chatting with everyone and being the life of the party. The next day she took a turn for the worse and on the morning of January 6th she died.
Some of my best memories involve food, most of which was cooked by family and friends who are no longer with us. Capturing and preserving those recipes is the way that I pay homage to them and to the culture and values they passed on to me.
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