One my top five fave finds in a thrift shop are vintage cookbooks. I enjoy seeing how people cooked during different eras, the different ingredients they used. It’s a bit of insight to the past. I also enjoy taking those older recipes, tweaking, updating them and putting my own spin on them. I recently found the holy grail of vintage cookbooks….my Sicialian grandmother’s hand-made book of recipes. Some her own, some from family and those that she clipped from magazines, obviously noteworthy enough to be added to her book. This book is more precious to me than any other cookbook in existence. Her faded handwriting on the pieces of paper tell a story. The names of the recipes are intriguing yet simple like “Sarah’s Oil Cookies”, “Italian Spinach Timbale”, “Rosie Z.’s Chicken”, “Magic Cream Frosting”, “Luscious Hot Weather Dessert” and “Cucuzza Caponata”.
As I gently and carefully turned the pages of this well-worn and well used book I came across her hand written recipe for Pucci-Dotta. I immediately burst into tears. These were the cookies we made every year for the holidays and they were the focus of my first blog, “Memories in Every Bite”. There it was staring at me, in my own hands….her instructions, her words. It was a piece of my Nana, the 4′ 8″ Sicilian woman who came to America when she was six years old, whose name was changed from Michelina to Margret during immigration (probably because nobody could pronounce her given name), who passed away when I was four years old, yet whose memory was kept alive lovingly by my father all these years. He could never speak of her without welling up with emotion and tears. Because of his adoration and vigilance of storytelling I feel as if I have known her my whole life and truth be told, whenever I would cook for my father I would wear one of her aprons (made from an old flour sack) and say softly to myself, “Cook with me Nana.”
One story my father told me was on the way to and on the way home from the local fish market on Christmas Eve to purchase something for dinner. As we rode there he told me how when he was a little boy his family had a big fish dinner on Christmas Eve (Feast of the 7 Fishes). Nana would cook everything in one giant pot and everyone would feast on shrimp, muscles, clams, and whatever other fish was good at the market that day. He looked forward to it every year and missed that tradition terribly. I was about 14 years old and had been working in a seafood restaurant prepping and doing some cooking so I wanted to make my Dad something delicious just for the two of us since neither my mother or sister liked fish. We decided on shrimp cocktail and flounder. The man behind the counter held up a fillet and was about to put it on the scale but I didn’t like to looks of it. There was a funny grey patch in it and it had holes in it. I asked him to hold up another and another until I found the piece I liked. The man was annoyed with me but I saw my father smiling softly. As we drove home he told me that I reminded him of his mother. “She wouldn’t buy second-rate food and neither did you.” Knowing this was extremely high praise I smiled broadly and thanked him. That was one of the most memorable meals I have made for him over the years. I’ll never forget the feeling I had of being so close and connected to a woman, a relative of whom I had never met. Another memorable meal was when I made gnocchi for him. I remember watching him take the first bite, closing his eyes, smiling and saying to me through tears, “Oh your Nana would be so proud of you.”
I can’t wait to make everything in this book. I can’t wait to put on that flour sack apron and say “Cook with me Nana” and I know she will. Even though my darling father has passed on, I know he will be there too, sitting at the dining room table eagerly awaiting that first bite.