The reason why so many Italian mothers are such talented home cooks isn’t exactly shrouded in mystery. The simple truth is that their own mothers forced them to learn how to cook. In years past, it was a mother’s duty to prepare her daughter to be a good wife and mother and it was a daughter’s duty to obey her mother. Period. Amen.
As was the case with most Sicilian women of her time, my grandmother’s life was dictated by the tenets of dovere (duty), onore (honor) and fare la bella figura (loosely translated, making a good impression). To my grandmother, even the slightest deviation from a woman’s traditional role of dutiful wife and daughter, responsible mother, meticulous housekeeper and accomplished cook and seamstress would have been disgraceful. The home was her domain and her family was the center of her life. (Reading Giovanni Verga’s play, “Cavalleria Rusticana”, in college was a revelatory experience for me. I began to understand just how deeply rooted these principles were, not only in my only family, but in Sicily’s cultural history.). My mother, on the other hand, was, by all accounts, a vivacious young girl with little interest in domestic obligations. Needless to say, it was not in my grandmother’s DNA to tolerate a free-spirited child who would prefer to run about town (Caltabellotta, in the province of Agrigento) than stand beside her in the kitchen learning dishes that would one day please her future husband. As a result, my mother had to endure what she perceived as hours of servitude, but eventually became a brilliant home cook.
I think my mom’s early resentment of the kitchen is the reason why she never pushed me to learn how to cook (all the while appalling her own mother). She let me figure out how much I love food – and feeding people – on my own. So while I can’t credit her for my own culinary chops, I do attribute my love of good, shortcut-free home cooking to my mother…and if my grandmother was alive, I think she would be pleased, to say the least.