My mother was a hard-drinking, model-thin redhead who never ate in public with a past full of chickenscratch Alabama clay and a ruthless willingness to leverage what the good lord gave her in pursuit of the finer things in life. “When women get paid more than seventy cents on the dollar,” she was fond of drawling, “I’ll stop crying my way out of parking tickets.”
When she met my father, she brokered their Manhattan flirtation with all the subtlety of an Orthodox Jewish matchmaker on cocaine. “I want to get married and have a baby,” she pronounced on their first date.
Somewhat predictably for an Italian-American drummer from the Bronx in his mid-thirties with fifteen years of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll behind him, my father briefly inhabited the persona of his straight-laced mafioso father, considered the prospect of a famiglia, and said, “Yes.”
“There’s just two things to know,” she said, which would turn out to be an underestimate, “If you hit me, I’ll cut your nuts off with a rusty knife. And I don’t cook.”
My father, again, said yes.
To celebrate their engagement, my parents invited my father’s family to their Manhattan apartment. My mother, as a necessary step to self-reinvention in New York, was currently telling everyone she was an orphan raised by nuns, which is the long way of saying her family was not invited. Clearly expected to produce some sort of food item, she microwaved a turkey. “Well, it was a small one,” said my aunt when asked how the physics of this had possibly worked. Everyone sat around the table, grimly chawing their way through the irradiated carcass: message received.
Wedding accomplished and honeymoon enjoyed, my parents returned home and my father commenced cooking the three dishes he had perfected through his haze of touring and acid: spaghetti with garlic and oil, spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce, and steamed broccoli with garlic and lemon. He rotated between these with a cheerful persistence, serving them to his Southern wife in a game of unwitting brinksmanship.
After six months, my mother cracked. After a day of selling air conditioners between acting auditions, my father came home to fried chicken and dumplings, collards, biscuits, and an already-immaculate kitchen.
He blinked, startled by the sudden bounty. “Honey, I thought you said you couldn’t cook.”
“No,” she said. “I said I didn’t cook.”
My paternal grandfather, Joseph, learned to cook from his mother, who would go to the houses of her five daughters-in-law and refuse to eat a bite of any subpar food she was served until, after much pleading, she would finally pick up the fork, sigh, and say, “I force myself.” The eldest son of refugees fleeing starvation and economic despair in their native Sicily, hunger found Joseph again in America’s Great Depression. His childhood spent in his mother’s kitchen became a means of survival as Joseph left school at sixteen to put food in his siblings’ mouths, finding work in red-sauce restaurant kitchens and selling bootleg olive oil for Joe Profaci. After the war, he got out of the back of the kitchen and installed vending machines in nightclubs and lunch counters, but the hunger never left him.
After his second marriage ended in a disastrous pizza parlor venture, Joseph lived six months of the year with my aunt in Jersey and six months with my newly divorced father in an apartment on the outskirts of Los Angeles. My mother had run from New York to Los Angeles a few years after the turkey incident, shortly after I was born and the pressure of a stable family life loomed too large in the corner of her eye. The first time she ran my father followed, a New Yorker surprised by the Burbank sun. The second time, she ran all the way back to the crawdad boils and fried green tomatoes of her childhood, eventually finding a white clapboard house next to a horse barn in rural Alabama. My father stayed on in the City of Angels, taking the 118 to the 405 between gigs while learning to love avocado bacon burgers and multivitamins.
In that Los Angeles apartment, my grandfather finally lived in a climate where he could grow the Mediterranean delicacies his Sicilian mother had longed for in New York. He handmade fresh pasta and dried it on clothes-drying racks and, when those ran out, between chairs in the house, aided by the low humidity and high temperatures. The California sun dried his homegrown tomatoes for us; the tiny garden plot on the patio produced basil, eggplant, long hots, and fiery habaneros that he ate straight off the plant followed with bitter espresso and a pack of cigarettes from the guy who sold lotto tickets and adult magazines. Starbucks, when it arrived, was a revelation—no more scraping by with what Angelenos called coffee. Seattle’s pale imitation of a proper Italian coffee-and-pastry shop was infinitely superior to a 7-Eleven. After that, a stained paper espresso cup sat next to Joseph for hours as he peeled heads of garlic on the dining room table between rounds of solitaire.
After my parents’ divorce, the townhouse was a place where men did all the cooking, laundry, and cleaning of daily life. My grandfather cooked elaborate feasts the six months of the year he lived with us; in his absence, my father and I ate pancakes, eggs, boiling-hot ramen noodles out of their orange-topped Styrofoam cups, and hot dogs. Once there wasn’t money for hot dog buns; I remember this small trauma infinitely less than the adults involved.
I was only there sporadically, watching Mr. Ed reruns in black-and-white on our thrifted couch and accompanying my grandfather to buy cigs and lotto tickets at the bodega down the street. Certainly, court-mandated joint-custody visitation never lasted long enough for me to learn how to cook. What efforts I did make—the one memorable time I insisted on buying raw squids—rotted in the fridge for lack of knowing what the hell to do with them in the first place.
A blonde stepmother came into the picture just as Grandpa Joe became too old to cook. He ate her white-bread Middle American renditions of his Sicilian and Calabrian glory stoically, glad for someone else to shoulder the daily burden of feeding. On Christmas Eve, as if to repay the favor of his silence, she steeled herself and cleaned live mollusks and whole fish to prepare the traditional zuppa di pesce. The smell alone nauseated her. She would grandly present the finished stew to us, while carefully holding back some plain vegetable broth with garlic bread for herself and my stepbrother’s Christmas dinner. When I was in college, she showed me a new, prized copy of Rachael Ray’s 365: No Repeats, and whispered with urgency, “See? No repeats!” But repetition—the same dish every Friday, the same stew every holiday—is what knits food into memory and memory into tradition. It is the structure on which a cuisine, rather than an assortment of random foods, is built: the bridge between food as something you eat and food as something you are.
When the blonde stepmother, too, ran away, years after my grandfather died, I cooked during visits to my father’s house in the abandoned shell of what had become a white working-class kitchen: caponata and zuppa di pesce and stuffed artichokes and pasta with ricotta and peas and linguini with clam sauce and dried zucchini with mint and eggplant parmesan. The oven was broken, had been broken since the stepmother moved out, and I never did ask my father to fix it. The stovetop was enough. My first visit after she left, my father would sometimes stay in bed until noon. I brought home sopressata, parmesan, the good balsamic from a deli two hours away. Sometimes it worked to get him out of bed; sometimes it didn’t.
Fifty years earlier, my grandfather Joseph had sent his future wife, Norma, to intern in his mother’s tenement kitchen. Norma’s family came from Tuscany—a simpler cuisine, less inflected by the Arab and Jewish floral waters, marzipans, vinegars, pignoli, and raisins of Joseph’s native Sicily. She learned for three months and was sent back once she’d been deemed adequate to make the weekday meals, though Joseph would still take over for Sundays, Christmas, and Easter. Every weekend he baked ciabatta early in the humid Bronx morning then prepared a thick tomato sauce. Fried meats were added in after it reached the desired consistency: sausage, spareribs, neck bones, whatever was around. The meat was removed and eaten separately, while the sauce went to coat the spaghetti, followed by salad.
Christmas required roughly three days of shopping and preparation. The first course was raw oysters, salt cod with capers and tomatoes, stuffed clams, and shrimp cocktail. This would be followed by zuppa di pesce, heavy on squids and crustaceans, and fresh linguine and clams with a choice of either white or red sauce. Then came the main course of whole striped bass with lemon, garlic, and butter, sometimes with a bitter green on the side. After a salad, homemade cannoli and sfogliatelle bought from the local bakery rounded out the meal.
It was, objectively, too much. But the way my father talks about those 1950s feasts is almost holy, something clean and freely given in his Godfather childhood. When Joseph divorced Norma, the bounty of their table turned into dollars spent at bingo, on cards, and at the racetrack. While Norma slept it off, my eight-year-old father and six-year-old aunt downed cold pizza and spaghetti, bags of scavenged chips and bread, and espresso sodas. For lunches, they formed a tiny assembly line, narrow shoulders resolute in their Catholic school uniforms. My father would fry the bacon and tell his sister to stand back from the spitting oil while she stood on a box to put mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato on slices of Wonder bread.
The impetus to feed our families much too much while the getting is good, to load the table down until it groans under the weight of the offering inheres in the bones, lives in the mitochondrial DNA that passes trauma from one generation to the next. The memory of hunger haunts entire family lines, whether in the way my great-grandmother outran famine only to have her son eat himself into a triple bypass, or in the way my mother will only drink her calories, single-malt and neat, in public.
After my mother ran from Los Angeles back to Alabama, I grew in the heat of Dixieland summers and neither of us cooked a bite. My mother kept books in the oven, journals and newspapers piled on the kitchen counters. When she was still working, we’d go to meat-and-threes, where she’d get chicken-fried steak and I’d stuff yeast rolls and pie in my face. Sometimes we’d go to diners, where she’d always order a tuna melt and I’d always order a grilled cheese and a milkshake. She’d eat the whipped cream off the milkshake and give me almost all of her meal, which I happily inhaled.
After she first stopped working, when the pills started, my mother would microwave a Healthy Choice TV dinner for me when we didn’t go out. I was particularly fond of the tiny apple dessert, which burned my tongue when I ate it too fast out of its black plastic tray. If those weren’t around I’d eat peanut butter soaked in honey from those plastic bears, half a jar at a time. When the morphine hit, we’d do a grocery run to the Piggly-Wiggly, buying fudge-covered double-stuffed Oreos and bags of powdered-sugar covered doughnuts. We ate them in front of the tiny television on the floor in the living room, reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation playing in the background while my mother stayed on the couch for days and days.
As I hit adolescence, if I ate something too fast or too greedily, she’d make snorting noises while I ate, piggy piggy piggy, laugh it off as a joke when I got upset, and then describe the food in grotesque sexual metaphor: “that looks like a pig ejaculated on it and then had diarrhea” for pepperoni pizza, or “that looks like a cat shit on it then rubbed itself on it” for brownies. I was five feet eight inches tall and weighed one hundred and ten pounds.
During a particularly bad year my breakfast was one Nutri-Grain fruit bar every morning (I still can’t smell them), but generally she would microwave oatmeal, which I was forbidden to have with sugar, cream, or anything but water. Lunch was never bought at school and was usually some sort of flavored yogurt drink, fruit cup, and sandwich; dinner was a spirulina packet in watered down juice, a piece of microwaved fish, and cut-up crudités. It didn’t really matter, as long as it was sugar-free and unappealing. If I didn’t eat it, it went back in the lunchbox the next day. Once I didn’t eat a tin of pears for six months; it stubbornly reappeared every morning when I opened my lunch bag, together with the cloth napkin, real flatware, and handwritten post-it note that accompanied the offering. When there was a bit more money, we would order Chinese: beef with broccoli for me, always, and lo mein for her.
Meanwhile, I sneaked warm chocolate-chip cookies from classmates’ lunches and asked my girlfriends to buy me bagels. I coveted Lunchables like my neighbor’s wife. My high school boyfriend’s mother knew to make London broil, rare, when I came over, which I would fall on like a starved stray cat. Once, she asked me to cut up a bell pepper for her salad. I didn’t know how. She wrote a newspaper column about parenting; I featured in it the next week as an under-parented teen (laments on the death of Home Economics and Responsible Mothering featured heavily). She suggested to herself, both letter writer and columnist, that she take me on as a kind of foster daughter, a motherless child. But I already had a mother, hunger or no, and the ability to cut up bell peppers never did strike me as a particularly crucial life skill.
The strange thing is that these memories are, in their own way, good ones. I remember being hungry, but I was not starving—there is a wide gulf between always having that jar of peanut butter in the pantry and not. Single mothers and daughters exist in a kind of folie à deux, a shared world that doesn’t strain your perception of normalcy as much as shapes it, molds it to its own dictates. This was our normal, and to some extent it did me good to see a woman who refused, utterly and absolutely, the labors of the kitchen.
We pour so much into the idea that feeding is mothering is care is love, but there is more than one kind of food and more than one kind of love. Even if that love is an airless, ravenous thing that confuses how much you care for someone with how afraid you are to lose them, it can still sustain you. Today, I worry sometimes that I love my own children too lightly, afraid to hunger for their presence in that blurred, desperate way that sinks your identity into their own.
I don’t know what my mother ate as a child. I know what she imagined eating. She regaled me with tales of high tea at 4 p.m., cod liver oil with breakfast, porridge by a Scottish loch served by a British nanny in a drafty stone castle. As a teenager courted by an ex-Navy SEAL with a family fortune the size of Greenland, she had expansive French dinners at Maxime’s in a private back room, scones at Harrods with clotted cream, jewelbox dinners overlooking the Eiffel Tower, and room service breakfasts in tiny Swiss châtelets eaten over pristine white eiderdown comforters. She retold the stories of these meals often, making of them a movable, fictional feast.
But before that timeline surfaced, an increasingly solid second life emerging from the haze of morphine and psychosis, I remember her ranting about the smell of boiling chitlins, the way it filled up the whole house with a humid cloud of shit and vinegar. She ate chicken every chance she got, as revenge for having to feed them while they pecked at her bare toes, drawing scarlet blood in the hookworm-infested, red clay slurry of the wet yard. Despite never turning down a stiff drink, she couldn’t stand the sick-sweet smell of bourbon. Her stepfather liked it. He also liked her.
When she first met my father, before announcing to him that she wanted marriage and a baby, before the microwaved turkey and the chicken and dumplings, she was shilling for an early perpetrator of soy milks in Manhattan. When he asked where they should go for dinner, she told him she loved sushi. In the razor-sharp recall of divorced men everywhere, my father still remembers that he bought her a large boat of sushi, that it cost forty dollars, and that she ate a single piece.
He never did understand that. She still does it today—we go out and she orders an abundance of food only to eat half a tiny sandwich. The pleasure comes from the bounty itself, the viewing of it, knowing that she doesn’t have to eat it but that she could. She glories in the fact that someone else can clean up, that someone else can break their backs picking and cooking and serving and scrubbing. Let me put it another way: Once, I took my children strawberry picking and texted her photos of them proudly displaying a basket of fat berries. Five minutes later, the phone rang. Tara Scarlett Mendola, the voice came down the line, I did not go through the trouble of raising you so you would pick your own food. Go to the fucking store.
It is not so different from my grandfather’s feasts, the turning away from the groaning table its own kind of self-destructive vindication, the insistent, anorectic no the negative image of the unlimited, gluttonous yes.
I taught myself to cook in college the year after my grandfather died through a plodding reconstitution. I’d match memories to recipes, guesswork that more often than not dissolved when I added water. Over the years, I’ve increasingly gravitated toward the Southern Italian food of my father’s family, buying ever more specialized regional cookbooks. Sometimes I call relatives and discover mismatches; for instance, Marcella Hazan’s basic sauce recipe uses a quantity of butter and onion my aunt finds alarming. But by and large when I present them with something they tell me I’ve inherited the family gene. Their approval, my perfect rendition of sweet-sour caponata, the sensation of the earth firm beneath my feet—this sudden plenty can feel seamless. But under their assurances that blood calls to blood lies a bootleg authenticity, a ship-of-Theseus made of salted, fried eggplant.
Today when people ask me where I learned to cook I distill the above narratives into a simpler one: “My grandfather taught me,” I say. “He worked in Italian restaurants.” This gives a reassuring lineage. I cook Italian food, I was taught to cook it by an Italian man in a smooth transfer of knowledge, skills, and love from one generation to the next. It is Italian-Jewish food by virtue of the fact that it is kosher and I am Jewish; I let people put those pieces of the story together how they may. People like this story because it sounds true. It evades the chaotic realities that belie our assumptions about food as family and family as identity and culture.
The truth is, I barely knew my grandfather. My mother decided he was smoking pot in that Los Angeles apartment when I was six and kidnapped me six months later. I remember his food because I have chosen his half of the story. Like his recipes, I reconstituted his history, grilling my father, cousins, and aunt for details. The narratives we inherit from our families touch every piece of the fabric in which we exist as social beings, shaping us in everything from casual interactions to the great matter of our lives, Freud’s lieben und arbeiten, love and work. Unless something happens to show the stitches in that narrative fabric, it tends to go unquestioned. The origin story my mother wove for us, a formerly wealthy mother-daughter pair on the run from a bad situation, covert ops work on the side, never quite rooted, a tree of life that I could not, in the end, cling to.
She taught me to believe a story until it cohered into almost-truth, to repeat it with casual conviction until you yourself forget the red clay, forget the chickens, forget the hunger and the pills. I believed hers as far as it would take me, until the narrative could not hold up to what was asked of it. Then I told myself a new story, one in which I was a woman who cooked, a woman who maintained a hearth, a woman who would not run: Hestia, rather than a maenad.
At her alter—domesticity, family, and above all, order—I built a life I did not originally intend, one with three children, two cats, dinner on the table every night, and breakfast every morning. Like my grandfather, I cook too much and allow no one else in the kitchen. Like my mother, I still feel the urge to run press in the corner of my eye, to miss the exit for preschool and to drive and keep driving until the gas runs out.
Every day I turn the car into the driveway, I pick up the children, I make dinner. I choose the story I have created and feed it with the days and hours of my labor, with the unjust plunder of a white upper-middle-class life. If I do it long enough, if I repeat it just right, perhaps I will fade into it, dissolve into the treacherous fiction that this is who I have always been and that this story was inevitable. This certainty would be warm and cosseted. It would also be a lie.
Most humans crave authenticity, by which I mean the illusion that there is a natural and immutable tie between the narrative we impose on our lives and the messy reality that makes up those lives. It is not that these stories are lies but that they are contingent; choosing them over and over every day is what keeps them alive. If the repetition of meals is what makes up a cuisine, it is also true that there is nothing but memory and desire that links the pasta alla norma made this week to the one made next. Yet, memory and desire are the ingredients of appetite: without them, we would not know for what we hunger.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.