Monday, January 14, 2013

Queenie in the Kitchen

Gayle talked in her blog, today about the biblical account of Mary and Martha. She wrote how both behaviors exist in the same body, both being important to a life of prayer and service. I really resonated to that entry after the day I had on Saturday.

I was granted the gift by my friend, Queenie, of accompanying her to the kitchen of an off-the-boat Italian woman's son's home. Saturday, we were going to learn to bake Italian cookies. Richard has already perfected the baking of Eda's best biscotti ever, so I was thrilled with the opportunity to add to our repertoire of original Italian delicacies.

Real Italians are powerfully passionate people, even about the almonds and figs for their family's favorite foods. Many people don't know this, but the Italian influence in the New Orleans area is so strong that after being here for a year you become part Italian Catholic. It's in the food, the wine, and the air. Francesca should be famous as the queen if the New Orleans Italian kitchen.

I don't know what I expected, but we arrived at Francesca's son's home and were greeted by her gentle and gentile daughter-in-law. Upon walking through the great room, we came upon a beautifully appointed open kitchen looking over a huge majestic dining room. This was the kind of table where homemade Italian food would be properly honored. We were ready to roll up our sleeves, scrub up, and begin. But wait!

Through the door at the edge of the dining room was a second kitchen. Be still my heart, a prep kitchen as well as a show kitchen in a private home. Only in the mansion where my Italian friend, Noel, works had I been exposed to such a foodie's fantasy.

The first excited utterings, in a very heavy Italian accent, had to do with not having the right size bowl and the absence of the necessary twenty eggs. Julia Child was never any more entertaining than was Francesca. There were ways to do things that were sacred, and we were in danger of committing cooking heresy. Her daughter-in-law pulled out several bowls as substitutions, "No! No! No!" in the way an only Italian grandmother can express her dismay.

This prep kitchen is bedecked with gorgeous granite counter-tops. When a suitable bowl couldn't be produced, Francesca sent her daughter-in-law out for eggs, and plop! Ten pounds of flour hit the shiny surface in one big white mound. Queenie suggested that we should be writing down the recipe. What recipe? As with all really good cooks, measurements are a matter of feel, not a matter of science. Could Michelangelo have written a recipe for painting the Sistine Chapel? The only difference is that we worship the paintings forever; we eat in mere minutes the lovingly made artworks of the great chefs.

I was amazed at the similarities in teaching cooking methods between this tiny immigrant Italian and myself. When I was a professional cooking teacher, I didn't arrive in the classroom with written directions. I appointed a student in the front row to follow along, writing down all my "guestimates" of how much of each ingredient. I volunteered to be that front-row student for Francesca. I have problems standing for long periods, so this suited me just fine.

Queenie is just learning the intricacies of the kitchen, now that she's in semi-retirement. She was greatly enthused by adding the great globs of other ingredients onto the massive mound of flour. My three-year-old sister making mud pies with me had no more glee than did Queenie. It mattered not to Francesca when the half gallon river of eggs started cascading dangerously off the mound toward Queenie's feet. Not to worry, what Queenie lacks in height, she makes up for with fast reflexes.

I was enjoying being Mary, sitting at the feet of the master (mistress?), for a change, converting her Italian- tinged directives to my own shorthand for later transcription. But with Francesca, every warm body had to get into the act. You want to eat, you cook...unless you're her sacred son, who she says with pride "doesn't know how. He asks too many questions. How much you put? I no know how much."

After incorporating all other ingredients into the dough, it was time to have lunch while the dough rested. But there was to be little rest for Francesca and Queenie. Francesca had planned a feast for us. Out of her daughter-in-law's refrigerator, she produced veal cutlets that, she explained, had been breaded by her with her own bread crumb recipe. Out of the pantry, came a quart of her should-be-famous marinara sauce, that Queenie had helped her can many months before. Out of one of her five-gallon buckets, that she had brought in when she arrived, came a plastic bag of her hand grated "stinky cheese."

While Francesca set to work frying the veal and fussing about the inadequacy of the pan, I stood by asking about ingredients and procedures.  She sincerely bemoaned her inability to teach because she couldn't say "how much." By this time, I think she was toying with being comfortable that I could translate her directions to something resembling a recipe. Maybe it was the way I handled her measuring of milk by the handful into the dough that calmed her. i sincerely answered that she was the best kind of teacher, the kind that helps you learn by assisting the artist.

She and I had seemed to bond over the understanding that flour doesn't always contain the same amount of moisture, and almonds have varying amounts of oil. I think she was willing to trust me for the moment, but the proof of my trustworthiness will probably come when her daughter attempts to use my written recipes. Queenie was set to work making salad while Francesca boiled the pasta.

Meanwhile, Francesca's son had breezed through the kitchen, kissing us all on the tops of our heads and doing a bit of fatherly flirting with his two daughters. He didn't stay for lunch, but his sister entered with her two children, a nine-year-old girl and an eighteen-month-old boy who clearly adores his Nona. But he broke Nona's heart when he took one look at lunch and started saying No! with his hands and his beautiful little-boy soprano voice. I had a son with that gleam in his eye. I don't think it was meant to be an affront to Nona's culinary talents, but that he didn't want to take time out of chasing the dog to be strapped in a chair to eat.

Francesca seemed to feel that a meal without a man at the table just wasn't worth spending time on. She insisted that her daughter get the son-in-law on the phone and "make" him come to lunch. The party was on! "Ma, don't start with me! He's got other things to do!" "What he got to do? He gotta eat."

Queenie held the salad bowl up to Francesca in the position in which the alter boys hold the vessel of hosts at communion. Francesca anointed the romaine with a few ingredients and finished off with vinegar, "Just a splash." After tossing the salad, Queenie got us to the table, with the only "man" being in a high chair, by announcing, "Manga!"

We were thoroughly enjoying the lively lunch conversation about fifty years of marriage, Italian-style, when Francesca proclaimed, "Talk is good, but we got work to do. Back to the kitchen!"

Everybody really got into the act at this point. There was to be no more division of Marys and Marthas. The fourteen-year-old genius granddaughter ran for cover. Two other nine-year-old granddaughters came in and fought to be Nona's favorite cookie makers. The daughter-in-law prepared baking pans, rotated them in the oven, removed cookies, and dusted them with powdered sugar. Queenie and Francesca worked as a small (in stature and numbers) assembly line, rolling dough and placing almond and fig fillings in the centers before covering with more dough and placing on the baking sheets. The daughter-in-law placed the pans in the oven.

Every time her daughter-in-law opened her commercial convection oven, Francesca would announce, " I love this oven, but she won't let me steal it!" Her daughter-in-law replied, without missing a beat, " I told her she could have it if she can lift it out and carry it out by herself." Francesca finally admitted that she could buy one, but she didn't want to spend a thousand dollars on one when she's ready to "retire" from cooking. I got the feeling that this same conversation transpires every time Francesca cooks in her son's home.

Francesca's daughter entered with her toddler and announced to her mother that she was leaving the active little boy with her mother, so she could go shopping. Her mother replied, quick as lightening, "I have work to do! You don't do nothing!" Queenie jumped in with, "We'll watch him. You go." Francesca's look at Queenie was pure incredulity. At this point, the daughter burst into laughter, while her mother continued fussing. "Ma! I was just kidding! I don't leave him with you went you're not making cookies; I'm not going to leave him with you now!"

Francesca was already off to the races with fussing about how her daughter wasn't getting any cookies because she didn't help make them. This led to a rollicking discussion of the favoritism shown to the son, which took us full circle back to "He don't know how!" Another conversation that has probably been circling for almost fifty years.

Francesca must have then noticed that I no doing nothing, so she set me to work rolling dough. I've never had manual dexterity, so several times she fussed about my uneven dough. I offered to let her beat me with her wooden rolling stick. She said, "I would, but I know how that hurt." Did I wonder how she'd know what a whack with a wooden stick feels like? Not in the least.

My mother and grandmothers wouldn't let me help them either because I was too messy. More than once my mother's mother threatened to hit me and my younger sister with a broom handle. And when I attempted to learn drums from a nun in high school, she ended trying to teach me after two lessons with the words, "You're a spastic." i was grateful when Francesca simply patched the bald spots in the dough.

I'm not sure if I'd gotten any cookies to take home if I hadn't gotten into the act of rolling and stuffing for a few minutes. More than likely, I would have because my man arrived to take me home and I don't think Francesca knows how to let a man leave with a token of her talents to remember her by.

It took me two days to recuperate. Welcome to the Old New Orleans Italian way. Manga!