My aunt is a stereotypical, older Italian lady. She won’t leave the house without lipstick. She yells at her husband whenever she teases him. And of course, she can cook a mean gravy.
Most of my memories with my aunt come from visiting at her house by the beach in Rhode Island. Although she lives only 45 minutes away, 45 minutes of travel for Rhode Islanders is a long way. Because of this, I usually only saw my aunt and uncle a few of times a year. Once on Christmas Eve for the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes and then maybe a couple of times in the summer when we wanted an escape to the beach.
Unfortunately, over the years the visits have become fewer in number. Having been abroad last spring and then in D.C. for the summer, the only opportunity for me to see my aunt and uncle was at a family BBQ one Sunday last May before I returned to the District. There was no Christmas visit, either. This past year, they decided to stay put in Florida for the holidays, so there was no feast of the fishes to be celebrated.
With the lapse in visits, my family and I welcomed the invitation to visit our relatives at their home down south. Not only did it guarantee a family reunion, but it also guaranteed great food.
My aunt learned how to cook from her mother, another stereotypical Italian woman. Under her guidance, my aunt learned the “little of this, little of that” method of cooking. Yet unlike my great-grandmother who literally measured things out with the palm of her hand and used whatever cup was closest to her to measure ingredients (which explains the three varying written recipes for egg biscuits), my aunt is a little more precise with her cooking and baking. She uses recipes more for inspiration, and rather than following them to a T, she prefers to make adjustments according to her and her husband’s palate. For her, some of the tastiest items are also the most simple.
Take this morning’s breakfast, for example. After stopping at the grocery store yesterday evening, she picked up a pound of frozen dough so that she could make what she refers to as pizza fritta. Translated to mean fried pizza, it is literally just dough fried in oil and then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar while still warm. Known as doughboys back home in Rhode Island, they are not exactly the lightest, most healthiest breakfast fare, but they sure are tasty.
Another one of her favorites is pasta fagioli. Among my family, we refer to it more commonly as pasta fazool, which refers to pasta and bean soup. The last time I visited my aunt in Florida I devoured this soup for two days straight. It didn’t matter that it was 75 degrees outside and I was eating soup; it was so hearty, yet light tasting, that I could have eaten it with temperatures in the 90s (but then probably washed down with an iced coffee).
Well, my aunt has a fantastic memory, so when I arrived last week she had bowls of the soup waiting for me to inhale. Unfortunately, I also have a good memory, so I vividly remember the list of ingredients being non-vegetarian friendly. Among the items in the recipe among onions, celery, carrots, brown sugar, tomato sauce, beans, ditalini pasta and chicken stock. After scarfing down a bowl without thinking, I asked my aunt to recount the ingredients and that’s when I realized my mistake. Even after listing chicken stock as ingredient, it didn’t occur to my aunt that there was a problem. Reminding me of my host mother in Italy, it occurred to me vegetarianism is something that some traditional Italian cooks can’t quite wrap their heads around.
With only a few days left in paradise with my aunt and uncle, I am still waiting for the opportunity to cook or bake something in the kitchen. Until then, I will simplify have to suffice on whatever food is served to me.