A Cornmeal Heirloom
What I always noticed first when Josie cooked were her hands. Her fingers were slender but gnarled, like a sweet witch’s, and from the base of her knuckles to her wrists they were swollen with arthritis. I often wondered how she could create such amazing dishes with these two distorted tools.
Josie was my surrogate grandmother. Related to my family through marriage, she had been in my life since birth. We lived in Boston’s Italian neighborhood and food was as big a part of our lives as loving and breathing. She taught me everything she knew about cooking and wanted me to develop a fine repertoire of dishes as much as she hoped I’d grow into a good and decent woman.
I had just turned twenty when she announced it was time for me to learn how to make cornmeal pizza. I didn’t know how to react. I had been asking her to teach me for years and she always refused, claiming I wasn’t ready. And now the moment had come. Why? I wondered. What changed? I didn’t ask her though, afraid to jeopardize the moment. Instead, I jumped up to get the cornmeal.
“Heat some water up in a small pan please,” she said, ambling to her plastic-covered kitchen table. While we waited for that to boil, Josie shook a generous amount of cornmeal into a bowl, added a fistful of grated Romano cheese, and a few shakes of black pepper. “How much of each are you using, Jo?” I asked. “You don’t make this with exact measurements, Mumma. Just watch,” she said as she mixed the dry ingredients with her hands. She always called me ‘Mumma’ when speaking with me directly, and ‘the baby’ when speaking about me to others. I would remain the baby well into my thirties when she passed away.
Next, Josie uncorked a glass bottle filled with green-gold olive oil and drizzled it over the dry ingredients. The pungent scent of oil blending with cheese made my mouth water. She scooped up a portion of the semi-wet mixture and pressed it into my palm, our hands joining in a mushy prayer. “Can you feel how this is starting to stick together but it’s crumbly too?” I nodded. She smiled and moved to retrieve the hot water.
Adding the water was tricky. I knew this because I had heard her curse once after using too much. She poured it into the middle of the mixture, forming a gritty well, then handed me a spoon. “You mix first with a spoon because the water will burn your hands,” she instructed. When the water was absorbed into the cornmeal she said “Now, start mixing and pressing with your fingers.”
She watched intently as I rolled the wet cornmeal around, pinching here and there. “This is the most important part…the consistency,” she said. “It’s where everyone I’ve tried to teach has gone wrong. It has to be wet enough to hold together, but it can’t be too watery or it will fall apart when you fry it.”
My throat dried. I furrowed my brow and bit the inside of my cheek. The mixture was warm and heavy when I closed my hand around it. When I released my grip, it seemed to settle and relax at the bottom of the bowl, but not fall apart. “It feels good to me Jo. Moist but…strong.” I struggled for an accurate description as her hazel eyes bore into me. “It feels wet enough to hold together, but pasty and firm too.” She lowered her own frail fingers into the bowl. I waited, holding my breath. “Brava, Mumma,” she said with a solemn nod of her head. I exhaled. The hard part was done.
We fried the cornmeal in olive oil, bringing it to a golden tan on either side, and then cooled it on a glass dish lined with paper towels. In Italy, the pizza would be served under greens; spinach or Savoy cabbage sauteed in garlic and oil. But I always loved to eat it plain, and still do, so the subtle cornmeal flavor amid the sharpness of the cheese is not lost.