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A Cornmeal Heirloom

A Cornmeal Heirloom
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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.

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11 Responses to A Cornmeal Heirloom

  1. Joyce Cerutti October 7, 2008 at 6:04 am #

    I loved this, made me cry my sentimental Italian tears with joy. Thanks for sharing your precious moments, Lisa G!

  2. debby desimone October 8, 2008 at 11:31 am #

    Anytime I read an article by Lisa G. it takes me away to reality that’s not even mine……

  3. Jill Uva October 9, 2008 at 8:24 am #

    What a beautifully written “ode” to a woman who obviously touched this young girl’s heart and influenced her in many ways. Made me miss my own mother who filled our kitchen with simple yet spectacularly cooked meals, love and true maternal warmth. Thank you for sharing your memories Lisa.

  4. joan lattanzio October 9, 2008 at 8:27 am #

    What a great story … very well written …. could feel the love and passion the writer had for Josie. If only we all had a “Josie” to pass down heirlooms such as these. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story …. Hope the writer has more in store for us!!!

  5. robin rouse October 11, 2008 at 12:07 am #

    Lovely story Lisa. I can almost smell the pizza cooking! I can’t wait to try the recipe myself. Thank you for sharing this.

  6. Brittany Bisk October 12, 2008 at 11:36 pm #

    Wonderful, heartfelt story. I have no personal connection to the tale; I’m not Italian, never had a grandmother who I cooked with, and yet the story really touched me. The writer made me feel her beloved memory as my own. Lovely. Thank you Lisa.

  7. Mary Hall October 16, 2008 at 3:06 pm #

    Fried cornmeal mush, but with a few extras.

  8. Marty Brunskill October 16, 2008 at 3:32 pm #

    Sounds like an interesting lady. I plan on trying the recipe, we eat alot of things made with corn meal.

  9. Deb Lomas October 23, 2008 at 6:44 pm #

    I loved the opening description of Josie’s hands and your wonder at her skill in spite of their distortion. “Like a sweet witch’s” is a wonderful picture. Also liked the tension building; “throat dried” ; holding your breath until you got the thumbs up! She seemed like quite the character and obviously an adored!

  10. Carol Weideman October 24, 2008 at 2:32 pm #

    This article brushed a broad stroke across my senses. My mouth watered, my heart warmed, and a peaceful bliss fell across my shoulders in relaxing solitude of the moment. Thank you for allowing us to peer into a tender memory that inspires and encourages. It is more than recipe, it is someone dear taking the time to pass on a family treasure. We are richer for it Lisa. Josi remind us the importance of taking time for life’s simple pleasures with family. May we all take a little time to pass on more of the same. Blessings to you and your family over the upcoming holiday season.

  11. Lisa Gurney October 25, 2008 at 1:10 pm #

    Thanks to everyone for your wonderful comments! I am happy the piece touched you. I wish Josie were still here. She’d be so pleased.

    I made a special discovery a few days ago. Josie would wear the same “housecoat” whenever she was cooking at our house. I was in the attic, bringing winter clothes down, and in one of the bags was her housecoat. Not sure I can describe how it felt to touch it, smell it, put it on and walk around with my hands in the pockets. It is now my apron – my housecoat.

    Thanks again for reading and posting a comment. It means a lot to this humbled writer!

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