On Grandmothers and Tradition

Categories Doing, Eating, Loving

My Lovely Italian Grandmother made terrible polenta.

Seriously.  Terrible.  Polenta.

She was the kind of Grandmother who, when you entered her home, asked about your last meal before she asked who you were.  “Here…sit.  Eat,” she would say.  Her Mother did the same – it’s how we got one of my in-law uncles.  He sat down for a meal and kept coming back.  You didn’t argue; you sat and you ate.  And in that instant, you were home whether you “belonged” to us or not.  I didn’t know we weren’t actually related to many of the faces she fed until I was in middle school.  Any of these family members and friends can tell stories for hours about memorable times and delicious meals shared around my Grandparents’ table.

The polenta is not among them.

My Grandmother was not a terrible cook.  Some of the things she cooked for us were unequalled.

Her lasagna and stuffed shells were Heaven in a baking dish.  Her Sunday roast beef and mashed potatoes were comfort food at its finest.  No one could get a roast so tender it would fall apart at the slightest touch of a carving knife and her potatoes were smother and fluffier than a cotton candy cloud.  Her baked beans were legendary.

But for some reason my Lovely Italian Grandmother could not get polenta to be…well, polenta.  I can remember evenings at her table surrounded by some of my youngest Aunts and Uncles, my Sister and perhaps a friend or two who was there to do homework or work on a Boy Scout badge.  When the meal appeared, it was generally greeted with smiling faces and eager bellies.

But on polenta night, silence fell as quickly as an elephant through the frozen surface of a lake when that stuff hit the plates.  You can’t imagine all the ways we tried to make it look like we had eaten it.  More than one family dog slunk away whimpering when asked for assistance in the operation.

I never understood how someone who spun the lightest Christmas kiffles could produce this leaden yellow sponge and call it dinner.  How did My Grandmother not inherit polenta-making skill?  Her Mother made the best polenta known to mankind.  My Mom tells stories about the beauty of her Nonna’s polenta and how she stood at the stove loving it into perfection.

Apparently, this skill skipped a generation in My Grandmother.  And then it did it again in My Mom.  (Hers is pretty bad, too.  No offense, Mom.)  And since I had never actually had the experience of Mom’s Nonna’s perfect polenta, I could not figure out what in the world she was thinking when she described how wonderful it was.

The polenta stories came up not too long ago.  There was that look in My Mom’s eyes again.  I had some cornmeal I didn’t know what to do with, so I decided to figure out for myself what this polenta business was all about.  If My Mom wanted her Nonna’s polenta, then I was going to figure out how to get it for her. I scoured a number of cookbooks and websites searching for what sounded and looked like what My Mom had described all these years.  I settled on one and e-mailed her the link.

I waited.

The reply came back: “This looks spectacular and is probably what my Nonna made.”  Mom went on to explain how she never understood how it went from furious whisking in a pan to the more solid form that appeared at dinnertime.  (There was some speculation about Mom’s failure in this procedure coming as the direct result of having to abandon the furious whisking in favor of wiping one of our snotty little noses or preventing one of us from spitting out food or doing some other stupid kid thing.)  The rest of the e-mail detailed the various ways Mom’s Nonna would serve polenta and how much it sounded like this recipe.

Bingo!  I was sold.  And so I meticulously followed the steps, taking care to do it just the way My Mom described.  It seemed to be going well.  Finally, the finished product was laid on the table.  Mom said it looked just right…texture was just right…and it tasted just right!  Woo-hooooo!   So that’s what polenta was supposed to be.

I did a little happy dance right there in my seat because this meant two things:

  1. Mom got her polenta.
  2. I got the polenta gene.

This is a big thing, to have “the (insert food here) gene.”  My Grandmother did the bulk of the major food prep for all of our family gatherings and we always had them at My Grandparents’ house.  But that’s different now.  Now that My Lovely Italian Grandmother has gone, we all hope to be able to reproduce her food and have it taste something like hers.  If you “get the (insert food here) gene,” it means that through some collision of genetics, one person or another inherited the art of re-creating the food of our traditions.  Several in the family can lay claim to some particular food gene or another.  Mom got the stuffed shells gene. My Sister got the meatball gene.  Aunt C. got the kiffle gene.  Another Aunt laid claim to the baked beans gene, but one of the cousins actually got it.

And I got the polenta gene.

We continue to gather together for family celebrations and holidays.  We rotate houses and assign specific food duties, but most importantly we sit around someone’s table together.   We bring along our friends and someone makes sure to ask them if they’ve eaten because that’s what My Grandmother would have done.  We talk about who sounds the most like My Grandmother when they answer the phone or who has the same facial expression as Her Mother.

We bring their food to the table, tell the stories that accompany the recipes, and Our Lovely Italian Grandmothers are with us once again.

Lisa A. Listwa is a self-employed writer with experience in education, publishing, and the martial arts. Believing there was more to life than punching someone else’s time clock and inspired by the words of Henry David Thoreau, she traded her life as a high school educator for a life as a writer and hasn’t looked back. She is mother to one glorious handful of a daughter, wife to the nicest guy on the planet, and reluctant but devoted owner of three Rotten Cats. You can find her adventures and thoughts on living life deliberately here on the blog.

18 thoughts on “On Grandmothers and Tradition

  1. I got her sausage and peppers, too, for the record. 🙂 I’m trying to master Funny Fiance’s grandmother’s potato salad to keep him around…

    1. They are fabulous. It’s a pastry of paper-thin dough, rolled by hand, and filled with various fillings. They are largely Eastern European in origin; in the U.S., you can find them in parts of Pennsylvania. Similar in nature to Polish Kolacky or Czech Kolache but use a different dough. I did not get the gene and am not in possession of the recipe, but I do know the dough involves cream cheese and butter. Nuff said. Filling is usually apricot or lekvar (prune) or a nut variety. I’ve also seen them done with a raspberry filling. They end up in sort of a little crescent or longish pillow shape, depending on the maker. Heavenly.

  2. This is amazingly so true. I got the strawberry pie gene and my sisters got the kiffle and potato salad gene. There are some other good genes in there too, but these came to mind when I read this.

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