Most of my childhood was scented by the simple but perfect smell of garlic or onions sautéing in olive oil – the foundation of nearly every dinner my mom would cook.
Now, when this irresistible aroma fills my own kitchen, I find myself transported back to these memories – building with jumbo LEGOs on our pink living room carpet, the voice of Andrea Bocelli or Claudio Baglioni drifting in from the kitchen, and of course, the scented promise of the delicious dinner soon to be served.
Being Italian-American, food has always been an integral part of my cultural identity.
I grew up in a home where everything was made from scratch, and every family get-together was centered around the dining room table.
Every holiday had its own traditional dishes and desserts: Easter meant rustici, little cheese-and-meat hand pies, and the pastiera, an orange wheat pie. Christmas was defined by countless sweets, including the struffoli, a honey ball wreath, and the pasta reale, fondant-covered almond paste pastries.
My mom even gave an Italian twist to Thanksgiving, a holiday she only started celebrating when she moved to the states as an adult, by adding pasta with a squash sauce to the table alongside the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cornbread.
Leading up to any holiday, Mom spends days in the kitchen, morning to night, to make sure our family will build lasting memories each year around a cornucopia of delicious foods.
This last Easter, I realized just how much love and hard work she poured into these priceless moments when I was put in charge of making the dishes my siblings and I had grown up on.
As I rolled out the rustici dough and gingerly made the temperamental pastiera filling (with my mom just a panicked FaceTime call away), I felt connected to the generations before me, back in Italy, making these same recipes decades before.
I finally understood that these foods I’ve taken for granted for so long are the product of passionate matriarchs passing on their love for their culture and family through perfected – and often secret – family recipes.
Now, whenever I pull out my recipe folder to satisfy a craving for one of my childhood dinner staples, I think of the many families in Westchester that struggle to put dinner on their tables each night.
I wonder how many families have to skip the traditional comfort foods they may yearn from their own childhood due to an empty fridge or a strict grocery store budget determined by inflated prices.
Food is critical nourishment, but not just for the body. It nourishes our souls and our relationships.
We bond by breaking bread, swapping recipes, and making tried-and-true family delicacies through muscle memory and the tastes so engrained in our memories.
This holiday season, I hope that all of our neighbors in need are able to invite their ancestors to the table with them, honoring their roots and making new memories together.