Walking into this house could make a person feel like they were entering a maze. Coats, hats, shoes and boxes, all pushed at one from their places where they hung floor-to-ceiling in an embracing disarray. The amusement park sense whispered of those dimly-lit back rooms at circuses where the tricky things were kept – those things used to amuse the crowds, things made of bits of strong cloth and sharp bits of metal, each one seeming to hint at small bashful smiles or haphazardly glimmering crooked grins. The overwhelming clutter of odd shaped paraphernalia made one think the Wizard of Oz must be around somewhere – if not the Snake Lady, or the Four-Headed Man. Something, though – something novel and startling would surely appear at the end of pushing through this dizzying claustrophobic tunnel.
At the end what actually appeared was a small, square kitchen. A rectangular 1950’s style formica-topped chrome-tabbed table was there, curled up against the wall like a spiritual haven. And in the kitchen was Jo.
She did not induce any sort of wonder in how she looked. Josephine stood about four feet eight inches tall, with steel-grey hair pulled into a bun wound low at the spot it touched the back nape of her neck. Her hair was always pulled back – except when she would retire to bed at night. Then the hair would cascade down her back in a total surprise of rebellion, a reminder that the old were once young and that the young will become old as sure as any thing can be on this earth.
Her hair in its neat bun suited her though, for she was a direct woman, a no-nonsense woman well into her mid-seventies. The kitchen, this kitchen at the end of the maze of hallway – was mostly where Jo lived. You could find her in other places . . . once in a while in the garden outside in the grassy lot at the side of her house, this tiny house that she and her husband and their six children called home. You might find her once or twice a year at the Catholic church – usually on a sacred day.
But the rest of the time, all the time, you would find Jo in her kitchen. For in her kitchen this tiny, uneducated, unpretentious woman was Queen. Jo cooked every day of her life. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Seven days a week, no respite. Nobody else would dream of approaching the kitchen to cook – not only because she was Queen, but because nobody wished to surrender the right to one single meal she cooked. Jo’s two daughters had been taught to cook in that kitchen, and her four sons had learned a bit too. But never was the taste, the same. It was not the ingredients, for they were the same. It was not the methods, for the methods she used were nothing if not basic. It was not the equipment nor the weather nor the mood of the person cooking nor anything, anything at all that could be found to answer the question “Why?” It was just Josephine. Was Josephine an artist with the food? No. Or rather, not unless you believe that what an artist does is to somehow transport love through their art. For that is what Josephine did, and that was the taste which filled the mouths of those lucky enough to partake of it.
Jo’s food was love, made real enough to eat. “Hey, hey!” her small high-pitched Italian-accented voice would warm one as they entered the kitchen through the maze of the hallway- her kitchen, where she ruled.
“What’re you doing? Sit down, sit down, here, eat!” And there was no choice to be had. It didn’t matter if you were hungry or not. The plates and bowls of food would be fitted in front of you with abandon on the table, this table cluttered with a zillion other things – by Jo as she moved busily back and forth in the small six-foot space between sink, stove, and refrigerator. You would perch on the red plastic kitchen chair and listen to a world of busy conversation, half in Italian, half in laughing English . . . and bowls and plates and pots of food would be set before you wafting hot steam and fragranced scents, food that said love, food that carried anyone who tasted it to a place of deep contentment and almost-childlike passivity.
What did she cook? Nothing new. Nothing too expensive or finessed, that’s for sure. Her food was prepared on a shoestring, but that shoestring could tie the world together and do it beautifully. There were roasts seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs, endless platters of strange bitter vegetables of all shades of green from Umbrian olive to Crayola spring. Some of the green things were from the garden, some came from the market and others were picked alongside the road. The small glasses of bitter homemade wine clinked against the medium-sized glasses of tepid water in a cacophony of glassware designs. There was polenta and rice and pasta, always with some variance of “ururu” or ragu – the tomato sauce which encompassed the house and part of the neighborhood too, with the aroma only a long-simmering, meat-and-herb imbued tomato sauce can give – the aroma that hints of bright sunshine and laughter, murmurs of an ease, simplicity and suppleness of life.
Often enough – but never too often! – Jo would take a heavy aluminum fork in hand to whip homemade ricotta with a bit of milk into a soft blanket to be thrown generously over hot ragu-covered macaroni, all to be served without further adieu. The creamy cool whiteness of the ricotta was just like a gathering of angels hovering and protecting, aiding and abetting the spicy sauce and the dense heavy dull pasta lowering below it.
There were other meals, so many. Sometimes on a cool windy Autumn day a grana padano would be grated to fall like golden tears into a rich chicken broth studded with whatever else happened to serendipitously appear that day . . . bitter greens, double-yolked eggs, fresh peas, rice. And the cheese melted just enough to allow that the tears it first resembled were now gone, that all was now made right in the world, all in this bowl of golden soup.
The book has not yet been written of Josephine’s recipes. Would it be possible? Would the recipes, even if closely written and carefully detailed, even if filled with memories, would these recipes ever be able to do what they hinted in promise? Could they bring Jo’s love into reality again, in the form of a bite taken of a dish of food?
The answer to that question is, of course, unknowable. But the things of the heart remembered are exquisitely real. They are as solid and warming to the soul as any “real” thing one might bite into. They cannot be measured into tidy neat parts of any recipe – by cups or kilos or teaspoons or quarts. None of the best things in life can be. But their essence does remain, vital and true.