Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Cheese Graters and Families by Annalisa Russo

It’s the end of July and I am in the kitchen finishing my spring cleaning. (What can I say, I got a late start) I take down an old cheese grater from the hook on the wall. My home is decorated in what one might call comfy contemporary, but I have a few cherished items that belonged to my grandmother sprinkled about.

Nonna, as I called her, was a good cook. Mostly she made up recipes because when she traveled to America after my grandfather sent for her, she didn’t know how to boil water. As one of the older children in her large Italian family, she left her village on Monday morning to walk five miles to the factory where she worked and slept six days a week. Her younger sisters stayed home and learned household chores and cooking from their mother.

The story goes when my grandfather won enough money in a poker game to ask for her hand in marriage, he sent for her. After they married, they took in boarders to make ends meet, so as a new bride, my grandmother cooked and cleaned for six men. She learned the art of cooking quickly.

Back to the cheese grater. I dust it carefully—the rusted grate, the wooden box with a green enameled knob on the drawer under the grate. And return it to its honored place on the wall where I can see it every day—a reminder my family lived with my Nonna and Nonno until I was fourteen. For most meals, we ate together, all nine of us, eight if my father had to work nights. My grandmother cooked, my mother cleaned up, a division of labor, I suppose, because two women in the same kitchen doesn’t work.

We had soup before every meal, mostly a rich broth made from beef or chicken and whatever vegetables were left over from the day before. My Nonno, sitting at the head of the table, would grate the cheese. ‘Stinky cheese’ we always called it, but now I know it was good quality parmesan bought in a wheel from the local grocer down the street. He’d pass the grater, and we’d sprinkle cheese on our soup.

So, to me the grater represents the coming together as a family to share a meal and conversation. As I look back now at my own family, I tried for as long as possible to keep the tradition of the family meal alive. We met, we prayed, we ate. It wasn’t always easy as my children had places to go and people to see the older they grew.

I grew up with a strong sense of family. I suppose that’s why, in my series The Cavelli Angel Saga, the Cavelli family comes together in the kitchen of Bellaluna often to eat, share, talk, and solve their problems. To the Cavelli siblings, no problem is too big if they have each other.

I imagine for today’s busy parents, a family meal can be the exception rather than the rule. But even in this age of cell phones, texting, and Twitter, I hope you and your family can come together at the table and recognize the gift a rusty old cheese grater can be.

Annalisa Russo
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