The other day, I was feeling a bit out of sorts, somewhat under the weather. The one place I always defer to in the house to make myself feel back to normal is the kitchen. So, I went into the closet and grabbed a box of Farina and made myself a nice bowl.
You’re probably thinking I was sick in the head for making hot cereal during the summer, but this always made me feel wonderful when I was six years old, whatever the season. I immediately got nostalgic when I started eating it. Then, as usual, my “food porn” habit kicked in and I posted a picture of it on facebook (scroll below). It got over twenty comments, mostly about how the picture sparked up the same nostalgia.
I then became inspired to write a blog about how I was nourished by such specific “healing foods” as a child.
I can talk forever about all the different and delicious dishes that I grew up enjoying in my family. But when I was a kid and was feeling under the weather, there were certain ones that I particularly remember being fed, which always seemed to make things all better. My mother, both my grandmothers and my great-grandmother all had their own ideas on what healing foods were, and all of them evoke fond memories.
Now, if my mother wasn’t herself, that meant she automatically had a headache. And that automatically meant she had the malocchio—at least according to my grandmother, Antoinette. I never quite understood what was going on when she’d sit my mom down at the kitchen table and perform her olive oil and water routine. Keep in mind, I was pretty young, so when she’d present a bowl of water and proceed to drip olive oil into it with her fingertips, and then start reciting words in Italian, I was quite confused.
When I read about this “ceremony” in Lorraine Ranalli’s “Gravy Wars” and then in Marcia Russotto’s “Always On Sunday”—two exceptional books about growing up Italian-American in PA—the reasoning for the ritual became clearer to me. Reading it in print also verified to me that all the old-school nonnas did this and that mine wasn’t crazy. I mean, maybe this whole thing was crazy, but Grandma truly believed in its powers. I never had this practice performed on me, I instead was mostly served egg pastina or eggs, whatever the symptom.
My mother’s words whenever I was looking a bit mooshad: “How about a nice bowl of pastina?” It always did the trick. If not pastina, it would be Farina, probably my favorite childhood comfort food. I loved Farina, and always asked for it—no matter what my mood or whether I had a tummy ache or not—this was super soothing for me growing up. It was one of the first dishes I was allowed to help “prepare” as a little kid. Milk, butter, a little sprinkling of sugar, maybe a few raisins if I wanted to change it up…
Grandma Antoinette would make me a few different items. The only cereal she ever had in her house was Corn Flakes. Like the water & oil process, she had a system for serving Corn Flakes that always intrigued me. First, she’d pour the milk into the bowl and then she’d grab a handful of Flakes in the palm of her hand and sprinkle them on top of the milk. This always seemed backwards to me, but that’s how she did it—I’m doubtful it had any religious/cultural significance.
She also cooked me the most amazing omelet ever. She would use no butter in the skillet, yet it would have so much flavor, and she folded it over with delicate precision—with just the right amount of cheese melted inside and seasoned with nothing more than a little bit of salt. She’d slide it out of the pan and onto my plate, and it would remain perfectly intact. Then, she’d give me a side of toast that she’d top with not butter, but cream cheese.
My other grandmother, my Nana, would have her own egg breakfast that she said she invented, called “Egg In The Nest.” Unlike Grandma, she used a little bit of butter and would place a piece of sliced bread with the center cut out into the pan and then crack an egg right in the hole. With that, she’d pour me a hot cup of Ovaltine and a tall glass of Minute Maid orange juice, but always the frozen kind you had to mix yourself. She believed the OJ retained more Vitamin C this way, but for me, it just tasted colder, more refreshing and just much better than the one in the carton. We’d add water to the just-thawed can and stir it up together.
My great-grandmother, my Nanny, I don’t recall making eggs. She always made “Past N’ Beans” (pasta fazule/fagioli), and most of the time it was with her homemade pasta. She also made amazing “baked apples”—a definite cure for any ailment. Nanny was an absolute saint. She would open up her home to everyone in town, and also send plates to the elder neighbors on the block. I delivered many meatballs across the street care of “Aunt Tessie,” which she was always known as—at least to anyone that wasn’t lucky enough to call her Nanny.
I’ve said it before, I was raised by so many caring and loving women, and I haven’t even mentioned my five aunts—including Aunt Debbie, my godmother. Nutella on a croissant or just some Premium crackers with peanut butter and apricot jam were a few other delights that always lifted my spirits. Everyone took care of me well (and I was a handful), whether I was sick or just playing hooky from school, during a wild holiday occasion or just another Sunday. They all taught me values and life lessons, and the most important trait of expressing LOVE—with a hug or some macaroni. I’m looking forward to the day that I feed Christian Dean pastina. Hope he likes it!