Beautiful memories, one of the best legacies a parent can bestow on a child, is a lifelong gift. The fondest memories of my youth are with family and friends around the dinner table. Our doors in Connecticut were always open, our table always welcoming, even to strangers needing companionship or nourishment. But one of my greatest memories, a most influential experience in my life, was when my parents took me to Abruzzo, Italy, in 1949, to visit my maternal grandparents.
As a child of eight, I did not understand or remember the stories told of the devastating war that had recently ended. But forever in my memory is the first day walking into Grandma’s colossal kitchen. My eyes turned to the massive oak table centering the room and what seemed like a mile of shiny copper pots and pans lining the walls necessary to prepare meals for Mom’s thirteen siblings and unexpected relatives and friends that constantly came to visit. Permeating the kitchen was a strong, unfamiliar odor, almost offensive to a young American child. When questioned, Mom explained to me it was Grandma’s homemade olive oil, which I later experienced and loved as it enhanced many of Grandma’s delicious meals. Never did I imagine that I would in my later years be producing my own.
It was the food and life at Grandma’s kitchen-dining room table, like my mother’s, that would live on in my memory, bringing me moments of joy and happiness to relive. Nostalgic memories would often bring me back with my family years later to the old villa in the countryside of Abruzzo where I played with my Italian cousins when I was eight. It is now occupied by my cousin’s children and their children. There, memories are relived when visualizing the worn-with-age, long wooden table that could seat so many under the grape arbour that is no longer there. In its place is what was once a small oak tree at the end of the pergola where we children would spend hours playing hide-and-seek. Today, the giant oak takes the place of the arbour that shaded us on those hot summer days, allowing us to eat comfortably “al fresco.”
Abruzzo, where the north of Italy meets the south, is one of the most picturesque regions of Italy, yet little known. Bordered on the west by the Apennine mountains and the east by the Adriatic Sea, it is a generous and pristine territory rich in hidden treasures. Its artistic heritage is extraordinary: ancient roman ruins, medieval villages, castles, monasteries, splendid historical mansions, mountain resorts, beautiful sea coast, and large stretches of protected national parks. But that which I remember most as a child and returned often to relive was Abruzzo’s food and her art of dining which I later heard referred to as convivio of the table.
Being a mountainous region, Abruzzo was cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, which is evident in the way her people maintain tradition, preparing dishes using authentic local products, creating a cuisine of ancient and genuine flavors, uninfluenced by the outside world. Her cuisine, one of the best of Italy, includes wines and olive oil praised for their quality and taste, along with extraordinary pastas known throughout the world. Being mountain folks and shepherds, they serve lamb, pork, and goat, the most popular meats, creatively. With little land for grazing, large beasts were not common. Those living by the seashore enjoyed dishes of seafood made popular throughout the world, but my ancestors being farmers in the mountain regions ate mostly meats from animals they raised, unless visiting relatives by the sea, who would serve their specialties. This cuisine of fresh, local products, creatively made into unique and flavorable specialties can be defined today, along with their convivio dining experience as having all the necessary ingredients that would make up the Mediterranean diet.
Fiercely proud of their culinary traditions, the Abruzzese are also gregariously generous with one another. Well known for a variety of resources and gastronomical creations, they are also known for their hospitality at the table as seen in their Banchetto della Panarda. La Panarda, the longest meal in the world, a medieval tradition, demonstrates their strong value for the ritual of eating and importance of life at the table. Centuries ago, it originated as a feast honoring saints. Today this unique and interesting culinary tradition is still practiced in some areas of Abruzzo on special occasions.
Unaware at age eight, I had experienced my first Panarda. In 1949, the special event was the arrival of my parents in their homeland, Italy, after an absence of sixteen years, and introduce their eight-year-old daughter, me, to her maternal grandparents and an extended Italian family. Without knowledge of the significance of La Panarda at the time, I do recall hours at the table and endless dishes, which I later learned had totalled over thirty. Although I was sent to bed, I do remember being surprised to find friends and family still at the table when I appeared for breakfast.
Legend has it that during medieval times, a mother of a newborn child went to fetch water from the town well. On her return, she was mortified and petrified to see her child in the mouth of a wolf. She could do nothing other than to pray to St. Anthony. It has been told that her prayers were answered when the wolf released the newborn child. Her gratefulness to St. Anthony was her promise to feed others with a long feast, celebrating at a leisurely pace an avalanche of various dishes served with pride, which led to La Panarda. Because Abruzzo was a poor region, feasting was an act of defiance against famine, born out of the fear that hunger could return. To this day, pagan feast and religious events are celebrated as rituals of thanks to the gods while enjoying the fruits of the season. Every harvest culminates with a sagra, a festival of a particular seasonal food enjoyed in the form of various dishes with family and friends.
I remember very little of my childhood before age eight. My treasure chest of memories seems to have begun to fill in Abruzzo with that special traditional ritual, La Panarda. I don’t remember the dishes but do recall loud table conversations, with everyone appearing to be talking, gesturing, or arguing, yet always ending with lots of laughter and the singing of old Italian songs out of tune. Nobody cared, yet all seem to be having fun. I did not experience other Panardas that year yet experienced on a daily basis endless meals, hours at the table, always accompanied by laughter and singing. Older children were at one end of the table, preschool children between their parents to control behavior and possibly consumption, and adults at the other end. Not able to speak Italian, I sat by my mother’s side so that I could constantly tug at her skirt, questioning her and then waiting for the English translation.
In retrospect, I do not recall any coloring books, crayons, puzzles, or games to occupy my time at the table. With our American compulsion for time management, one may conclude it was time wasted for the children, having to spend hours at the table. But for my Italian family, like most Italian and French families, all members would eat together, regardless of their age, talking, listening, and enjoying each other’s company without any need for objects to occupy time or activity to do simultaneously while eating. Babies, when not sleeping, would be nursed at the table and sit often quietly on their mothers’ laps, occupied and fascinated with the noise, laughter, and passing of the plates.
Experiencing life at the table from birth, Italian children accept this highlight of the day of being together. For me, there never was a question to do otherwise since my Italian peers would be with their families as well for the midday meal. All businesses would be closed, streets empty, playgrounds deserted, and the telephone, where existing, off the hook in the event some non-Italian would make that inconsiderate call during the ritual of the midday meal. Eating with adults also required that children eat or at least taste any new dish presented. There was always so much variety and pride I recall when mom or her relatives presented a newly created dish, making the meal all the more interesting. I was never served a child’s menu but possibly served a smaller portion. Learning to taste different flavors and varieties of food from childhood allowed me to enjoy them in adulthood before I even realized what that may be. By the time I learned what were snails, tripe, sweetbreads, liver, hearts, pate, pig’s feet, fish eggs, or ox tails, it was too late. I loved them all.
Looking back at my childhood at the table, I realize it was not only the experience of different foods that was a positive experience but also eating together. It was also an opportunity for parents to teach children how to eat properly. From the good examples set by the adults, I learned the proper way to eat an artichoke, asparagus, and how to twirl the spaghetti with a fork, while using the sides of the dish for support. I would be reprimanded if I failed to use fork and knife, both hands, for cutting meat and not allowed to rest a hand on my lap, which I later learned was only done in America. The entire family would take part in teaching children at the table, civility, table manners, and important skills to use in adult life.
For some reason, hours at the table during my childhood were never boring. It is where Italian and French children learn to socialize, to communicate, to learn about current events. I learned the words to the songs often sung around the table at the end of the meal. No meal would come to an end before the adults discussed what would be served the next day, giving us all a preview of the feast to come. As season’s changed so did our meal, but without a doubt it was always designed with what was available in the garden and how it could be prepared differently than that of the day before.
As an eight-year-old, I do not recall specific dishes but do know the life and order at the table since it was similar to my mom’s in Connecticut. Setting the table always included a dish of cut fresh vegetables, such as fennel, carrots, celery, radishes, and olives, all from the farm, to nibble on and to dip into a small dish of olive oil and speck of salt, while waiting for the meal. Flowers rarely occupied the table, but in their place was always the omnipresent bottle of homemade olive oil and homemade wine at the center of the table, removed from their resting place on the sideboard when not needed at the table. After dinner, the bottles would change places on the sideboard with a set of bottles of digestives, and small glasses, to enjoy after the meal. They were accompanied by a basket full of mixed nuts in their shell, nutcrackers, and fresh fruits for all to enjoy during after-dinner conversation as well as to extend time at the table.
Courses were at least three to four and always included, usually, a light soup or pasta dish, then a small portion of meat along with an avalanche of colorful fresh garden vegetables served simply yet made into a feast of flavors. Homemade pasta, often the abruzzese specialty, maccheroni alla chitarra, was commonly served with some kind of meat sauce. The pasta was made by using a smooth rolling pin to roll over strips of pasta placed over a rectangular box of strings like a guitar. There were special dishes I don’t recall, but I do know that meat dishes of lamb, goat, or pork were served since relatives raised them for family consumption, which reassured them of the quality of the animals’ diet. Vegetables of all kinds from the seasonal garden were served abundantly. Dessert, unless guests were to be served, would usually consist of grandma’s homemade cheeses, pecorino, mozzarella, scamorza, and fruits from her garden.
Soups were often the first dish served, with daily changes in ingredients. The delicious light chicken broth that I thought was used as a base, I learned years later from my mother, was the broth made with pigeons, one of the unlucky birds selected out of the hundreds from grandma’s pigeon coop, birds that never experienced eating off a public street. Since I was the one that took care of them, loved them, and fed them, I was never told they formed the base of the stock.
I never could understand how the pigeons knew the hour of the midday meal. Disappearing in the morning, they would not be seen until the church bells chimed the midday hour. As we would set the table, her pigeons would appear on the ledge of their coop. They would eat what I gave them, scraps of our Mediterranean diet, and then linger on the ledge of their coop the entire time that we rested at the table. In our hurried world as most seem to neglect that important ingredient of time at the table, grandma’s Italian pigeons knew. They ate together, making lots of noise, as if imitating us, chirping away in a language of their own, maybe laughing, maybe singing, maybe talking about us, but one thing was for sure—they were happily enjoying convivio.