By Sarah DiMarco
Poverty. It’s not just a word, but a reality for many. The countless late nights spent working, the intense budgeting for each week, the hours fighting over money; it is a life where you are constantly looking for a way out, a way to find hope.
For my family, hope was in the kitchen.
Growing up, weekdays were a blur of family members rushing in and out of the house. As my father and mother fought over who could use the car, my brother ran to get to work on time and my grandmother prepared breakfast. Mornings consisted of keys rattling, spiritless “see you laters,” and doors shutting. It became an odd melody that filled our house for years. I never missed my cue when I sang, “I’ll be back after school.”
Evenings weren’t too different. With everyone working different schedules, dinners during the week were light in food and conversation. The little words spoken at the table were often about money, or in our case, lack of. Arguments would last a few minutes before silence enveloped the entire room. It seemed no matter how hard my father or my mother argued, they could never come up with a solution.
As a child, I didn’t realize how bad off we were because everyone around us seemed to be living the same narrative. For many of my classmates and myself, we thought this would be what our futures would look like. Being poor meant that you were living in your own world away from those that had wealth. We knew nothing more than the crumbling houses, the secondhand clothes and the dirty school that served as a place of asylum.
Fridays felt like the day when we could finally take a breath and erase the past week from our minds. The new theme in the song that decorated our house was filled with exasperated sighs and shoes hitting the floor. However, Fridays symbolized a day of solace. On that day, my grandmother and I would do homework together. She was learning with me as we reviewed vocabulary and math. In that moment we felt like a family, not just strangers working to pay off bills. Then we planned Sunday dinner.
I never understood how we made it work. I still don’t, but somehow Sundays always consisted of a full day of cooking and happiness. The perfume of olive oil and garlic in a pan with the roar of water boiling in the pot beside it became the climax to the song we were creating. The dread that often loomed over our heads was replaced with a calmness. Well, as calm as you can be with five other people in the kitchen. The voices of my aunts and uncles would flood the house bringing a sense of warmth to the weekends.
When I first started to help in the kitchen, I thought my role was to taste test the peppers and onions as my grandmother chopped them. I soon realized that to be in her kitchen, you needed to do some work. Each person had a role. From preparing the dough for the pasta to setting the oblong table, we all contributed to the meal in some way.
We made Italian food, as it reminded my grandmother of her young life in Italy. She spent most of her teenage days studying and was the first child in her family to attend college. Her sister would always mention how my humble grandmother was the only woman in the school and was the top of her class. With the respect and appreciation everyone had for her, it made perfect sense that my grandmother became the ringleader of this kitchen circus.
Even at a young age, I ended up with a board full of vegetables in front of me waiting to be sliced. To this day, I feel at home with a cutting board in hand. It became comforting listening to my grandparents regale stories of life as an immigrant family as we worked together to create something from scratch. As tomatoes would simmer down with basil leaves and a bit of oil, my grandmother would talk about the hours she and my grandfather spent in the garden caring for their fruits during the summer.
Over the years, we made countless dishes and memories in that kitchen. Cooking acted as therapy for us all, and for a few hours, everything else melted away. There wasn’t talk about money or work, but rather the food and the memories attached to each dish and ingredient. Pasta puttanesca was the dish my great-grandfather would prepare in Italy when he wanted to impress his friends. Although, my uncle would always make it clear that it was the only dish he knew how to make. Sardines were the snack of choice for my grandfather’s game night as he and his friends smoked cigars while bickering over the results of soccer games. The list goes on and on, and it is safe to say, we all remember those anecdotes shared.
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 28-ounce can of whole plum tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons capers
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, halved, pitted
1 basil leaf
1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
A pinch of cumin
3/4 pound linguine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
Grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Heat olive oil in a large dutch oven. Once the pot is hot,, add garlic and stir until fragrant, about one minute.
Drain tomatoes and crush with a fork before adding them to the pot. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Cook until the tomatoes start to break down into a saucy mixture, 7 minutes. Add capers, anchovy fillets, olives, basil, red pepper flakes and a pinch of cumin. Simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
While that is simmering, add pasta to large pot of boiling salted water. Cook until al dente. The pasta should still be a bit firm to bite. Drain pasta.
Once pasta is cooked, turn the heat off for the sauce and toss them together. Garnish with grated parmesan cheese and parsley.
We were struggling to make ends meet, but Sundays were about food and family. The stories lasted all day and night and we laughed and joked as we enjoyed the dish we created together. Our giggles and yells of delight became the finale to the piece of music we created. While we headed towards the beginning of the draining week, we still had Sunday dinners to hold on to.
Those memories haven’t left me. To this day, the aroma of cumin can be found in my grandmother’s favorite worn-leather messenger bag, the secret spice she carried with her everywhere she went. Now as I start creating my own traditions within the kitchen, there are less rattling keys and the whispers of debt aren’t as noticeable. Hope has found its way into different facets of our lives. While my family can’t all come together as much anymore, the kitchen still symbolizes a place of sanctuary as I tackle the recipes my grandmother passed down to me. It’s only a matter of time before I start regaling stories and memories in my own kitchen like we used to.