Food is memories.
Have you seen The Hundred-Foot Journey? It is one of my favorite movies. I can watch it over and over again and it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. In the movie, the two main characters are eating by a creek in the French Countryside (yes, the movie is that dreamy) and Marguerite is sharing how certain food smells remind her of family, and Hassan replies, "Food is memories". I never forget that line because it sums up my life so perfectly.
My dad was the first generation of his family born in America. His parents moved to New York from Sicily and eventually to Southern California because it reminded them of home. Nearly all of my memories with my Nonno and Nonna are in their kitchen or garden. Food really does have a way of taking you back to very specific moments. And for me, the majority of those memories are wrapped in Italian food.
I was 15 the first time I went to Italy. My Nonno and Nonna wanted to take my family so we could meet our relatives and so they could show us all the places that meant so much to them. It was on that trip that I discovered my love for Stracciatella gelato. It's like a royal version of chocolate chip. Calling it chocolate chip just doesn't do it justice and I ate so much of it. It was on that trip that I tried wine for the first time. We went out to a restaurant and the waiters flipped over our glasses without checking ID's and started pouring the wine. My brother and I looked at each other, and then at my parents, wondering if someone was about to intervene. The legal drinking age is lower in Italy, and it's pretty widely accepted that teenagers will enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. We felt like bonafide adults.
Towards the end of the trip, we spent time in Giuliana, Sicily, where we have cousins. One of our final nights there, our cousin invited us to meet her and her friends in the piazza. At 10PM. Still in culture shock, we couldn't believe that teenagers got together at 10PM AND that our parents were going to let us go into the piazza to meet a bunch of strangers. That is Italy for you. So, we go into the piazza and a group of Italian teenagers swarms around the Americans, testing out what little English they know and asking us if we want "una coca" (Coca Cola). So we order "una coca per favore" and a can of Coke with a straw is handed to us. Angelo, the attractive Italian teen (I think) with dark, wild, curly hair on a Vespa asks me if I want to take a ride. Obviously, yes. Let's remember, I was 15 and now I was 15 and in love. And so, despite that fact that none of us could say much more than "how old are you" and "what do you like", we sat in the piazza until midnight, drinking coke and eating gelato and life was a little slice of heaven. To this day, whenever I drink Coke (which is almost never), I'm back in Giuliana, riding on Angelo's Vespa.
The taste and smell of almond paste reminds me of Christmas and my Nonna because it's used in so many classic Sicilian cookies. Fajitas always remind me of my dad because he can turn any leftovers you have into delicious fajitas. Ritz crackers remind me of my childhood and how the only way I would eat Top Ramen was with a handful of Ritz crushed into the noodles.
Tonight, at Pizzeria Mozza, Jon and I were transported to our trip to Italy where we ate pizza in Campo dei Fiori (which is actually where the chef of Mozza got her inspiration for her pizza dough). Every bite was an overindulgent, greasy, memory of jazz music playing in the piazza, an entire Roman pizza in our bellies, and a drowsy walk home to our Airbnb in the Jewish Ghetto just outside some ancient ruins.
This is why cooking matters to me. Cooking connects me to my family. It's my history and it's my future. It's my legacy. Food brings friends and family around a table. It connects strangers and old friends. Food is an exclamation point to a celebration, and an embrace when there is mourning. When I watch cooking shows and documentaries about chefs I am overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a sort of nostalgia. A longing to be back in the kitchen with Nonna, the joy of cooking holiday meals with my mom, the excitement of one day cooking with Brighton, the satisfaction of kneading dough into the most delicious dessert. There is so much to discover in the world of food and yet, it's all so familiar.