My mother, Regina DeStefano-Marrella, was a wonderful Italian cook and storyteller. Born in Union City in 1917, “Queenie” spent her early childhood with her maternal immigrant grandmother, Mamma Nonna, whose nose resembled Jimmy Durante’s and whose physique, due to osteoporosis, recalled Quasimodo’s. Although imposing, she was caring, and brought Queenie unforgettable discoveries of delicious foods from a bountiful garden and wild greens grown in the back of her house.
It’s hard to imagine Union City as an idyllic setting for a child to be introduced to all sort of home-grown vegetables, herbs and even animals. But Mamma Nonna had a large piece of property next to some vacant verdant city land and turned it into an inviting and fertile urban farm.
Mamma Nonna owned a horse, a female goat, chickens, rabbits, a dog, cat and even guinea pigs. Baskets in hand, grandmother and granddaughter would gather pungent spring onions and wild garlic from the meadow and watercress from the creek that ran through the property.
They collected the tender spring leaves of the dandelion plant, and Mama Nonna instructed Queenie not to pull the roots out so that the leaves would regenerate. Once the plant produced the yellow flowers, the leaves became large and tough. Mamma Nonna plucked those leaves too, but tenderized them by sautéing them in olive oil and garlic.
“Queenie, look how sharp the leaves of the dandelion are… dente de lione . Like lion’s teeth!”
They picked rose hips and chamomile flowers for tea and a foot tall vegetable stalk called a cardoon that when peeled and blanched is similar to celery.
Queenie and granddaughter Leah in 1996
From the carefully tended vegetable garden, Mamma Nonna not only gleaned tomato, basil, cumber, garlic, eggplant but also rows of zucchini with large white blossoms. Mamma Nonna taught Queenie to pick only the male zucchini flowers—ones that grew on the stems and had a large piston growing in the middle. With several of them, she made a tasty treat by dipping them in a light batter, deep frying them, and topping them with powdered sugar.
The farm had an aggressive, ornery rooster who would attack Queenie every time she walked past the hen house. Mamma Nonna would shoo him away with a broom and wipe my mother’s tears with her apron. She consoled her with a fresh warm egg that was wiped first then, pricked with a pin on either side and sucked down raw.
Queenie recalled her grandmother disciplining the dog, who managed to escape the rooster’s wrath and killed a precious hen. She tied the dead chicken around the dog’s neck with some twine and let it hang there for days — curing him of his murderous act.
Eggs were consumed in great quantities and weren’t eaten only as a simple dishv– hard boiled-on top of fresh dandelion salad with olive oil and red wine vinegar — but also consumed in open-faced omelets or frittatas with an endless number of vegetable, herb and goat cheese fillings.
On special occasions, Mamma Nonna would plop golden yellow yolks into an indentation she made with the back of a soup ladle in a mound of flour. She gradually transformed the mixture into egg pasta dough before Queenie’s eyes.
After kneading, rolling, stretching and folding the dough into a flat roll, Mamma Nonna cut strips of long narrow fettuccine. Queenie would unfold the noodles and place them on clean sheets on any available surface in the house, including the beds.
Oregano, rosemary and thyme were grown during the summer and dried upside down in bundles. Dried mint was used not only to soothe a belly ache but also for canning pickled eggplants and mushrooms. Queenie was told to pick and place a fresh bunch of mint every few days and place it in the bathroom to keep the air smelling fresh. Mamma Nonna demonstrated how to clean your teeth with the rough surface of the salvia leaf.
The role my great grandmother played in my mother’s life-long love with food was significant.
Queenie’s senses were stimulated by the smelling, gathering, touching and meal preparation in that little urban oasis.
My mother, whose homemade tomato sauce remains the paragon to which I compare all others, passed away five years ago.
I cannot crush garlic cloves or stir tomatoes without thinking of her and the legacy she left me.
Though I buy my dandelion in green markets now, I’ll never call it crab grass on my lawn.
And for that, I thank Mamma Nonna.
A native Jersey girl, Maria Pia Marrella is an artist and art director who has shown in galleries and museums in the New York Metropolitan area. She was raised in Jersey City and lived in Ridgefield for several years, went to Parsons AND Marymount. She now lives in Westchester with her husband, Allen E. Galant, and daughter, Leah. Maria can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With more than a bit of a nudge, she got her mom to write down her earliest memories of childhood. The original intent was to turn it into a children’s book — Maria produced several illustrations, as well as dream sequences that caught the attention of Harper/Collins. Yet it “somehow never got finished,” she said. We’re hoping it does.
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