My grandfather isn’t a drop Italian. He’s never even been to Italy. But damn, he loves spaghetti – slick, oily, slithering spaghetti, cooked al dente and ravaged with garlic powder, extra virgin, and little else. He eats it in a giant bowl and chases it with an espresso; his breath is sharp and heady afterwards.
His Italy is the one of nostalgic comforts – a chintzy, larger-than-life Italia refracted through American culture. It’s the red-sauce-Italy. The Sophia-Loren-in-sepia Italy. The ‘That’s Amore’ Italy. It’s an image of the country that’s best twirled on a spoon and slurped up hastily.
My grandfather came of age before Tucci searched for Italy on CNN, before Jamie taught people who’d never heard of guanciale how to cook carbonara.
When my grandmother died two years ago, my mother made it her life’s mission to ensure my grandfather didn’t starve. She’d cart over trays of lasagne wrapped in tinfoil, or chicken soup ladled into giant tupperware. It was an adequate, if imperfect, replacement for my grandmother’s culinary feats, who would keep everyone well fed on a steady stream of Jewish classics: chewy, caramelised brisket; cholent bean stew, simmered all day; a fluffy white cake soaked with honey for dessert.
But pasta was completely absent from her arsenal. Noodles were my grandfather’s domain, and a meal cooked by either grandparent was clearly demarcated by where we sat to eat it: grandma meals were served in the formal dining room, while grandpa meals were eaten at the small table in the kitchen alcove. Grandma meals were four-hour Friday night dinners, where a blessing over the candles was the starting horn and post-dessert coffee marked the finish line. But grandpa meals had no process, no ceremony; they were eaten quickly and without ornament, just a bowl of pasta that expected nothing of me and gave me satiety in return.
My grandfather came of age before Tucci searched for Italy on CNN, before Jamie taught people who’d never heard of guanciale how to cook carbonara. Men in the kitchens weren’t modelled; whatever he learnt, he picked up in fragments. Mostly, though, his chances to cook were limited by gendered convention – it was the relevant woman who put food on the table, and the men ate what they were given. But pasta was a sybaritic, solitary pleasure he kept mostly to himself, or shared with me on the rare occasions when my grandmother was either absent or dissuaded from cooking. It was a little corner of their shared life that was his. When he cooked for me, I felt like he was letting me in on a precious secret.
I live 3,000 miles from my grandfather now, and he hasn’t made a bowl of pasta for me since I was a teenager. But when I think of him now, I like to picture him hunched over a pot of boiling water, steam rising around his face as the noodles bend and slacken, ready to be strained and hurried into a bowl.