There’s the star-shaped one with the red maraschino cherry in the middle, the “S” shaped one, round frosted ones coated with rainbow sprinkles; little gems made with vanilla, chocolate, or green pistachio batter, hard, dense, crispy, resembling women’s brooches that they used to wear 50 or 60 years ago.
“They’re meant to be dunked in coffee,” my great aunt Theresa explained to me as a child. I was allowed to have coffee only at my great aunt’s house because you simply needed to dunk them or else it just wouldn’t work. Milk is too cold and doesn’t soak in. Tea? You’re kidding, right? No, it had to be coffee with milk and no sugar (the way I drink it to this day) brewed in an antique percolator because it just “tastes better” that way.
The coffee and cookies were a special tradition in my family. My mom would take me and my grandma to visit my great-aunt. She lived alone in a large house in the Metro-Detroit suburbs. A lot of Italian Americans lived in that area, but I suppose only her house looked like a time capsule from 1960. The tile floor, the stiff furniture, the ceramic figurines on the living room shelves, everything looked exactly the same as it did in the black and white photos we looked at while drinking coffee and nibbling on crunchy cookies. My great-aunt, who never married and who cared for my great-grandparents until they passed away, was the tradition keeper on that side of my family. She also kept all the old photo books and the Ellis Island papers. Visits to her house were always full of sweets and stories.
“During the depression, she would make bread, cakes, and cookies so we could earn a little extra,” my grandma told me. “Your great grandpa sold them on his fruit and vegetable cart. She always cooked from scratch. They didn’t have packaged foods back then of course. And she never used a recipe. She just added a handful of this, a pinch of that, and it always came out perfectly. No one bakes like that anymore. I don’t know how I could whip up a cake without Betty Crocker. And the house would always be filled with the most heavenly smell! But we didn’t get so much as a taste. Do you know what we took to school for lunch every day? Dry old bread fried in olive oil with salt and pepper. That was it.”
It was stories like these that made me fall in love with Italy and Italian culture, these stories of family and simple food. I was a proud Italian-American girl who watched Mario Batali on the Food Network and who fell in love with melodramatic romantic comedies like Under the Tuscan Sun. I eventually minored in Italian culture in college. After an amazing study abroad experience in the Abruzzo region in 2010, I decided that the time was right for me to move to Italy and live there for real. I had the opportunity to live cheaply because the recent earthquake in L’Aquila prompted the Italian government to subsidize the university, making it free to attend. Food and housing were also cheap, so I could live there for a year on my meager savings. After going there alone and finding a room to rent, I learned that I would have four Italian roommates. “Great,” I thought “They’ll teach me all the cooking that they learned from their moms and grand-moms just like I learned from mine!”
I was to be disappointed. Cooking, as I found out, was not a popular pastime for young people in Italy. I learned a single “recipe” from them in the entire time I was there.
One evening I returned to the apartment to find two of my roommates, the girls, boiling a large, glass jar of Nutella (the 750 gram one) in a pot of water on the stove. “We’re making Dolce di Pan di Stelle,” they explained. Pan di Stelle were round chocolate cookies with sugar stars on them. They began by dunking the cookies in milk until they were soggy and making a layer of cookie mush in the bottom of shallow glass pan. Then, once the Nutella was nice and runny, they would pour a layer over the cookies. Then repeat, layer of cookie mush, layer of Nutella, layer of cookie mush, layer of Nutella. And to top it off, chocolate milk powder. They put this sugary nightmare lasagna in the fridge overnight to solidify.
The following morning, I was given a one square inch piece to try. I ate maybe one bite and had already reached my daily sugar allowance. The thing was inedible. I mean, it was what it was: a solid block of Nutella with a few cookies thrown in it. What’s worse is that my roommates didn’t invent it that night. It was a recipe that had a specific name that others could reference if they too ever wanted to make a sweet, glycemic, coma-inducing chunk of chocolate-flavored palm oil.
There was a disconnect between what I had hoped to learn about food culture from living in Italy and what I was actually learning. I decided that I needed to go to the source of my family history; I needed to go to Palermo.
During my time in Italy, I met a Dutch IT student named Jos. We started dating and we booked a ticket to Sicily so we could take our first trip together before we went home to our families for Christmas. We stepped off the plane at Falcone-Borselino airport to the view of a giant rock and a hot, humid puff of December air. We got onto a train and headed into Palermo. I looked out the train window at the lush, green landscape. The palm trees, cacti, and oranges in bloom told me that I was a world away from the snowcapped peaks of Abruzzo. Indeed, I was far away from anything resembling what I was familiar with.
During our time in Sicily, we visited the small town of Monreale on the outskirts of Palermo. It was a Sunday and the church service had just ended. Families were gathering together in the Piazza del Duomo and this made me feel nostalgic. We were hungry and I caught the whiff of a sweet and familiar smell wafting over the air. I followed my nose and there I saw them. The cookies! The same cookies in a bakery window. And it wasn’t just one bakery, it was a whole street full of them. I was surrounded by little gem shaped cookies; the star-shaped one with the red maraschino cherry in the middle, the “S” shaped one, round frosted ones coated with rainbow sprinkles! The glass cases they were displayed in looked just as natural in Sicily as they did in Detroit.
A wave of emotion broke over me, a sense of deeply missing my family. It was a sense of missing my great aunt, who had passed away, of missing her stories and visiting her house. It was a sense of missing my grandmother, who was still alive but slipping into dementia, losing her grip on both the past and the present. It surprised me how something so small could cause such intense emotion. Jos inquired as to why I had become emotional. “I grew up with these,” I said.
All photos are the author’s.