19 May 2023

The tomatoes stink, but you should really try the pie


Back in May 2021, I shared some memories of my mother, and it occurs to me to revisit her story at least once more before this month of mothers passes us by.

Early last year I finished assembling a Word doc containing all the recipes she left behind when she died in 2016. They came in two forms. The first was a giant box of index cards, and frankly, those recipes were largely unremarkable. Like a lot of home cooks, she snipped recipes she discovered in magazines, and gradually altered them to her taste the more she experimented with them. A few of these truly became her own, but most did not.

The second group of recipes were far more interesting. In a “marble” cover composition notebook she kept what can probably best be described as a cooking journal. In this book, she recorded recipes that she had just thrown together off the top of her head, along with occasional diary-like entries and comical asides.

The existence of the journal came as a surprise. I could not imagine her actually taking pencil to paper in this way. She was born in Italy, so English was forever a second language to her. She did not take to writing easily. She never finished high school, and her only jobs in life required manual labor. Hence, her notebook is filled with misspellings and wonky grammar. But I love this little book because I can see her mind at work, trying to make sense of her intuitive cooking process. I’m going to share some entries from the notebook exactly as written. Warning: punctuation is nonexistent, and the prose is somewhat hard to parse:


for jars 2 colander (colapasta) makes 6 1 quart jars 1 buscel makes approx 18 jars. I made on my birthday 8-21-01 the last time I made in 2000 also on my birtday. Sthings because I got gipt*

Where to begin with this? I had not known that the word colander in Italian is colapasta, so that was a revelation as I was editing. The word buscel is her rendering of bushel.

I don’t know why she would throw in the non sequitur about canning tomatoes on her birthday; possibly it served to remind her what time of year she traditionally bought and canned tomatoes. I don’t think she noted the date to remind herself when the produce was at its peak of flavor. The last line—which I translate as stinks because I got gypped**—reflects a theme that crops up often in these pages. She is convinced that a particular farmstand in New Jersey sells subpar tomatoes. Here’s another dig:

August 29

The past 4-5 days Im making tomato there are very bad I got them from the farm never again

This is the Last Time

I love how she capitalizes those last two words.

In a few entries we find her making handmade egg noodles, which she generously plans to mail to a former neighbor who retired to Indiana. I can’t recall the last time I received a box of handmade noodles in the mail, let alone handmade anything, but I do recall that this neighbor loved the chicken soup my mom served with these noodles.

Shortly after embarking on this editing project, I realized that the recipes in this book were largely unusable as written. They are more lab notes than recipes. She’s trying to figure out which ratios of ingredients have the greatest impact on the final dish, and that’s too backstage to interest most of us. If I ever hoped to share her discoveries with family members, I’d need to test each recipe by making each dish myself. I also saw that in some cases I’d need to offer footnotes to explain to the uninitiated what Mom was talking about.

also on Sep. 7

I made Tacconelle Molise dis is homemade pasta in shepe of
diamanti. Because I seen it in La Cucina Italiana in Cantalupo we made this all the time with fresh tomato sauce
Translation: In a magazine called La Cucina Italiana, she spotted an article on a regional diamond-shaped pasta dish which she chose to call Tacconelle Molise. (Modern foodies generally describe the pasta as typical of the Abruzzo region. Years after my mother left Italy, “the Abruzzi” she knew as a child split politically into two distinct regions—Abruzzo and Molise.) Mom hailed from a village in Molise called Cantalupo. Clearly, the recipe inspired her recollection of that dish, and the urge to make it.

All professional writers have had the experience of reading a sentence, detecting that a critical word is missing, yet still being able to comprehend the sentence anyway. But I have no clue how to read the second-to-last sentence in this recipe:

Sep. 5 — 01

I made a pie today with 5 nactarine & 2 plums 1/4 sugar 1/4 tapioca 1 tb. of lemon juice cinamon & nutmeg I can bake and tell if it is good pie is OK.

To bad nobody is here to eat it.

Not sure what kind of pie this is. It doesn’t sound like a two-crust pie, but maybe more of a hand pie, tart, or galette. The penultimate line remains as cryptic to me as it was the first time I read it. Is she saying she baked the pie, and tasted it solely to determine its quality? Or is another reading possible?

The last line, on the other hand, is abundantly clear, and touches on another of her favorite themes. She made a pie that can only be eaten by herself and her husband, because her three ungrateful sons have left the nest empty.

Which brings me, I guess, to the only advice I can offer you this May. If your mother is still with you, by all means visit sometime and gorge yourself silly on pasta and pie.

A belated happy Mother’s Day to all.

* * *

* Nearly all online dictionaries note that the use of this word is informal and offensive.
** Still offensive, even when spelled correctly.

See you in three weeks!




  1. I have a number of Greek recipes from my grandmother on my father's side - none written down, but I know how to make them. Spanakopita, eggplant fried with garlic, moussaka, finikia, koulourakia, etc. It's all in the feel and the smell.

    1. I know a number of her recipes by heart that were never written done. I'm sure she felt that she never needed to. If you know it by heart, why bother?

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn19 May, 2023 19:04

    My husband's late uncle came here from Poland & was a commercial baker by profession. He kept a notebook full of recipes for cooking in huge quantities, starting out like "1,400 lb white flour" ... over a period of time he cut a lot of them back to household amounts, with the recipe in Polish on one page & in English on the facing page. We were going to publish a cookbook, but it didn't happen. I think his daughter threw out his handwritten recipe collection!

    1. I get asked about family cookbooks all the time. I think they're wonderful, but that target audience has always got to be the family. It's when people have grandiose visions of selling it to a traditional publisher that the dreams become unrealistic.

  3. Your earlier post remains memorable. I enjoyed both.

    I share great sympathy with your mom in the tomato wars. I continue to eat ‘tomatoes’ but I haven’t tasted a real tomato in forever. On the trip from field to genetics lab to grocery store, tomatoes have gained DNA weirdness but lost their flavor.

    My amazement never ceases when it comes to Hoosier cooks mailing noodles. My Indiana mother did it. My grandmother did it. My other grandmother did it. My girlfriend does it. Her daughter and grandchild do it. Somewhere in Indiana is a special FedEx shipping center where egg noodles are routed to Arizona, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Iowa, and for all I know, Ukraine.

    The mystery item sounds like a terrific plum pudding to me, possibly resembling a cobbler. My interpretation is that, like a musician sheet-reading new music in his head, your mom’s experience suggested it would be good. Even if her ungrateful children had abandoned her. Just sayin’.

    On a separate note, your mother might have appreciated the novel, 32 Cadillacs.

    1. I just saved that Gores novel to my to-read list. I never knew this about Indiana. Maybe it's full of transplants from egg noodle country trying to get their fix. I agree that most supermarket tomatoes these days sthing! It's really the only reason we go to the trouble of planting a veggie garden each summer—to harvest the only delicious tomatoes we eat each year.


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