Above, my grandparents’ hometown of Scerni, in the province of Chieti, in the Abruzzo region of Italy.
The irony did not escape me. There I was, at a holiday weekend picnic/barbecue in a relatively affluent town in New Jersey, surrounded by friendly and interesting and educated people — in a setting and surroundings where my Italian immigrant grandmother would have felt like she’d landed on another planet…if she even knew or believed in the existence of other planets, seeing as she believed the moon landing and moon walks were faked.
(She also believed in the evil eye. And once, when we made a family trip to upstate New York and visited a place called Howe Caverns, we actually convinced Grandma DiGiovanni to take an elevator down into the caverns. We even got her to get into the flat-bottomed boat which took visitors on a ride on the cavern’s underground river — and she was fine until the lights were turned off, and bats fluttered around, and Grandma screamed hysterically because, I gathered, she believed we had been lured down into the home of the Devil).
My grandparents, long gone now, were from Abruzzo, from a small mountain town called Scerni in a province called Chieti. They came to America in the 1930s. My grandfather was a farm laborer. My grandmother was a shepherd girl — she once described to me, in her broken English, the time a wolf attacked her flock of sheep.
I was in my 30s when my grandmother died, which means I have clear memories of her — and of her huge Sunday dinners, which are a hallmark of Abruzzo, especially in the small towns and on the peasant farms.
Peasant cooking, of course, produced meals that were hearty and filling — and used whatever ingredients were available, including parts of animals that more affluent folks might not even think about cooking and eating. Hence, we eat sausages, with ground up less-appetizing parts stuffed into the animal’s intestines, then cooked. Tripe? Yes, that’s the lining of a cow’s stomach, and it’s also of peasant origin. Lamb brains? Yes, my grandmother used to cook that when she would head down to the Italian markets on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y., and buy an entire lamb to cook for Easter dinner. The brain would be chopped up and mixed with eggs and breadcrumbs and parsley, then cooked right inside the roasted lamb’s skull.
I don’t think any of the people I was with last weekend would have eaten baked lamb brains. Me neither!
But what I did cook as my contribution to the potluck meal — which lots of folks ate and liked — was a good hearty peasant dish which I call, um, Grandma DiGiovanni’s Italian Cheese Patties.
Here’s the recipe:
Get two big round loaves of good Italian bread. Remove the crust (save to make bread crumbs) and break the insides of the two loaves into small pieces. Put the bread in a large bowl and add six beaten eggs and two cups of Parmesan cheese. Mix together well. The bread mixture must be sticky and moist enough to form into patties; if it’s slightly dry and crumbly, just sprinkle a little water on the mixture; if it’s VERY dry and crumbly, trying adding another beaten egg; conversely, if the mixture is TOO sticky, mix in some dry bread crumbs until the mixture can be molded into patties.
Mold the mixture into patties, then fry them in good olive oil until both sides are golden brown (don’t overcook and turn over the patties carefully with a spatula). After the patties are golden brown on both sides, simmer them for two hours in a good homemade tomato sauce. After two hours, remove from sauce….and, mangia!