What is it about holidays that makes me leap back decades in time? Four year old Midge races around her grandma’s kitchen until big hands pick her up and plop her on top of a sears catalogue on a chair. Aunt Julie is at Nonna’s stuffing a pie crust with rice, chopped up dried sausage, pepperoni, other pork parts, cheese and a bowl of scrambled eggs. Aunt Cat sits rolling mountains of meatballs. Nonna, grandma, punching a bowl of dough down tells me to help with the meatballs. Uncle Sal grins from ear to ear as he wanders around the kitchen holding a recently cleaned chicken by the feet. Little girl me sitting and getting meatball yuck between my little fingers feels loved, safe and happy. My meatballs have a particularly odd shape – quite artistic. I knew that a bunch of people would be coming, the kitchen table would be made bigger and anything we could sit on would be dragged into the room. All the food piled in the middle of the table will disappear in a nano second and the talking, laughing and shouting will roar out into the street. Many Easters later, Jack and I would be living in that old Flagtown farm house. On Easter I wanted to reclaim those feelings. Truthfully, ever Sunday I wanted to be back in that kitchen. I still wanted to be surrounded by – well everyone. To make that happen, what does the woman with the organizer gene do every Easter until the once wee ones rolled their now adult eyes —
The tykes who gathered eggs now have babies of their own. Time marches on and yet, somedays I actually feel myself back in the white farm house. Last week, the olive branches that were being hung all over Pontelandolfo reminded me that it would soon be Palm Sunday. That triggered a visceral need to reminisce and question myself. Why did Aunt Julie put rice in that egg and meat pie? She called it pizzagaina – gain a million pounds when you eat it. The pizzagaina I find in Pontelandolfo doesn’t have rice. It is kind of a quiche with a pie crust top. Pastiera di grano – a sweet ricotta, wheat berries and dried fruit pie delish dish – kind of looks like it has rice. Then it hit me! Zap! Aunt Julie used the rice to stretch the filling. My elders lived through the depression and when I was a child were still on the lower end of the financial spectrum. They taught us to use every piece of every animal, mineral or vegetable. Then again Aunt Julie was Sicilian. Maybe where she grew up the savory pie was made with wheat berries and in Somerset County NJ in the 1950s you weren’t going to find them. Sadly, I should have asked the question sooner.
It is spring in Pontelandolfo and the lambs, baby bunnies and baby goats are dashing about happily. Soon, lots of folks in the village will be happily eating them. As a kid in Flagtown, I don’t ever remember eating lamb or goat for Easter or any day. I think it was because it would have made Aunt Cat go ballistic. She often told the story of her parents raising goats. Actually, some Flagtownians called the Guerrera subsistence farm “Goat Patch.” Piccola Caterina loved those goats. They would follow her about, play tag and give her big kid hugs. Every year just before Easter Italians from the “big city” – you know places like Patterson, Jersey City or Newark – would come to Flagtown and buy their Easter meat. As soon as the cars pulled up the baby goats started to panic. Aunt Cat would get as far away as she could but said she still heard the cries that every spring broke her heart. She swore that those kids knew their time was up and cried all the way to the back of the barn. She hoped those city people choked on their dinner. So no goat meat for us.
Easter Sunday, mom would have always figured out a way to get us new hats and outfits. We went to the South Branch Reformed Church. WHOA you weren’t Catholic?? Shhhh, don’t tell anyone. My grandfather caught a Catholic Priest flirting with my nonna and wooooosssshhh the Catholic Church became off limits. Besides, the South Branch Reformed Church was right down the road in the little village of South Branch. The village sat on the banks of the South Branch of the Raritan River and way back then still had the homes of famous folks like opera singer Anna Case, New Jersey Governor Peter Dumont Vroom and Diamond Jim Brady. For me it was a metropolis – there was an apartment house from the 1800s, Amy’s store and Post Office and lots of cute farm boys who came to buy soda or go to church. I still remember Sunday school, Easter Dawn Services and sitting on the front steps of the church because my mother forgot to pick me up. Sadly, the state was going to dam the river to build a reservoir so they condemned houses, Amy’s store and more. They never built the reservoir – errrrrg. Just f&*^ed up the area. Hmm, perhaps I should stop thinking about yesterday and look out the window at the Sannio Hills and start telling you all about the Easter Traditions in Pontelandolfo. I will – next week. I need to spend a few more moments in the past.
It is not too late to plan your September 7 – 14th Trip to Pontelandolfo! We still have 2 spots open for the incredible culinary and cultural experience – COOKING IN THE KITCHENS OF PONTELANDOLFO!