Marianna De Marco Torgovnick experienced the rupture of two of her life’s most intimate relations when her mother and brother died in close proximity. The following is excepted from her book Crossing Back, a personal memoir about adjusting to loss through books, meditation, and the process of memory itself. Crossing Back is out from Fordham Press today.
And so, as I mourned my mother and wrote Crossing Back, my mother’s recipes served as a beacon, leading the way to memory without pain. Alongside reading, meditating, and writing, her recipes—all Italian American classics—were bases I needed to touch after my birth family’s death.
Because it was a fulcrum of family memory, I gathered all the recipes I had for my daughters into a bound notebook that formed an archive of memory we could all access at will. When I did, certain recipes immediately signified the plenitude of home: for example, meat sauce, also called “gravy,” and its constituent meatballs. Successfully executed, they allowed me—someone with good food instincts, but by no means an accomplished chef—to step into my mother’s favorite medium of creativity, which was cooking, and to enact generational continuity I craved.
Other recipes in the notebook produced more anxiety or, at least, a sense of challenge because they demanded steps that must be done just right—and I was not at all sure I could do them. For me, the tricky dishes were lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, and cream puffs.
Just as anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss would predict, all these recipes embody certain deep principles of Italian and Italian American culture that I already knew but felt in a poignant, bodily way while cooking. In fact, and I am not stretching it here, my mother’s recipes seemed like metaphors for important Italian American values like control and relationship. Control in the sense of taking the time to do things right and the native tendency toward decorum and keeping an eye on the eyes of others—looking good in front of the neighbors or the community at large. Relationship in terms of things that belong together staying together, with special emphasis on what I’ll call “bonding” and “layering” as ways of combining things without obliterating differences. Bonding and layering seemed like perfect metaphors for the way that Italian families remain strong, even though people quarrel, or marry, and sometimes move away. Food signifies my family themes, and especially their shifting dynamics.
But, ultimately, for me—and I suspect for many others—there are foods and recipes that signify a loved one’s loss, perhaps because the food was eaten close to that person’s death, or served at the funeral meal, or because the recipe no longer exists and cannot be recreated. My missing link and, therefore, the only piece that could really complete my puzzle, was the recipe for a pastry called sfingi that went missing. Missing. Like my stuffed elephant Ellie, like my family photographs, like my mother herself. I narrate the story of six recipes in Crossing Back, written as my mother delivered them, but include here only two, the recipe for eggplant parmigiana and the story of sfingi, making connections along the way between the art of cooking and the experience of writing this book.
Like lasagna, eggplant parmigiana is inexpensive peasant food. But, also like lasagna, eggplant parm is work-intensive, and complicated. It’s not like classic French cuisine, with many fine-tuned maneuvers. But it’s complicated nonetheless. You have to slice the eggplant the proper thickness and give it time to drain (my mother’s touch). You have to coat it carefully, making sure the breadcrumb mix adheres. You have to bake (another of her touches, to make it lighter) or fry the breaded eggplant. All that done, you still have to assemble the whole—layering once again a theme—and then to bake the dish for an hour to an hour and a half, until bubbly. You have to cool it. Do all this and you’ll have a dish that tastes great hot and tastes even better reheated the next day or in sandwiches.
Rose De Marco’s Eggplant Parmigiana
- Slice eggplant ¼ to ½ inch thick
- Sprinkle with salt and squeeze with a paper towel to take out the extra water
- While the eggplant sits in the salt, prepare a breadcrumb mixture, with parsley, salt and pepper, and optional minced garlic, grated parmesan cheese, or basil
- Dip each slice in the egg and then coat with the breadcrumb mixture, patting down to firm its sticking to the eggplant
- Bake on a greased cookie sheet OR fry and drain well
- Slice a small mozzarella in half or quarters and slice each part thinly
- Have a favorite tomato sauce ready (gravy, or canned, if necessary)
- Layer eggplant, sauce, mozzarella in a baking pan: square or small rectangle, ideal, round okay too
- Bake in a 350 degree oven until bubbly. Cool a bit. Slice and serve
I see a lot of give and take in the way my mother transmitted her recipe for eggplant parmigiana. She wanted to make sure I did things right, for instance, in breading and crisping the eggplant. She made a major concession about using a commercial tomato sauce rather than my own gravy. I also sense that she wanted to cut me some slack on the shape of the pan, knowing I wouldn’t have that many choices.
Near where I live in Manhattan, there was a tiny restaurant (now a chain) that, by day, served sandwiches and basic Italian appetizers my mother also made—fried red peppers paired with a mound of fresh ricotta, that kind of thing. [I use the past tense in this paragraph because, in becoming a chain, the restaurant lost some of its allure.] Its specialty was eggplant parmigiana, plated or on a loaf. The place was always crowded with a mood that verged on frenzy. People who had driven in from Jersey or Staten Island just couldn’t wait to get that eggplant parm, those peppers. They oohed, they ah-ed, they marveled. They hovered over other tables while waiting their turn. Once, a couple at the next table was even named (I swear) Tony and Carmela, Sopranos-style, and quite vocally from New Jersey. Eggplant parmigiana inspires strong feelings. Associated with mothers or Nonnas, it’s almost sacred.
My husband’s favorite dish is eggplant parmigiana. Asked what he’d like to eat the next day, he’ll almost always say, eggplant parmigiana. And he’s not even Italian. But he knows and I know two things: Even when baked rather than fried, eggplant parmigiana is a fattening dish, and it takes a lot of time to prepare, time that I don’t usually have. I try to buy versions instead of making them, though they are rarely (even that tiny restaurant’s) as good as my mother’s. On special occasions, very special, I make my mama’s true, my mama’s original and signature eggplant parmigiana. That’s appropriate in its way since, without my mother, I might not have married Stu and the marriage has been a happy thing in my life. Like making eggplant parm, writing takes time. Like cooking, life’s best when savory for the long term.
Bombolini, zeppole, sfingi (sfinci), churros, fry bread, krullers: even within Italy, they go by different names, their texture varying from smooth to coarse to crumbly, their flavor from almost savory to sweet.[i] But anyway you cut it—round and regular or fried in the shape that hits the pan—they’re basic comfort food. Fried dough, cheap to make but also tricky and even treacherous.
- 1 lb. ricotta (Polly-O best)
- 2 eggs (maybe 3?)
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 ½ tsp. baking powder
- 2 cups of flour (1 ½ at first)
- Mix with hands or mixer. It will be a soft dough – but not too soft
- Spoon into a deep pot filled half way with hot oil (it is hot enough when a drop of water sizzles off quickly
- Brown evenly over medium heat
- Drain and cool.
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar
- Yum [That’s an added comment]
Marianna Torgovnick is Professor of English at Duke University and Director of Duke in New York. She is editing a collection for Cambridge UP called The End: Crisis, Climate Change, and the Way We Live Now, and would love to hear from you! Follow her on Twitter at Marianna_tor.