Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

Nonni’s Mortar and Pestle

For years I wondered if I needed a mortar and pestle. I would shop for them, considering the lovely onyx variety and nonni-1athose rough hewn Mexican rock ones. Which would mash better? Which would be harder to clean? Would 20 minutes of banging a rock club inside another rock with a hole be more like weight training than cooking? Did I really need this thing when my food processor is my best friend in the kitchen?

Then I was given a mortar and pestle, one that had belonged to my husband’s Italian grandmother, his Nonni. Nonni immigrated to San Francisco’s Italian community of North Beach in 1918, joining her father and marrying a young man from her home town. She raised three children in a tiny bungalow on Lombard Street.

Nonni passed on before I had a chance to meet her. But from  hearing family stories, I begin to get a sense of her. I like that she is remembered through her cooking. It was the way she daily expressed her love and caring.

 “My memories of Nonni center around lovingly prepared meals” says Heidi, Ida’s grand daughter. “She always seemed to have her own fresh salad ingredients from the garden. I remember the day’s trek across North Beach with a little metal pull cart shopping for the meat at the butcher’s, the salami and prosciutto at the best deli.  We would haul home the goodies and make a family feast. 

“I didn’t even appreciate the effort at the time as a young girl–self-absorbed and introspective.  But I remember the evenings sitting around the kitchen table with the oil cloth cover passing around the fresh French bread and hearing everyone critique the meal.”

Every Sunday Nonni overcooked the roast. The story goes that her older son, Angelo, would call her on it. “Ma, you overcooked the roast again!” Her close-to-English reply would be “I don’t know what happen-ay”. Nonni’s home made ravioli took an afternoon to make and the length of the kitchen table to roll. Recently her three foot long ravioli rolling pin was passed on to Heidi.

“My favorite memory is the garden,” says Heidi. “Half was food for survival of the body, but the other side grew the most magnificent flowering sweet peas for the soul.  And every October, I put mine in and wait for my Italian connection to bloom.”

My husband Bruce also remembers the garden.“ Nonni grew basil and tomatoes in her North Beach front yard. She grew them for the family but also to sell to the green grocer on the corner. She made basil pesto in her mortar and pestle. Nonni and I would walk to Fisherman’s Wharf for fresh crabs. She would sit at the kitchen table and pick out all the meat for me.”

mortar-and-pestle-1aEnez, Nonni’s daughter and now the family matriarch, says her mother’s cooking was self taught.  “A neighbor lady baked a kind of cookie that we all liked a lot. The neighbor jealously refused to share the recipe with Mama, so she decided to figure it out… and she did, little by little.”

Enez makes a marinated vegetable and tuna antipasto that was her mother’s recipe. “My brother and I dearly loved the antipasto from a deli around the corner but the round, flat tin was $1.00. A fortune in those days. When Mama duplicated it by using a recipe given to her from a neighbor it was a great day!”

I was immensely pleased when Nonni’s mortar and pestle came to live in our kitchen. Years of wear show in the chipped marble edge of the mortar. The wooden pestle, its base beaten impossibly smooth, is darkened with a thousand batches of pesto. I hold it in my hand, as if holding hers, and begin a batch of pesto for our dinner.

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.

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