I was eleven when my family moved to Pittsburgh. It was the biggest cultural shift I’ve experienced, before or since—my first moves stayed east of the Mississippi and mostly south of the Mason-Dixon line; Texas’ cultural idiosyncrasies have only revealed themselves to me over decades.
Deep South to industrial North: radically different. Including and especially the foodways. I may have always been destined to be a food adventurer, but that move happening when it did in my life sealed the deal.
Every place I’ve lived has had its special dishes—Louisville’s Hot Brown sandwiches come to mind—but Pittsburgh, for me, has dozens. The relatively recent imprints of its many immigrant ethnicities introduced me to (among others) Polish, Czech, Ashkenazi Jewish… and American Italian food.
When I brought my first school lunch tray of ravioli to our table in the cafeteria, my new friends looked a little appalled. “You’re going to eat that?” “Sure! I love ravioli.” “That’s not ravioli. I don’t know what that is. That doesn’t taste anything like my grandma’s.”
Wha? There are actually grandmothers in the U.S. who make ravioli at home at the end of the 1970’s? Chef Boyardee is not the only source? In all the other places I’d lived, canned ravioli was all the ravioli there was.
I later tasted grandma’s ravioli. And the ravioli at the Italian-American joint on Monroeville Blvd as you go down the hill before going up the hill to the Miracle Mile. Wait: that place was the kolache bakery with the good fruit-filled ones that Mr. Machen brought to history class. Maybe the one I’m thinking of was on Pitcairn Road… .
Pittsburgh, to me, is a haven for good eatin’.
When I moved to Houston for college, I was bereft. Not only did I trade the steep, tree-filled terrain I’d come to love for an endless flood plain, but I lost All The Food. No bagels, no lox, no latkes. Back to the land of tinned pastas, and even though there were occasional kolaches they weren’t the same. And lasagne? Those tangy, cheesy, meat-filled layers smothered in grandma’s gravy (tomato sauce)?
The dish my dorm’s kitchen labeled as lasagne had to be served with a spoon due to the oily soup dripping off the noodles in the pan. Oh, the humanity.
As my college years were coming to a close, I started to cook for myself a little more. My beau at the time had moved to an apartment, which meant a kitchen. We neither of us were skilled cooks, but we were eager experimenters. He was working on a bowl of ‘mean red’ to rival that of Texas Chili Parlor;
I was working on retrieving my lost lasagne. Those grandmas had changed me for life.
I didn’t use a recipe. I used my memory, and a notecard with a suitable Mediterranean tomato sauce I’d made for a different dish. I jotted notes on notebook paper occasionally. But I was making lasagne every three months or so—it was muscle memory, rhythm, tongue memory.
And then I married. Had kids. Changed the flow of my days and weeks completely, gratefully handed the kitchen to My Sweetie. Seldom got around to making lasagne.
Then last month, as My Sweetie prepared to go to China, I thought: I know! I’ll make lasagne! Since we’re just the two of us at most, I’ll distribute a full recipe into two half-size pans and pop one in the freezer! I pulled out my notebook jottings.
And stared. “Tomato paste.” How much? How much water to reconstitute? I had the visual memory of how much dried basil and dried oregano,
but how much spinach is “Spinach?” Is “Ground beef” one pound or two? One container of ricotta, I know…so is it one pound of shredded mozzarella, too?
The lasagne muscles were stiff. My rhythm was off. What I ended up making was tasty—it’s hard, in my opinion, to go wrong with lots of cheese, spinach, and ground beef—but it was as removed from grandma-lasagne as the reheated Stouffers they served up at Andy’s dorm.
Even though I now can go out and eat excellent lasagne from professional cooks—northern Italian, southern Italian, Italian-American, and New American—I still want to claim My Own Recipe again. Looks like I’m heading back to the drawing board. And then Baby C will be able to say,
“That doesn’t taste anything like my grandma’s-!”