by Charles P. Criminisi
Photograph: Naval Cadet Steve Agro, Captain Doctor Charles Agro, Grace Agro, Joe Agro, Sam Agro, Louis Agro and Lieutenant John L. Agro. Jenny Torone and Vince Agro stand in front of Grace.
“from where she steered the family as if the captain of a ship”
I have very fond memories of growing up in an Italian family. I am sure that most, if not all of you, have similar memories. They are warm and comforting. More often than not they take place when you were a child. And even more specifically, they most likely centre on your mother and her kitchen.
These types of memories are conjured by Vince Agro, in his new book In Grace’s Kitchen: Memories and Recipes from an Italian-Canadian Childhood, the much anticipated follow up to his critically acclaimed The Good Doctor.
In elegant prose Agro takes us back to his childhood with particular focus on his beloved mother Grace, and her kitchen. When reading this book you feel as though you are there with them. You feel the steam rising from the pot, the anticipation of family and friends gathering around the “centrotavola,” and the flow of conversation before, during, and after the meal.
Agro starts with a series of short chapters describing his mother’s household, the neighborhood, and the people that populated both. He takes us from the general to the specific until we arrive at the heart: a beautiful set of recipes containing ingredient lists and cooking instructions organized as follows:
Dolci, Formaggio e Frutta
Coffee and Digestivo
These recipes are peppered with reminiscences related to particular dishes, and backgrounders which aid the reader in understanding the significance of the ingredients.
At all times, Grace is firmly at the centre of the book. Agro shares with the reader her views about the proper choice of ingredients, (don’t mix herbs), cooking methods, (cook each vegetable separately so as to preserve the distinctive flavor of each), and nutrition, (not too much red meat). It is clear that Grace was a very important influence on Vince and that he learned much from her: not only about cooking but also about family life.
In today’s fast food, take-out, restaurant culture, this book reminds us that there is another way: slower, better for your health, and more conducive to a close family life. It preserves many recipes that might otherwise be lost as old immigrant generations leave their Canadian born children and grandchildren behind. We owe a debt of gratitude to authors such as Vince Agro who help us to appreciate our rich cultural background.
If you love food, like to cook, and enjoy a good story then read In Grace’s Kitchen: a treasure trove of memories and recipes that is sure to rekindle a connection to the past and inspire longing for a simpler time.
Excerpt and Recipe:
There was a time when some of the colonia kids refused to eat chicken. Mrs. Fama, who lived next door to my house, kept a chicken coop, not unpopular in those days.
One day, a friend excitedly called me and any other kid he could find in the neighbourhood.
“Hey, you guys, come here! Hurry!” he shouted. We ran to my fence, which separated our yard from the neighbour’s. We could hear chickens squawking and screeching, loud enough for the entire city to hear. We climbed up to look over the fence and into the neighbour’s yard. We gasped in awe as we saw Comara Fama – a stocky, strong woman – systematically chopping off the heads of the chickens, leaving the poor birds to desperately run around the congested yard, headless, bumping into things, wings flapping and blood squirting all over the place.
“How could Comara Fama do that,” one boy screamed.
“How could the chickens do that?” another boy shouted. “Why aren’t they dead?”
“Look, they’re still running wild.”
“When will they stop?”
“Maybe they’re looking for their heads.”
As bloody and horrible a scene as it was, and far worse than any horror movie we had ever seen, it had a cartoon element that couldn’t help bringing about nervous laughter.
“I’m not eating chicken.”
“Me, either. Ugh, look at all the blood.”
Of course, we eventually got over it. Chicken was far too important a food source.
Mrs. Fama’s backyard slaughterhouse was talked about for months, and the fine lady was asked to find a better way of killing her chickens. We kept hoping to see that display again, but we never did.
[Joe Scime, Eric the Great Dane and Vince Agro in front of the colonia House. Grace’s Mother is standing on the front stoop.]
Brodo di Pollo (Chicken Soup)
1 whole chicken
2 medium-sized onions, sliced
6 celery stalks, chopped
1 large carrot
1 plum tomato, peeled
¼ cup of parsley, chopped
1 egg (optional)
Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 hour for a small bird. More time may be required for larger birds.
Clean the chicken well in salted water, then rinse in cold running water before placing it in a large pot of cold water. Bring to a rapid boil, causing the scumazza, or scoria in proper Italian, which literally translates as scum, to rise to the top.
Lower the heat to a slow boil so that the scum can be scooped out, leaving behind a clearer broth.
Some people argue that removing the scumazza takes away some of the flavour, so they stir it back into the pot. Grace did not. She liked to remove it.
Add a good shot of salt and let the soup boil rapidly again to bring out more scumazza. Remove the scumazza a second time and start adding vegetables – two sliced onions, about six stalks of chopped celery and one large carrot, left whole. When cooked, the carrot will be mashed and returned to the soup.
No other vegetables are added, and above all, no garlic. Only one tomato should be added. It’s best to use a plum tomato from a can. You can use a fresh one, but sauté it first in vegetable oil before tossing it into the soup.
Simmer slowly for almost an hour or until everything is cooked.
Finally, during the last 5 minutes of cooking time, put in the chopped parsley. Stir and taste for salt content.
That’s the soup, to which pastina (small pasta) or rice could now be added. Grace would cook these separately, adding them to the hot dish of soup as it was about to be served. This method gave her complete control. Some family members would want their soup heaping with the pasta or rice, while others wanted only small amounts. This method also prevented the pasta or rice from becoming soggy.
That’s the dish, and it’s very tasty.
There may be times when you want a lighter soup, without pastina or rice. Simply do the “egg drop” trick. Grace loved to scramble an egg or two and slowly drop it into the soup. When doing this the soup should be at a low boil, this cooks the egg quickly and prevents it from making the soup cloudy. This gives the soup a little more substance. Then she’d also break the chicken into bite-sized pieces. When cheese is added, there’s little need for anything else.
With a passion for Italian culture, Charles P. Criminisi writes about books, music, and film. He is co-founder of Cinema Insieme, an Italian film club, and is the 2010 recipient of the Italian Canadian Citizen of the Year Award. He is a founding member and past Chair of both the Burlington Community Foundation and Hamilton’s Villa Italia Retirement Residence.