Prepare to be transported to a heartwarming family dinner as I introduce you to Angela Bell and her lovely mother, Sylvia. Angela’s captivating blog, https://hashtagretired.com, recently featured a photo that took me on a nostalgic trip to my mother-in-law’s house. Eager to share this beautiful memory with my readers, I asked Angela to pen a post for my May edition. What follows is Angela’s heart-touching story that will leave you longing for the warmth of family dinners.
Sylvia’s journey… a homage
In her tiny pink and turquoise kitchen, with African violets blooming happily on the windowsill, Sylvia, my mother, consistently turned out one culinary “win” after another. Whether humble week night supper, Sunday dinner, or holiday feast, all were utterly delicious. Nary a cake, pie, or cookie disappointed. She was a first-generation Italian-American, but her cooking skills were more expansive, acquired over a lifetime of experience in and beyond the kitchen. Looking back on the milestones in her life, I can see the impact of each on her culinary expertise…
Her mother died when she is eight. Her oldest sister began teaching her to cook. Sylvia quickly conquered all of the beloved Italian staples.
She left school at 14 to go to work, where she was introduced to other types of food. Her Pennsylvania Dutch co-worker’s mother taught her to make sand tarts and shoofly pie.
She kept house for her father during the Depression and was on her own during the war years, after he passed. She learned to “make do” when ingredients were costly or in short supply.
She married Dominic after the war. They set up housekeeping in Hyde Park, MA. A trade deal: their landlady prepared old-fashioned New England Yankee favorites; my mother took charge on “Prince Spaghetti Night.”
My parents discovered The Toll House Inn in Whitman, MA, birthplace of what is still the nation’s cookie of choice. Owner Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Cookbook became Sylvia’s faithful kitchen companion for more than 40 years, when it passed to my bookshelf.
We three packed up for Pennsylvania, where my mother opened Sylvia’s Beauty Salon in our home. Her customers freely shared favorite recipes: “Mrs. George’s Soft Sugar Cookies,” “Jane Brown’s Sand Tarts,” “Alice Ann Jones’ Chestnut Cake.”
She always saved a blueberry muffin for the mailman and the milkman. She was never too busy or too tired—even when she was—to cook or bake for others, especially when they hit those inevitable rough patches.
My parents caught The French Chef bug, then fell for Romangoli’s Table. Gnocchi verdi quickly became a family favorite.
I graduated from Penn State and started my grown-up life. Their nest empty, Sylvia and Dominic traveled. They regaled us with memories of their culinary adventures in Europe, especially—of course—Italy.
She encouraged her grandchildren to cook and bake. My 8-year-old son tried the macaroni stick—it was a hit—and my daughter was inspired to pursue a career in food and wine.
Sylvia would have bristled at being called a “foodie,” because it wasn’t the food that mattered to her, or to my father—it was the making of the food and the purpose of the food, that underpinning love for happily well-fed people, people she cared about, gathered at her table or their own. She led by example before anyone coined the phrase, and the good she did lives on in a thousand ways.
Below is a very easy recipe for one of my childhood favorites. It’s a smaller, round version of crochette (croquettes), best made with boiled russets, mashed by hand without milk or butter. If you use leftovers made with milk and butter, you may need to increase the flour a bit. During the hard years, the Depression and then the war, my mother told me that something like this, paired with well-cooked flat Italian green beans, salted and liberally tossed in olive oil and garlic, provided a more than sufficient supper.
Italian Potato Cakes
3 cups mashed potatoes, cooled and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 sprigs parsley and one clove of garlic, chopped very fine (Sylvia chopped them together)
Add the flour and baking powder to the mashed potatoes, stirring or whisking to combine. Add the egg, cheese, and parsley/garlic and blend well. Drop by generously rounded tablespoons full into hot vegetable oil and fry until golden. Note: These could probably be done in the oven or in an air fryer if you’re skittish about deep frying. Sylvia fried everything in Gemma Oil, a vegetable/olive oil mix, in a small cast iron skillet was worth its weight in gold.
Thank you, Angela, for sharing Sylvia’s story with us and this mouth-watering recipe, a classic example of cucina povera.