My friends in Coronado, California had a daughter graduating from high school and another graduating from college. The day before the college graduation we had a small party for family and friends to celebrate. I was there because thirty years of friendship has made me part of the family.
After a brief consultation about the menu, it was decided that Costco trays could fill most of our food needs. Instead of cooking, my friend got to spend the day arranging flowers from her garden throughout her house and filling her birdbath with gardenias. Her husband took on the manly chore of drinks and readied coolers with ice and bottled water accompanied by some beer and wine.
In my youth, back in those days before we even had a sun, we had no Costco or Sam’s Club. The idea of going out and buying prepared food for this kind of party would have struck my aunts as this side of blasphemous. After all, they would argue, what is the kitchen for if not to do just those chores?
My aunts and uncles showed up for each other for every event in their children’s lives that could possibly call for a celebration. I have old 8 mm footage of my beloved godparents, Aunt Ida and Uncle Paul, all dressed up and walking with me in my miniscule cap and gown at my kindergarten graduation ceremony.
After the ceremony, the aunts would head to the kitchen to cover their pretty dresses with aprons and get the food ready. The men would head to the living room to sit with my dad and have a drink while watching a Phillies, Eagles or 76ers game. They would reappear in the vicinity of the kitchen only when the wine needed a strong arm to pop the cork or someone yelled that the food was ready.
My memory of those days involves a lot of laughter and chatter as the women chopped and peeled and cooked and discussed what was wrong with their kids and husbands. Priorities were set, theories about appropriate discipline methods were aired, and the latest Arthur Godfrey quip was repeated. The women shared their lives, their loves, their joys and their dreams in that kitchen, never once breaking stride as they prepared pasta and salads and roasts and desserts.
This is where life was truly lived in my home, in the kitchen. While the men solved the problems of the world, the women solved the problems of kids who answered back, refused to go to accordion lessons and seemed determined to send each and every mother to an early grave. At least, that’s what they told us if any kid was stupid enough to wander into this enclave.
My nonna was frequently found sitting in the middle of this get together, stirring her sauce and smiling as she followed fourteen conversations at once both in English and Italian. For a woman who spoke but the barest approximation of her adopted language till the day she died, she never missed a beat on the conversations held in English about her grandchildren,
I thought this would all get lost when we started to go to Costco for our pre-formed trays topped off by some sinful cake from their bakery. But I was wrong. The need for women to communicate about their families and things important to their families’ futures overcomes all impediments. The difference between then and now was that my friend and I were able to sit down over a cup of coffee to discuss these issues instead of over a hot stove. The men no longer hid in the living room afraid of female conversation they wouldn’t grasp. Her husband, brother-in-law and other male relatives were right there with us discussing the kids and family just as the women now felt free to comment on the ever present game on TV.
So we may have lost something in home cooking but we seemed to have gained something in the participation of the male members of the family in talks about the kids and the future. I may miss the homemade sauces and roasts but I don’t miss the segregation of sexes.
I think if my dad and uncles could come back and see the changes, they would think it was a good thing too. Assuming, of course, that the pasta sauce still made it to the table on time.