The Princess Who Lived in a Fort
Once upon a time, by a lakeside in the woods, there lived a beautiful little girl with dark wavy curls, rosy round cheeks, and a heart so big, a soul so bright, that her energy was boundless morning, noon, and night. My favorite fairy tale is actually the reality of my mother’s childhood. I’ve spent my life in pursuit of it, because the pictures in my head of how things once were are the most beautiful scenes imaginable to me.
My mother, Elsa Providenzia Scuderi, was born on July 18, 1934, the first of ten kids. She grew up in a house on the edge of Lake Champlain in Ticonderoga, New York. The main feature of the house was a tower of stone that helped to keep the house warm and cozy in the harsh, cold winter and cool during the long, hot days of summer. The tower stood at the heart of this home, and was actually a hand-stacked, artisan-crafted chimney that ran through the center of the house from bottom to top. It was built by her dad, my grandpa Emmanuel, a master stonemason. The house is gone now, but the stones of that tower still stand today. To look at it back then, I suppose to some people it was just the too-small house of a blue-collar worker with too many kids. To my mother, it was a fortress and she was a princess.
Growing up by a lake is wonderful in and of itself. (Mom would raise me on the same lake years later.) During their childhood summers, Elsa and her sisters would gather the tall grasses that grew by the lake and make skirts, while the boys swam and chased each other. The uncles would play tricks on the children, like diving deep and floating a hat on the water to make the kids think they’d drowned, then rising up like a lake monster to scare them! Grandpa would play his concertina and all would sing and dance around big bonfires, Zia (Aunt) Patrina waving her moppina (Italian American slang for a dishcloth) over her head, leading them on.
In the spring and winter, Daddy Emmanuel would wake his kids in the middle of the night and take them outside to sit in the notches he carved for each of them in the old tree that had fallen down long ago. He would tell them stories of sea turtles and of his life as a boy in Sicily. They would listen and giggle and yawn and try to keep their eyes open, waiting and watching the dark night skies for the northern lights. Then, when the light shows began, Emmanuel would sing to his kids, serenading them with Italian arias and old standards like “O Sole Mio.”
My grandpa was a wonderful gardener, and tended huge vegetable gardens, fruit trees, rabbits (Elsa learned at a tender age not to name them), and chickens, necessary skills with so many mouths to feed and a limited budget. At their house there was always plenty of food, and not just for the ten kids but for the whole community. On sunny Sundays, Emmanuel would enlist help to move the kitchen table outside to accommodate guests. He’d make a huge, industrial-size braising pot full of Sunday Sauce—meats and homemade sausages and tomatoes canned with basil. He’d cook pounds of spaghetti and toss it in the red sauce and serve it with lots of grated cheese. He’d arrange the meats separately on large wooden platters and boards. Next, he’d set out a huge wooden bowl of mixed greens from the garden dressed with lemon or vinegar and olive oil, salt, and pepper. The last stop on the buffet he would man himself. Emmanuel would grab the machete that hung from a strap on his belt and worked as an extension of his arm, and he would swipe at ripe hand-melons from his gardens, whacking them open. One by one, he’d scoop out the seeds with the side of his hand and fill the melons with vanilla ice cream from a five-gallon tub. The quality of his family’s life was all about the quality of their food and their time together.
These painted pictures in my mind’s eye, these scenes, remind me of an old nightclub song. I think it’s Russian, and the lyrics put to it in English have always spoken to me. I sing along every time I hear it.
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days
Back then, food was also a commodity. When the kids were good, they’d get treats like their own bucket of fruit that they didn’t have to share with their brothers or sisters. Mom is a little embarrassed but mostly proud that, as the oldest, for a while she could outrun the others after school. She’d get home first and sneak into the canning cellar and hoard a jar of caponata (eggplant and vegetables) or dandelion greens all to herself.
My favorite of Elsa’s childhood memories is of one special Christmas morning. Every year each of the kids got one toy of their own and some toys to share with their brothers or sisters. One year, my mother tiptoed down the stairs with her sisters and their mouths opened wide in awe. There by the tree was a small table and chairs, the table set with china for tea and in each chair a dolly with a tag marked for each girl. Elsa’s dolly had an extra-special surprise. It had a gold necklace with a little heart attached to it.
My mom still cries when she remembers that morning and how special and loved she felt. My idea of her facial expression at that moment and how that memory has stayed with her all this time is a constant motivation for me. I want to give all I can in every way in anything I do for others—a passing comment, a sketch or note or a piece of furniture or kitchenware that I doodle, a meal I cook or write about or anything I buy for someone else. I daydream about catching that look in someone’s eye, the joy of a pleasant surprise. I believe in the wonder and possibility of every day. I am a romantic because I was born to my mother, and she is one because she was born to her father.
Serves 8 as a snack
Caponata is a traditional Italian cold appetizer. In my family, we eat it hot, room temperature, or cold, and sometimes as a meal on creamy polenta or just with hunks of bread. Many recipes add sugar and vinegar, for a sweet-and-sour approach to the eggplant-based dish. We do not. We keep it simply about the balance of salty olives and capers and the crunch of tender-crisp celery, peppers, and onions. (Again, when my mom was a kid, this was her favorite snack.) For the olives in this recipe we use what is on hand—sometimes we pit buttery Cerignola green olives and mix them with briny, black, oil-cured olives. Sometimes I have Kalamata olives on hand or giant Sicilian varieties in brine. Around the holidays we add a small handful of currants or golden raisins for sweetness and heartiness.
1 large, firm eggplant
About 1/4 cup EVOO
3 ribs celery with leafy tops, chopped into 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces
1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped into 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces
2 cubanelle peppers (light green mild frying peppers), seeds removed and chopped into 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces
1 large or 2 medium red frying peppers or field peppers (sweet bell-like peppers but more rectangular in shape), seeds removed and chopped into 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces
1 bulb garlic (5 or 6 cloves), cracked from skin and chopped or thinly sliced
1 cup black and green olives combined, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup Italian capers in brine, drained
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (1/4 palmful)
1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes or 2 (14-ounce) cans Sicilian canned cherry tomatoes
A few leaves of fresh basil, torn
1 handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup pistachio or pine nuts, toasted and chopped for garnish (optional)
Trim the top and bottom of the eggplant and trim the skin from two sides—a half-peeled eggplant. Stand the eggplant upright and cut into 1/2-inch planks lengthwise. Stack the planks two to three high and cut into long sticks also about 1/2 inch wide, then cube. Arrange the eggplant on a kitchen towel and season with kosher salt. Let the eggplant set and drain for 30 minutes, tossing often.
Heat a large Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium-high heat with EVOO, 4 turns of the pan. Add the celery, onions, peppers, garlic, olives, and capers and partially cover. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, to tender-crisp. Add the eggplant and red pepper flakes and cover. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes and break up with a spoon. Add the basil and parsley. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook uncovered for 15 minutes more, stirring occasionally, then season with salt to taste. Garnish with nuts, if using.