For an Italian, my father exhibited uncharacteristic restraint except for two occasions: any time he was watching football and whenever he cooked. Then, my father’s full emotional range would burst open like roasted garlic smashed under a knife to extract its pungent pulp. Nothing unleashed his vocal cords more than a referee making a bad call against our local team, the Buffalo Bills, and nothing expressed love like a perfectly developed pot of red sauce, slowly simmered all afternoon until it reached a consistency where you could nearly stand a spoon upright in it. The way other fathers opened their arms to relieve the shame incurred by playground bullies or the rejection of dismissive boyfriends, my father encircled the people he cared for with lasagna and meatballs. Where words failed him, food never did.
For most of my life, my father’s cooking served as our means of communication: When he cooked, he loved. When I ate, I loved him back. Our symbolic system of tortellini for heartbreak and eggplant Parmesan for encouragement meant we could avoid the messier use of language or, messier still, physical demonstrations of feelings. For me, it had become a habit; for my father, I think it was simply familiar.
My father inherited his vocabulary of food from a family that included nine brothers and sisters and 41 cousins. They shared not only blood but soil, having their roots in an impoverished Italian village carved out of the rocky Calabrian hillside, and a common language of food—as sustenance, tradition, family glue.
Home was a crowded three-bedroom row house nestled beneath a coal hill in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. My grandmother reigned over three stoves—one electric, one gas, one coal burning—and a garden, where she grew peppers, oregano, tomatoes and zucchini, that would make Mario Batali weep with joy. A chicken coop sat in the middle of the garden, and it was on the concrete patio, shaded by a leafy grape arbor, that I learned my grandmother’s skill at slaughtering her own poultry.
Whenever my father talked about his childhood, he said times were hard but they always ate well. Sundays, tables were laid end to end on the patio to accommodate caldrons of thick Italian wedding soup dotted with tiny meatballs and bread dumplings; platters overflowing with pasta and roasted chicken or spicy sausage; and the whole Verano clan sitting shoulder to shoulder, arguing over who made the best homemade wine.My father revered the meaningfulness of sharing food so much that after he retired, he assumed the role of coordinator of family reunions during which the central—and primal—purpose was to eat from early in the morning until sunset.
At the end of May, my father suddenly and unexpectedly passed away, seemingly drifting off as he took an afternoon nap in his lounge chair. My youngest brother and I stood vigil outside his house, waiting for the undertaker to arrive. Sitting on the front porch steps, I caught the delicate, familiar scent of red sauce laced with fresh basil, garlic and Romano cheese. I said to my brother, “I smell Dad’s sauce.” My brother believed it was the neighbor who, in an act of sympathy and shared grief, put a pot of sauce on the stove; most likely, my father had given it to her. I realized as I breathed in the rich fragrance, so filled with memories and unformed words, that the language my father had spoken all along was as direct and comforting as a longed for embrace. Maybe, in my father’s vocabulary, you could even say goodbye.