BY: Mary Lou Sanelli
I’ve learned a lot about myself by looking back at my previous writings about my relationship to food. Or, more closely, my difficulty with turning it out in edible fashion. I will never be a good cook. I want to be. Good enough, at least, to have people over to dinner without stressing about it. Good enough to be able to make something from scratch that actually looks appetizing. But I don’t spend enough time at it.
“You don’t make it a priority,” my mother was fond of saying. “You don’t take it seriously. I don’t know how you can eat like that.” She was referring to the can opener in my hand. Listen, I’m fine with opening a can of garbanzo beans and pouring them over pre-washed salad. And I’m not just making light, I’m speaking the truth—my meals are uncomplicated. Likely because my work is exactly the opposite. But that’s only one reason.
Another is that there is no question of how a young girl becomes aware of what potentials her parents expect of her, and how she chooses, sometimes at a very young age, to either fulfill those expectations or shrug them off.
I’m afraid with most things related to cooking, I chose the latter.
And being the daughter of an Italian woman who dedicated her life to food in all its textures, types, and variations; focusing on my cooking-interest with a tight frown that held everything she was thinking but wouldn’t say, I’m afraid this is another perfect example of how choices can, and will, skip a generation.
Funny how this can happen. One woman lives for cooking while her daughter doesn’t own a spatula, a garlic press, or “a decent set of pans.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I think I laughed but I know she didn’t.
“I couldn’t even find a measuring cup in here,” she said, standing in my kitchen with an exasperated look on her face, and then she went back to rooting around in my cupboard, determined to find something that would qualify.
So you can imagine how unfair I thought she was being when last Thanksgiving she suggested I make the Tiramisu.
That is the word she used, “suggest.” But we both knew she was ordering me to make it. In her advanced years she was getting a little worried that I would never take her recipes to heart.
Now, I do love the way the word Tiramisu rolls off my tongue in the smoothest of syllables as if flowing from an artist’s brush. I even tried to tell her as much, stressing how lovely the sound is, but I still didn’t think I could pull off making it. Or find the time to shop for the ingredients and study the recipe since my work was in every way on overload.
My mother hardly cared about my love of words, only that I remember the ones she’d scribbled in the margins of her index cards: Don’t use too much coffee! Ladyfingers will turn soggy.
Nor did she care about my research. Such as: Tiramisu was created in Siena, Italy, in honor of a Grand Duke. Zuppa del duca. “Duke’s soup,” I said. “Introduced to America in San Francisco.”
“You’re not writing a history paper,” she said and I had to hand it to her because if I was, facts would suffice.
But I was not. So they did not.
For weeks the knowledge that I was to make desert forced me to do what I’d probably always wanted to do, but was afraid to, which was to at least try to place something on our holiday table that I was the least bit proud of.
Because I knew that once upon a time that seems like yesterday, my mother was capable of making the entire Thanksgiving feast without asking for any help from her career-obsessed daughter. I know this because I have sat at her table and gorged myself year after year and all I’ve contributed is a bottle of Valpolicella and another story about how terrifying it is to imagine myself ever staging such a meal.
By the way, Tiramisu was served at my wedding when I, so young and aglow, knew nothing about anything, except that I was utterly in love and that my nuptial dessert would not be another three-tiered-fluffy-turret bragging from the center of the table.
Perhaps, subconsciously, I already knew that eventually my mother’s favorite dessert would become another way of defining myself, even if I never thought such a thing possible at the time. To turn away from the responsibility of fulfilling my mother’s wish that I learn to make Tiramisu would be like turning away from who I am.
On one level, anyway.
On another, I still don’t take it all that seriously.
Another little insight into the word and significant to note—since the mere thought of moist, cocoa-y perfection can send my spirits soaring—is that Tiramisu literally means “pick me up.” And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from so many years at my profession (also about disappointment, self-worth, and just about everything either worthy or draining of my time) is that sometimes one appreciable thumbs up from an editor or a reader or even a total stranger is all it takes to turn a lousy day around.
Also significant—and why my mother emailed me her recipe with the important steps in BOLD, UNDERLINED, UPPERCASE type—is that the only other time I tried to make Tiramisu, well, my best guess at what went wrong is that I did, in fact, need to whisk the eggs until “stiff peaks” formed and GENTLY add them to the sugar before adding both GRADUALLY to the mascarpone. Rather than letting the eggs slide, en masse from their shells, directly into a bowl of lady fingers.
It’s never wise to rush a delicate thing.
So for my mother’s last Thanksgiving, as it turns out, it would have taken a catastrophe for me to NOT get it right.
There would be no pulling a fast one this time.
In one of my tiny notebooks, the kind writers carry because there is no such thing as a trusty memory, I wrote down something I heard a chef say years ago at a cooking demonstration at Williams & Sonoma, where I’d wedged my way into the crowd for the free food and wound up staying because the chef was smart, funny, and clearly loved the fact he captivated a throng of smiling women. He was burly, too, like he could comfortably pick up any one of us under one arm and continue hand-whisking with the other. “Some foods are delicious lies that make us believe in heaven,” he said, before popping a slice of espresso-soaked sponge cake into his mouth.
Everyone clapped with pleasure.
Why I saved such a silly saying I have no idea. I suppose I thought it meant something.
It turns out, it did.