Every Sunday afternoon as far back as I can remember, my family would come together in my Grandparents long and narrow basement in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. The basement, anchored by bright orange cabinets had a series of tables in the center of the room that seemed to stretch for miles. The stove in the kitchen was burning since the early morning with the typical, soul satisfying foods southern Italians are now famous for; meatballs both simmered in a tomato sauce as well as fried, stuffed eggplant, thick strands of candele pasta clinging to a hearty ragu, small glass bowls of calabresi olives, and plenty of hot pepper flakes.
Pieces of burnt brick oven bread were scattered on the tables, bread bowl be dammed. Since I grew up in Brooklyn not ten blocks away from my Grandparents I was lucky enough to see them on a regular basis. But these Sunday afternoons, a weekly ritual, were orchestrated by my Grandfather. He knew life would take us all in different directions; but the simple acting of gathering for a shared meal would keep us united, and it did.
Aunts, Uncles, and cousins would drive in from Long Island and Westchester, to sit at this massive uneven table, to eat, drink, argue, and make up by the time the espresso was served. Looking back I am sure the food was delicious, but that wasn’t really the point. I remember so much more than the food, there was so much laughter, love, and unity in that crowded basement.
These meals went on for years, and eventually ended when my Grandfather died. After that my Grandmother seemed to lose her inspiration, and started to cook less and less. We would gather periodically, but then cousins got older, married, and moved further away. The ritual became an open invitation, and without purpose or motive, everyone went their separate way. The family grew and before I knew it we would see each other just on the holidays, there were no more Sunday dinners.
My Grandmother cooked well then, not so much anymore. It’s not that her food taste bad, just different. I am sure the ingredients are the same and the technique is unchanged, but that feeling of satisfaction is lost.
More often than not I find myself thinking back to that mile long table, with mismatched silverware, and family from afar. I know now that those years spent in that basement gave me some of the best meals, and memories of my life.
Now when I cook for family, friends, or whoever happens to make their way to my table, I know the food is important, but ultimately, I have learned that time will be the judge as to how well I cook.
This essay first appeared as a submission for the Anthony Bourdain Medium Raw contest to answer the question “How well do you cook?”