I learned early on not to eat before going to my grandmother’s house. She wouldn’t politely offer food during a visit she would get visibly upset if you didn’t eat in her presence. A child of war, starvation, and hardship beyond imagining she fed us no matter where we were. Car trips meant kielbasa in the cooler, bread in a brown bag, and after butterscotch candies and chocolates would magically appear from her purse as if she were a plump Polish Mary Poppins. As with all cultures food was tied with emotion. You’re happy, let’s celebrate and eat, you’re sad here’s a tissue and a cookie, you’re bored how about a piece of cheese? When I read Casa Rosa with a book group many years ago the oldest member of the group said, “all women respond to tragedy with food.” Although dietitians and nutritionists might say this isn’t the best approach to healthy living there is something about food offered with love and kindness that is nourishing to both the body and the soul. This book surprised me. I picked it up and found myself completely immersed in the story of Alina, her Italian background, the sordid relationship with her family and the stunning landscape of Rome and southern Italy. Before Alina goes to visit her sister in prison she and her mother cook,
“Alba and I spent the whole next day in the kitchen, cooking. It looked like we had organized some kind of a party once we had all the food laid out on the table, wrapped in tinfoil. A tin of timballo di macheroni, roast beef, tagliatelle with smoked salmon, meat balls and ossobuco, tiramisu. We packed everything in a bundle and then at ten o’clock that night Alba put me on the train to Voghera.
These women made this nine-hour trip once a week in order to be at the prison gate at nine o’clock sharp every Wednesday. Visiting day. They were mothers, mainly, whose daughters were convicted of political crimes, and they all knew each other well. They all carried gigantic bundles similar to mine. They were excited, chatty, like they were going on a trip somewhere fun.