A Cornmeal Heirloom

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What I always noticed first when Josie cooked were her hands. Her fingers were slender but gnarled, like a sweet witch’s, and from the base of her knuckles to her wrists they were swollen with arthritis. I often wondered how she could create such amazing dishes with these two distorted tools.

Josie was my surrogate grandmother. Related to my family through marriage, she had been in my life since birth. We lived in Boston’s Italian neighborhood and food was as big a part of our lives as loving and breathing. She taught me everything she knew about cooking and wanted me to develop a fine repertoire of dishes as much as she hoped I’d grow into a good and decent woman.

I had just turned twenty when she announced it was time for me to learn how to make cornmeal pizza. I didn’t know how to react. I had been asking her to teach me for years and she always refused, claiming I wasn’t ready. And now the moment had come. Why? I wondered. What changed? I didn’t ask her though, afraid to jeopardize the moment. Instead, I jumped up to get the cornmeal.

“Heat some water up in a small pan please,” she said, ambling to her plastic-covered kitchen table. While we waited for that to boil, Josie shook a generous amount of cornmeal into a bowl, added a fistful of grated Romano cheese, and a few shakes of black pepper. “How much of each are you using, Jo?” I asked. “You don’t make this with exact measurements, Mumma. Just watch,” she said as she mixed the dry ingredients with her hands. She always called me ‘Mumma’ when speaking with me directly, and ‘the baby’ when speaking about me to others. I would remain the baby well into my thirties when she passed away.

Next, Josie uncorked a glass bottle filled with green-gold olive oil and drizzled it over the dry ingredients. The pungent scent of oil blending with cheese made my mouth water. She scooped up a portion of the semi-wet mixture and pressed it into my palm, our hands joining in a mushy prayer. “Can you feel how this is starting to stick together but it’s crumbly too?” I nodded. She smiled and moved to retrieve the hot water.

Adding the water was tricky. I knew this because I had heard her curse once after using too much. She poured it into the middle of the mixture, forming a gritty well, then handed me a spoon. “You mix first with a spoon because the water will burn your hands,” she instructed. When the water was absorbed into the cornmeal she said “Now, start mixing and pressing with your fingers.”

She watched intently as I rolled the wet cornmeal around, pinching here and there. “This is the most important part…the consistency,” she said. “It’s where everyone I’ve tried to teach has gone wrong. It has to be wet enough to hold together, but it can’t be too watery or it will fall apart when you fry it.”

My throat dried. I furrowed my brow and bit the inside of my cheek. The mixture was warm and heavy when I closed my hand around it. When I released my grip, it seemed to settle and relax at the bottom of the bowl, but not fall apart. “It feels good to me Jo. Moist but…strong.” I struggled for an accurate description as her hazel eyes bore into me. “It feels wet enough to hold together, but pasty and firm too.” She lowered her own frail fingers into the bowl. I waited, holding my breath. “Brava, Mumma,” she said with a solemn nod of her head. I exhaled. The hard part was done.

We fried the cornmeal in olive oil, bringing it to a golden tan on either side, and then cooled it on a glass dish lined with paper towels. In Italy, the pizza would be served under greens; spinach or Savoy cabbage sauteed in garlic and oil. But I always loved to eat it plain, and still do, so the subtle cornmeal flavor amid the sharpness of the cheese is not lost.

Less than a week later, I made the pizza without telling Josie. I wanted to surprise her, and if I failed, she never had to know. I agonized over each part of it; was there enough cheese? What will happen when it comes time for the hot water? Finally, becoming exasperated, I just relaxed and let touch guide me. When the pizza was done, I wrapped it carefully in plastic wrap and then in tin foil like Josie did. I gently placed it in a brown paper bag.

I tried to calm the rush of my heart as I walked the three blocks to her house. When she answered my knock, I had to hold back from shouting. Instead, I said softly, “Jo, I made cornmeal pizza.” Her eyes glimmered with surprise. “You did? Let me taste!” She broke off a piece and bit into it. I couldn’t hear a sound as she chewed; the world seemed to stand still. “Mumma, this is delicious…buonissima!” My heart leaps whenever I remember the look of pleasure and admiration she measured my way.

Josie’s picture is pasted to the side of my refrigerator where I see it every time I cook. Whenever I make cornmeal pizza, I reach over to kiss her and thank her. I can’t say my pizza always comes out perfectly, but when it does, I balloon with pride, and I know she is somewhere watching, proud of me too.

Cornmeal Pizza

  • 2 1/2 cups of cornmeal
  • 3/4 cup of grated Romano cheese
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 cup hot water

Mix cornmeal, cheese, and black pepper together. Add olive oil and mix. Slowly add hot water, mixing first with a spoon and then with your hands. Form small patties (about 2 1/2 inches in diameter) and fry them in olive oil in medium heat (about 2-3 minutes on each side) until golden brown.

  • Thanks to everyone for your wonderful comments! I am happy the piece touched you. I wish Josie were still here. She’d be so pleased.

    I made a special discovery a few days ago. Josie would wear the same “housecoat” whenever she was cooking at our house. I was in the attic, bringing winter clothes down, and in one of the bags was her housecoat. Not sure I can describe how it felt to touch it, smell it, put it on and walk around with my hands in the pockets. It is now my apron – my housecoat.

    Thanks again for reading and posting a comment. It means a lot to this humbled writer!

  • This article brushed a broad stroke across my senses. My mouth watered, my heart warmed, and a peaceful bliss fell across my shoulders in relaxing solitude of the moment. Thank you for allowing us to peer into a tender memory that inspires and encourages. It is more than recipe, it is someone dear taking the time to pass on a family treasure. We are richer for it Lisa. Josi remind us the importance of taking time for life’s simple pleasures with family. May we all take a little time to pass on more of the same. Blessings to you and your family over the upcoming holiday season.

  • I loved the opening description of Josie’s hands and your wonder at her skill in spite of their distortion. “Like a sweet witch’s” is a wonderful picture. Also liked the tension building; “throat dried” ; holding your breath until you got the thumbs up! She seemed like quite the character and obviously an adored!

  • Sounds like an interesting lady. I plan on trying the recipe, we eat alot of things made with corn meal.

  • Brittany

    Wonderful, heartfelt story. I have no personal connection to the tale; I’m not Italian, never had a grandmother who I cooked with, and yet the story really touched me. The writer made me feel her beloved memory as my own. Lovely. Thank you Lisa.

  • Lovely story Lisa. I can almost smell the pizza cooking! I can’t wait to try the recipe myself. Thank you for sharing this.

  • What a great story … very well written …. could feel the love and passion the writer had for Josie. If only we all had a “Josie” to pass down heirlooms such as these. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story …. Hope the writer has more in store for us!!!

  • What a beautifully written “ode” to a woman who obviously touched this young girl’s heart and influenced her in many ways. Made me miss my own mother who filled our kitchen with simple yet spectacularly cooked meals, love and true maternal warmth. Thank you for sharing your memories Lisa.

  • Anytime I read an article by Lisa G. it takes me away to reality that’s not even mine……

  • I loved this, made me cry my sentimental Italian tears with joy. Thanks for sharing your precious moments, Lisa G!


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