Since we are stuck at home, we have been watching the HBO series My Brilliant Friend. The show was created from Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels. The story line is about two girlfriends and the difficulty they experienced as women living in the 1950’s in Naples, Italy. My Brilliant Friend is the name of Elena Ferrante’s first novel. The show is not only spoken in Italian, but also in the Neapolitan dialect with English subtitles. Some of the scenes were even filmed on the island of Ischia located in the Bay of Naples. My sister lives there now and is also the island where my mom and her family grew up. I have read the first of Elena Ferrante novels, and had started reading the second book which I could not bring myself to finish. For some reason I decided to force myself to watch the HBO series during this quarantine. I thought that listening to the Neapolitan dialect would bring me comfort. As I watched the series, I realized why I stopped reading Elena Ferrante’s books. Her books are painfully too familiar.
My mom was born in 1936 and moved to the US in 1955. My Brilliant Friend series is also set in the 1950’s. Mamma told me so many stories during her upbringing. My mom was the oldest of seven siblings. Her father was away as a medic during the war, and afterwards he went away again in search of a better place for his family to live. The family struggled whenever he was away. As a young child my mom was forced to grow up fast and strong. Her mom desperately relied on her. Mamma had to do a lot of things that would seem way too much for a young child to do. But her mom had no choice while taking care of 6 younger children. I listened to my mom and her stories of all the things she had to do, I just could not fathom the gravity of the situation until I heard the desperation of my grandmother’s words.
One day as my Nonna (grandmother) stirred sugar into a cup of espresso she, told me of a time when she went to speak to her priest before Nonno (grandfather) went away to Argentina in 1949. My Nonna was the holiest person I have ever known. Her whole life was guided through the Lord and the Holy Spirit. She went to church every day. I knew that faith got her out of the darkest moments of her life. That day over espresso, she recollected a dilemma she experienced in minced words that I could not quite understand. I leaned forward so I can fully comprehend what she was trying to tell me. Her face was cringed in pain and her voice stammered as she tried to reveal her secret. My Nonna did not speak any English and she told me this in the Neapolitan dialect. Although I am basically fluent in Italian, some of the words, she used I never heard of. With my eyes wide, my mouth agape and at full attention, I listened. She proceeded to tell me that during the time before Nonno left for Argentina she went to confession to ask the priest for guidance. But I did not get it! I just nodded to reassure her I was listening. To this day I still wonder what she was trying to tell me. I did not understand the words she used to tell me what the priest had said. How can I understand? I cannot even imagine what it was like living during that time, in that place, under those circumstances? All I can tell you is what I saw in front of me as Nonna closed her eyes and lifted her hands as if in reverence and said she found out she was pregnant with her only son, her 7th child as Nonno sailed off to Argentina. Nonno met his only son 3 years later when he finally came back from Argentina.
My Nonna was so burdened with her husband away, a child on the way, and 6 other children to feed, that she had no one else to rely on but my mom. Nonna kept all her other children under close watch. They did not have the freedom that my mom had to freely move throughout the island. My mom’s siblings were not allowed to go anywhere. My grandmother was extremely strict with them. I grew up understanding that Nonna was protective and overbearing. I used to hear whispers that my mom, as a child, was arrogant and spoiled. I often wonder if Mama’s sisters could have been jealous of her. But as I am rethinking about it now, how could they have not felt that way about my mom. They watched my mom have the freedom that they wished they had.
Because of this responsibility, my mom ended up developing a strong character. My grandmother needed her to be that way. Money was so tight, and the family was starving. The money my grandfather would send from Argentina was not enough for the 8 of them. My grandmother would say to my mom…Here is 2 lire and a shopping list. See what you can do. As challenging as it was, my mom would embrace the task. She became good at bartering with the market people to get as much as she could with the little money that she had. Mamma was proud to go back home with everything on the list and watch intently to see if she could erase the worry off my grandmother’s face. Mamma was industrious too! Mamma proudly told me of the time she had to travel to Forio, (a town on the other side of the island) to learn how to make baskets. Nonna gave her enough money to buy all the material, too! When she got back home, she taught her mom and her sisters to make the baskets too. They all worked hard to make baskets to sell to the tourists. Another time, while my mom was out and about the town, a tourist asked where she could find a laundress. Mamma piped up that her mom is a laundress! Mom’s quick thinking added another monetary opportunity to put food on the table. Mamma told me countless stories of how it was when her father was away.
That is how my brilliant mamma became who she was. But just as much as my mom had let go of her childhood, my grandmother also had to let go of some of her motherly instincts for the family to survive.
I think about those times now as we all struggle with this pandemic. How strong my mom and her family had to be to endure all those hardships back then. I am confident that we all can overcome this hardship at this time! After all it is in our genes to overcome!
Grilled Chicken Marinated with Mint Pesto
This dish is a family favorite! I can remember my grandfather starting the grill. He didn’t use charcoal just wood in a barbecue pit. The mint pesto was made with his own white wine vinegar which was way stronger than commercial vinegar. He used it whole chicken or fish. My version is adapted to make it a quick meal on your stove top. Enjoy!
2 Boneless Chicken Breast pounded so it the same thickness throughout
½ cup fresh mint leaves
¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup of white wine vinegar
½ tsp of salt
2 cloves of garlic
- Blend the mint leaves, EVOO, vinegar salt and garlic together until just about chopped. Not smooth though. Blend for a few seconds to get all the ingredients in a rough chopped look.
- Add the mint pesto to the chicken to marinate for a half hour.
- Preheat a cast iron pan on high heat on the stove top.
- Grill chicken in a cast iron pan. With heat set to medium. Flip to cook both sides. The length of time that it takes depends on the thickness of the pounded chicken. It could be anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 minutes.