Friday, October 23, 2009

Josie of My Heart

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Jo Jo. She and my mother had a complex, semi-dysfunctional relationship. I still don’t quite understand it, how they both wound up being such a huge part of each other’s lives. As for me, I am grateful. Jo was my constant, my steady stream of love. And she has been in my mind lately, planting happy thoughts and memories.

I’d like to post an essay I wrote about her, one that was published by Yankee Magazine online. This is one of many tributes I hope to have published about her.

A Cornmeal Heirloom

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 plate lined with paper towels. In Italy, the pizza would be served under greens; spinach or Savoy cabbage sautéed 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 billow with pride, and I know she is somewhere watching, proud of me too.


  1. Thank you Amanda. She was a special lady, but not in a traditional way as I hope you will see when I write more about her.

  2. Beautiful memory. Thank you for sharing. I could smell the olive oil and feel the cornmeal with every word.

    Happy weekend,

  3. I'm smiling because the story about Josie takes me back to the time I first met you at When I read that first story, I saw the makings of a real writer, and I'm so glad you've proven me right.

  4. I am hungry now. Great story . Thanks for sharing.

  5. What a great story. And you told it perfectly.

    Straight From Hel

  6. A beautiful story. I love your writing, Lisa. Some of your phrasing is breathtaking, like Josie's gnarled fingers as "a sweet witch". Visceral, I can see those hands working the cornmeal mixture.

    Thank you for your comment today...I understand lamenting your use of food as medication. It's frustrating, isn't it? Because food works to a large degree (no pun intended...), and is so subtly seductive, unless it's screaming in our psyches to gain entry to a difficult day; then not so subtle. You are doing hard and stressful loving work with your mom, and it's understandable that at times food is a soothing balm. As you said, this isn't an exact science, and progress is rarely linear. Just hang in and be gentle with yourself. I say that to you so that I'll hear it for myself!

  7. Nancy, was it Cornmeal Heirloom that brought us together? Awww! How many years ago was that? I am glad we have remained in contact :-)

    Leslie, thank you...I am going gentle with myself. If I eat a little more these day, I'm going to have to accept that. I'll try to make the choices healthy though...thank you. xo

  8. OK, this is the second site I've visited tonight that mentioned food. I have to see if we have any leftovers.

    God Bless America, God Save The Republic.

  9. Gawd I love that story!! a sweet witch’s. Beautiful!!! Tears came to my eyes. What a marvelous story. I'm forwarding it to my sister to read.

    Your cornmeal pizza sounds like our Fried Cornbread that we make here in the south. I've never heard of anyone putting cheese in it, though, but heck, I'll try it!

  10. Please have Dan bring mine to me next time he comes. Yummy story.

  11. Freddddddy, where you go? And for goodness sakes CLOSE THE WINDOW I'm freezing to death!!!

  12. Hi Lisa - You have an award from one of your truest fans - me. Stop over at my blog anytime to get it. I always look forward to your new posts!

  13. Lovely essay. I've never heard of cornmeal pizza but it sounds heavenly. I did have pizza in Italy while we were there and it's a far cry from American pizza. Very nice. Either is fine with me.

  14. So glad to see this story again. It's one of my favorite things you've written.