A Produce War is Waged by My Italian Mother In-Law
I am a recent convert by marriage to Italian American life ( I’ve been married 4 years and I have known my husband and his family for three years prior to that) and I think I am finally starting to figure a thing or two out about the powerful forces holding sway within this old culture. One of the most important things to know, and a point of pride, is how to shop for produce properly. It used to leave me bewildered and angry when I would get home from picking out a few nice lemons only to have my mother in law say “How much did you pay for those? “. I would say proudly “They were two for a dollar!”. And then she would say “Oh, didn’t you know that they have lemons on sale three for a dollar at Costco today?” or “Oh that’s a shame, they have Meyer lemons at Valentino for the same price that you paid for those.” “Those” said in a tone conveying a little disgust and lot’s of pity. My thinking is - sheesh - just yesterday La Mama was bemoaning that she is the only one who shops around here, so I thought I’d pick up a few lemons ON MY WAY HOME. I didn’t know it would trigger the Spanish Inquisition. But that’s ok - perhaps I have learned something valuable I can use for next time.
Flash forward to a picnic at Brice Marden’s swanky guest house, a party mostly populated by people who regularly overpay for produce. I am presented with, for the first time in my life, a donut peach! It’s flat squashed form gives way on the inside to an almost pearlescent pink and white flesh that smells like the nectar of the gods. There is no toughness or bitter tinge to the skin on this exquisite fruit, and the bite is juicy. I immediately think “My mother in law likes exotic fruit! She’s always bringing home prickly pears, pomegranates, asian pears and the like - I will buy her one!” The next day I ruin my husband’s chances of making ‘good time’ in the tradition of George Costanza. He’s pretty irritated, but we stop at a yuppy farmer’s market and I grab a few donut peaches. Wow, these things don’t come cheap - almost $7 per pound, but hey they are special and so is my mother in law. So I buy the peaches. My husband asks me “how much?” “Two bucks each” I lie. When we get back to Queens, I am excited to present La Mamma with her peaches! I give them to her and here is our conversation word for word; “Oh! thank you, thank you, where did you get these Erin? These are so expensive! The baby will love them — you don’t feed that baby enough fruit.” I say, “They are for you, not the baby.” She says, “Erin, you need to feed the baby”. She doesn’t touch them — maybe she sneaks a little bite as she cuts them up for the baby, just so she knows what she is up against. The next day, even though we have my nine dollars worth of donut peaches left, there appears on the kitchen table a whole basket of delightful new peaches. “Oh look at these”, I say politely. I taste one, it is delicious — perfect really. It doesn’t quite have the honey-ish note of a donut peach, but at .98 cents per pound, they make the donut peaches look silly. You know, for Stupid People.
I can see that a produce war has been waged, but I am not sure if I am angry enough to pick up the gauntlet. That changes next week when I go to Valentino and see, would you believe it?!, White Peaches SALE .70 per LB !!! Now white peaches are not donut peaches, but at that price, if they are ripe, close enough. My mother in law might even be proud of me if I buy these! Even though we have been eating peaches for a week straight now, I buy about 6 of them. I bring them home, psyched to see how this goes down. She eyes them and says “where did you get those?” “Valentino” I say casually, thinking this time I did something right, I shopped at Valentino for produce. “How much ?” “Cheap - got all these for three bucks” “Oh those are no good”. No Good? “Really?” I try one. She is right. “Give em a day to ripen”, I say, “They are good. “ “They will never ripen” she remarks. I am starting to crack.. “OK we will see”. I try one a few days later. She is right — not ripe, no good, never gonna ripen. Stubbornly, I eat them. I even cut them up into nice pieces and make a delicious lemon sugar glaze for them to soak in, thinking maybe they will soften. I feed this new peach concoction to the baby in front of her, so she can see how he likes it. But he doesn’t really like it. It sits in the fridge for days, really nothing more than an embarrassment to us all at this point. The produce war that was started by a gift of good intention has been soundly won by La Mamma. I am now a daughter law beaten into submission and basically afraid of fruit.
After a bit of reflection I will say that I understand what is going on here. Yes there is competition between La Mamma and her daughter in law, but it is also just her way if trying to teach me something. The hunt for fruit and other food to feed your family is taken seriously in Italian culture. With consideration that Sicily was a somewhat impoverished place — it was really of vital importance to know what you were doing at the market. As the mother, when you went shopping for the family, you had to know how to save enough money on every single thing that you bought so that you were able to keep the feeling of abundant food flowing onto your family’s kitchen table. I can only imagine that after immigrating from Sicily to expensive New York that the stakes were even higher. So my mother in law is really passing down hard earned knowledge from her mother to me. It’s old knowledge that goes back even farther than that one generation. Italy has, after all, an ancient culture, and it’s a culture in which all things to do with food are famously important. Maintaining a sense of overflowing abundance of food — the feeling that after you eat the incomparably nourishing meal being cooked right now, that you will have at least eleven more chances to eat on that very day, is such a point of pride in Italian households. In the Italian home it is unspokenly maintained that all the stressors of the world can be smoothed over by delicious food and by the sense of unity and delight around the kitchen table. In so many ways, it is true.