Note from curator Rozanne Gold: Marie Simmons, a star in the culinary galaxy, shares reminiscences and recipes so vivid that we decided to feature her story in two parts. Part I includes a beautiful essay about her Italian family at the turn of last century and illustrates a cherished view of life – one that included hard work, strong familial ties and values, great meals, and a slew of handwritten recipes dictated by Marie’s grandmother and penned by her mother. The culmination of this is Marie’s love of cooking and her status in the food world. She is an award-winning author of numerous cookbooks and a beloved cooking teacher. Originally from New York, Marie now lives in Eugene, Oregon, a place she considers “paradise.” She bicycles everywhere and is smitten with the vast amount of culture that Eugene provides. The timing for our connection is fortuitous. Marie’s newest cookbook, Whole World Vegetarian (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is just out this week. Never mind that Nana’s addictive pepper cookies (known as taralli) are made with lard! Thank you, Marie, and congratulations on the publication of another wonderful cookbook.
Nana's Cookies by Marie Simmons
Antonette Abbruzzese, my grandmother, (I was named Marie Antonette for Nana) was born on the lower East Side of Manhattan on December 19, 1890. Her husband, my Grandpa, was a gentle, sweet man who was very proud of being able to read the daily English newspaper. He was born on January 20, 1880 in the village of Forenza in the remote region of Basilicata — the area of Southern Italy often referred to as the boot. His father died when Grandpa was a small boy and he eventually moved to live near relatives in New York City with his older brother Michael and his mother. Grandpa became a barber for a military installation on Long Island.
Nana and Grandpa maintained a small backyard farm where Grandpa sold produce, honey, fruit, fresh eggs, and beautifully grown vegetables. It was in a small Italian immigrant community in the Hudson Valley village of Milton, New York.
Nana enjoyed cooking healthful meals for her extended family of 9: She had 8 children: Marie Louise, (Tessie) Maria Theresa (Tessie taught school and never married), Grace, Rita, Joseph, Emmaline, and an adopted daughter Maggie, orphaned at the age of 9 and raised by Nana and Grandpa. Their home was always open to family and friends and many of the recipes in my cookbooks describe the hearty meals prepared there. I especially loved the big platter called Aunt Milie’s Cannellini Beans and Rice that made its way into my book, Rice the Amazing Grain. (page 132). It makes me hungry today even thinking about it.
My grandfather was remarkable in that he firmly believed in educating his daughters. (His son Joseph was in the Marines in the Pacific during the war.) Grandpa’s three oldest daughters all went to school and became teachers. But Aunt Rita, evidently extremely bright, obtained a scholarship to Cornell University when she was only 16 years old. Marie and Tessie borrowed money to help pay for books (they were teachers by now) and got Rita settled into her school year at Cornell. What I find amazing about this saga is how open minded my grandfather was. I remember a family saying: You give your children your love and the love of God and you give them wings. You let them fly. And, that is what they did.
My mother, Marie Louise, was a retired school teacher and a “super” organizer! She, along with Aunt Tess and Aunt Rita, ran a tight ship. Our family gatherings were always punctuated by “You, sit here; you, sit there.” No one sat on their own volition — You just waited to be told where!
Now to the handwritten recipes: Most of the recipes were printed by Mom as they were dictated by Nana. I retested many for accuracy. After all, Nana measured her ingredients with a large chipped ceramic mug. She would dip deep down into a big vat of flour and skimmed off the excess with the back of her hand. Not the most accurate measuring, I’d say, but the most immediate. I’d worked most of my life in the magazine test kitchen at Woman’s Day magazine and so I had precision and accuracy pounded into my head. After Woman’s Day I moved on to be Food Editor at Cuisine magazine and then cookbook author, so I thought I knew a little about recipe testing, and accuracy.
Now where to begin in the saga of Mom and Nana’s recipes? Nana’s Pepper Cookies are tiny savory rings made with yeast and lard and studded with coarse ground black pepper and fennel seeds. I discovered, later in life, how delicious they are with a glass of red wine. I have retested it, but here it is in its original form as written by Nana.
Nana's Pepper Cookies (as edited by Marie)
2-1/2 lbs. flour
2 tsp. dry yeast (add 1 tsp. sugar and warm water)
1 lb. lard
1 tbsp. salt mixed in 1/2 cup water
4 heaping tbsp. coarse black pepper
1 tbsp. fennel seed
2 cups lukewarm water
Mix flour, pepper, fennel seeds. Dissolve yeast (and sugar) in lukewarm water. Stir in flour mixture. Melt lard (warm) and add to mixture — then add all to mixture with the cups of water a bit at a time. have a bowl of warm water nearby and as you knead dough wet your hands. Work 10-15 minutes. Cover and put out of drafts (Mom put hers in oven or covered on a chair.) Let rise for 3 hours. Roll in strip about 8" inches and as fat as 2nd finger. Cut into small rings. Seal. Bake 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven.