“Babe? Do you know where to find the cookbook with Mom’s meatball recipe?”
It is my Dad’s voice. I look at the numbers on the caller ID box on my kitchen counter. He is at home. Where I grew up. Where he and Mom still live after 42 years.
But the words don’t make sense to me.
Cookbook? Meatballs? Recipe? My mom has been making the same meatballs forever. I’ve never seen a recipe. There is no recipe.
She taught me to mix the ingredients by hand, tearing the crusty hunks of leftover bread into milk to soften, then tearing them even smaller as we smush them into three kinds of ground meat, adding tiny cubes of diced garlic, plus parsley, loads of just-grated cheese, and lots of salt and pepper. A scoop of seasoned breadcrumbs and an egg or two, enough to hold it all together.
With the help of the old wood-handle ice cream scooper we form them about the size of billiard balls, digging into the huge metal bowl then rolling them with hands dipped in water.
Now Dad — who has never, ever picked up the phone to call me or anyone else that I can recall — is ringing me in the middle of a summer morning, while I am scrambling eggs and trying to get the girls off to Montessori.
I stare at my shelves of cookbooks, about to seize one. As if I were to find Mom’s recipe inside. I have hundreds. No doubt I could found a recipe for meatballs. In fact, I have written hers down often to give to friends who ask.
Has my old, macho, Italian Dad decided to start cooking in his old age? He had never cooked a thing in his life. Besides some truly unfortunate experiments with mango breads that turned black and watery the day after baking, his only forays in the kitchen involved fermenting anything he could make into wine or beer.
“Mom was planning to make them for some friends coming to town, but she can’t remember the ingredients.”
His voice was furtive. It was as if he spoke quickly enough I wouldn’t question his motive.
Beef, veal, pork, garlic, parsley, cheese, bread, breadcrumbs, milk, eggs makes 10. There are 10 ingredients, not counting a healthy handful of salt and pepper. And, of course, the olive oil for frying.
No onion. No basil. Somehow I always had to remind myself about leaving out those two.
Twice as much beef as veal and pork.
Ten. Like the number of generations our family has been said to have been cursed. The curse of the bastard son.
Ten. Like a decade on the rosary. How many Hail Marys you have to say for each small bead between the Our Father and Glory Be.
The meatballs are the color of the rosewood rosaries that Grandma used to carry from Italy and keep in her bra. Ah, the things she pulled out of that soft, wide ledge, as big as a watermelon and padded with medals of St. Anthony, letters, tissues, a zippered change purse filled with real silver dollars, a key on a circle of yarn.
She was not much of a cook, but she married men who could cook. Men, one after another, who beat her, she said, until she looked like a melanzana, the deep purple color of an eggplant.
Mom doesn’t cook from recipes. Well, there was that phase in the ’70s where she took a string of gourmet cooking classes and made French onion soup, Chinese stir-fry and baklava. She owned some lovely Italian cookbooks, but they always seemed more like guidebooks with pretty pictures. No stains or penciled-in notes.
Meatballs? She could make them in her sleep. Couldn’t she?
I remember one Christmas, my brothers and I were all home from college. We must have had 20 people for dinner. We had cooked for three days.
Lasagne, roast pork, meatball, caprese salad showered in basil from the yard, broccoli di rabe loaded with garlic diced so small it might have been coarse sea salt, stalks of asparagus with shavings of fresh parmigiano cheese. A platter of prosciutto as thin as petals wrapped around smiles of melon the color of a sunset.
As she carried the bowl of meatballs to the table, Mom slipped and dropped the whole bowl, crashing onto the golden-brown tile floor.
Quick as can be, she slid the wooden door shut, shielding us from the eyes of the guests at the dining room table. One by one she picked up the balls and put them in a colander. I got down to help, sweeping the remaining debris with a foxtail into the dustpan.
I noticed with surprise — shock, really — that she was not heading to the garbage with the colander but rather to the sink. Mom separated the glass from the meat, rinsing the balls, dozens of them, until they were clean. No more thick tomato sauce clinging to them. They are bald but for the flecks of white cheese and green parsley revealed beneath irregular sketches of a perfectly browned umber char from the cast-iron skillet.
She pulled a clean serving bowl from the closet and ladled out fresh sauce. They were ready, again.
MOM IS SICK
It turns out Dad had found Mom rummaging through her cookbook collection desperately searching for her meatball recipe. She asked him if he remembered the ingredients.
Why had she not called me?
Mom and I talked most every day. We talked about boys, and later men. We talked about school and stress, and real estate. She complained about my Dad. We laughed. We talked about travel and the weather and sometimes shopping, but always food.
“Don’t make appetizers,” she said once a she got older and more cynical — or maybe just more practical. “People fill up on them and then don’t eat dinner.” From then on it was a bowl of olives, some cheese or nuts, but not the colorful antipasti platters we knew from years before.
All at once I see, like a Christmas tree lighting up. Or the weatherman’s map filling the screen.
Mom is sick. This is Dad’s way of telling me he is scared. That he has known for a long time but could not say. She has the same thing that took Grandma.
There will be no more meatballs. Not hers, anyway. No matter how many times I make them, they cannot be as good as hers. Or, so I think. I taste only a trace of her in there. That is all that is left of her. A trace.
Though she sits at the table and eats, a small bite on the fork that the strong Jamaican nurse lifts to her lips. She stares out at something that none of us can see.
She does not remember the ingredients anymore, but she tastes them and nods. I cannot eat them. They taste of metal and tears, and I worry about the glass shards.
“Mangia, mangia,” says Eric, my husband.
Victoria Pesce Elliott is Miami Herald food critic: email@example.com, @VictoriaPesceE. Her mother, Eleanor Pesce, a Miami real estate developer, died in September after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Recipe by Eleanor Pesce.
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground pork
5 cloves minced garlic
1 1/2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/4 bunch Italian flat-leaf parsley (about 1/4 cup chopped)
2 large eggs
1/2 loaf (about 1 cup) day-old Italian bread
3/4 cup milk for soaking bread
1/2 cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper
Bowl of clean water for dipping hands while forming meatballs
Enough olive oil for frying (at least 1 cup)
If you have a butcher who will grind the meat for you, have him combine the beef, veal and pork in the grinder. If not, mix the meats together in a large bowl. Add the garlic, cheese and parsley. Beat the eggs and add them to the mix. Gently mix with your hands. Break the bread into bite-size pieces and let soak in the milk until soft. Add the softened bread and milk to the mix. Add breadcrumbs. Salt and pepper aggressively. With an ice cream scooper or a large spoon dunked in water, form meatballs dipping hands into the water each time so the meat is smooth and wet as you roll it.
Heat 1/2 cup of the olive oil in a large skillet, preferably a cast iron one. Fry one marble-size meatball to taste for seasoning. Add more cheese, salt or pepper as needed. Fry meatballs four or five at a time. Do not crowd the pan. Turn them gently so that all sides brown to a nice golden color. They will still be pink in the center. Do not overcook them. They will continue to cook in tomato sauce. Let them drain on layers of paper towels until they are ready to go for a swim in sauce.
Yield: About 18-24 meatballs