When I was 18, I had dinner at my boyfriend’s house for the first time, with the family that would become my in-laws.
His mom, who is Italian, served lasagna. It bore little resemblance to the Americanized version I’d eaten throughout my childhood at parties and potlucks. Rossana’s homemade sauce was bright red and just tangy enough to offset the sweetness of the “goodies” tucked between the noodles: sliced egg, ham and ground beef. It was also lighter. Not a speck of ricotta in sight.
This lasagna, served on an ordinary weeknight, was one of the best things I’d ever eaten. I was trying to find a way to express my astonishment, without sounding like I was desperate to score points, when Rossana looked up from her plate and asked for feedback.
The family quickly weighed in: The sauce needed salt. She’d skimped on the ham. The noodles were overdone. When Rossana turned to me, I was flustered: Were we even eating the same meal? Who were these people?
“It’s delicious,” I stammered.
Disappointment flashed across her face.
“You’re right,” she said to my future father-in-law. “More salt.”
My in-laws and husband take food and mealtime seriously. Roberto and I have cut short perfect beach days to be at his parents’ in time for spaghetti alla carbonara. On vacation, my in-laws scour local supermarkets for souvenirs. Weeks ahead of holidays, they plan meals with an intensity others reserve for major life purchases: “Do we really want crab cakes again? Will we regret the veal? Can we find fresh octopus?”
My side of the family approaches meals differently. Food is food. Apart from holidays, meals aren’t events. Around the time I tasted that lasagna, my mom was tending to the needs of three children, while my dad worked long hours, coming home well after dinner. We often ate in the car on the way to baseball practice, around the counter while doing homework, or in front of the TV. I remember liking some dinners more than others, but I never looked up at Mom and said, “This tuna noodle casserole? It’s not your best.”
After Roberto and I married, I encouraged him to praise his mom’s cooking more effusively. Watching three grown men devour a homemade meal and then tick off its shortcomings irritated me. (“You guys are spoiled,” I complained more than once.)
Food and family are complicated, though. When you pull up a chair to someone’s table, you can’t always understand what’s happening, beyond the cutting, serving and passing of dishes. It took me years to see that in asking Roberto to lay off the criticism, I was working against his mom.
When Rossana moved to the U.S. from Naples, she left behind friends and family and a culture steeped in a love of great food. Over the years, she’s sometimes felt cut off from people and traditions she cares about. And I’ve come to think of her best dishes as stories: “My father loved this sauce”; “My sister and I used to fight over the escarole.” Occasionally, she takes a bite of something she’s made and offers her highest praise: “This tastes just like my mother’s.”
Asking for feedback is a little like testing us. She’s making sure we’re paying attention. Rossana, I think, doesn’t only want her food to be good. She wants the stories she’s passing along to be remembered. She wants the food and the stories to be right.
Several years ago, Rossana presented Roberto and his brother with black notebooks, filled with the recipes she’s spent her adult life perfecting. A few weeks later, Roberto made carbonara. He asked what I thought.
“Delicious,” I told him.
But we both agreed. It wasn’t as good as his mom’s.