Food, Family, Friends
Finding Home in Sambuca di Sicilia
In preparation for an upcoming post titled, “The Home We Didn’t Buy,” I’m sharing a post from June of 2020 when I was in Italy. This appears on my blog, JanPepplerHOME, (the first incarnation of Finding Home). You can read more about my time in Italy during the Covid-19 lockdown by searching those archives and under the topic “An American in Italy During Coronavirus.”
So much of who I am and what I love was shaped by my time on Grama Baird’s farm. Technically it was then her grandson’s, who lived with his family across the field. And technically, she was my godmother, 65 years old by the time I was born. But to everyone in Lakeview, she was Grama. Lucky for me, my family were honorary adoptees. All of the Bairds—and there are a lot of them—became my cousins. This larger sense of family, brought together in the country, is my first and best memory of home.
Home. The place where we sleep comfortably and where we belong. Home is family. Where we laugh and play. Where we eat.
Home is food. I will always remember the taste of Grama’s fresh raspberry jam, made from her own harvest. The delight of picking berries from bushes. And buttered toast: the crunch of white bread and the messiness of butter dripping. Waking to the smell of warm cinnamon rolls and slyly stealing a bit more frosting when she wasn’t looking. Enjoying them again in the afternoon, cold, when someone stopped by unexpectedly - because people were always stopping by unannounced to Grama’s house. Kool-Aid made in a large pitcher from one small packet and a full cup of sugar, deliberating with the other kids over which flavor to choose that day. Boiled potatoes left from yesterday’s dinner (which is always at noon in the country), butter fried in a cast-iron skillet. Sunfish and bluegills fried the same way. Picking seeds out of watermelon and watching Grama salt each piece. A refrigerator stuffed with bowls and covered with plates, and plastic Kool Whip containers hiding leftovers. Laughing as we opened one after another trying to find something in particular. And the freezer on the porch, long and deep, filled with venison and fish and berries, and Grama, so tiny, using a stool while digging to find a particular treat.
More than the food itself, it is all these memories of how we ate the food. The noontime meals around a large kitchen table: eight, ten, sometimes even twelve of us. Big platters and heavy bowls passed from hands to hands, arms eagerly extending to reach for another roll. All while Grama sat at the head of the table, supervising the chaos and never minding the noise. She would smile and chew and giggle. When she giggled, her whole body would jiggle, and she giggled quite a bit.
This is family. This is home for me. The sharing of food, cooked at home by many hands and enjoyed with abundance.
At eighteen, I moved to San Francisco and found friends with whom to eat. We’d make breakfast together after an all-night party or gather in the evening for dinner, everyone contributing to the feast. Not pot-luck – the food was never made in isolation – but a co-creation, each person bringing something to prepare with extra hands. Again, six, eight, or ten of us crammed into a tiny kitchen, chopping and stirring, talking and tasting and laughing.
I’ve spent my life trying to recapture those feelings. Sometimes more successfully than others. Last night was one of those nights. Last night was a surprise. Last night was a delight. Last night I felt home.
I fell in love with Sambuca from the first moment I saw it, gleaming in the distance on a hill, surrounded by fields of green. Giuseppe Cacioppo, deputy mayor and architect, welcomed me as the town’s first tourist since Covid19. We shared a Minni di Virgini, the town’s famous (and delicious) treat. I spent hours walking alone exploring. Yes, I fell in love. I can’t explain it. Can we ever? There are things I can point to, but overall it’s just a feeling. This town feels right to me.
I returned one week later and Giuseppe introduced me to his friends Ginevra and Deborah, both of whom work at Planeta winery. We ate spaghetti with wild asparagus at Caffe Beccadelli and then walked through the town looking at homes, not for me to purchase but to see things that I could not see on my own. By the end of the day, I had three new friends who insisted I return again before leaving Sicily.
Ginevra arranged for me to stay at the home of a friend who is out of town. And this home… wow. Truly. Three levels with the kitchen on top, leading to three outdoor terraces. The view is simply fantastic, and the sunsets!! In gratitude, while still abiding Covid-19, I asked if I could cook a meal for my friends. I thought lunch. They choose dinner. Much better!
The menu was simple, nothing fancy. Just the way I always cook. The same things I have been making for myself throughout these months in quarantine. Pasta with zucchini and mushrooms, tomato basil soup, and a salad. Ok, the salad was a bit fancier than normal, with freshly chopped olives, artichokes, salami, and fresh buffalo mozzarella, a tiny bit of new onion and celery, tossed with lemon and olive oil.
I spent the day preparing. There is something so incredibly satisfying about cooking for friends. And as an extra treat, I purchased a large Minni di Virgini, custom-made in celebration of Ginevra’s birthday. Turns out none of these locals had ever seen one so large! I clapped my hands repeatedly in glee!! Score one for the tourist! (Many thanks to Baldo Caruso!)
My food was a success. Admittedly, as the time approached, I was nervous. Who was I to cook for Sicilians? What was I thinking?? But they were kind and genuinely complimentary. And what better compliment is there than Sicilians enjoying second helpings?!
Ah, but it was my friends who made the evening what I longed for, what my heart needed but could never expect.
Ginevra brought cannoli and gelato slices (so divine, also from Caruso). Giuseppe brought pasta and limoni gelato and brioche. Deborah brought wine. And then there was the special Sicilian champagne that Ginevra had welcomed me with when I arrived. More than this and quite unexpectedly, Ginevra and her husband, Paulo, cooked the pasta! At first, implying there was too much zucchini and funghi … hah! Not for this American – I like plenty of toppings! The two of them sautéed and cooked while the rest of us nibbled on cheese, took photos, and enjoyed the view. We drank, we stuffed ourselves, we laughed. And when the evening air became too cool, we retired to the kitchen for decaffeinated coffee and one last cigarette.
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My heart is full. This is a night I will never forget. Sambuca di Sicilia. And new friends.
What kind of meals make you feel like you’re home? Big holiday dinners? Saturday morning pancakes? Sunday afternoon lunch?
Were there special foods or traditions around meals that you did as a kid and still do today? How does food create the sense of home for you?