I’ve lived my whole life in northern Maine. Growing up in a Catholic family of eight, I spent my childhood next door to my Italian and Lebanese grandparents in Little Italy in Millinocket, a paper mill town steeped in history and built by immigrants.
In our family, knowing how to cook and appreciating good food is not only required, it’s the part of our colorful heritage that most often brings us together in happy times and in sad; offering a means for sharing and closeness when words cannot. It is the panacea for what life dishes up unexpectedly.
During a recent holiday dinner, my father was serving another helping of stuffing to my husband, who had failed yet again in his attempt to refuse it. Dad explained his pushiness matter-of-factly, “Times were tough in America for immigrants at the turn of the century, and for the following generation, for that matter. Often, the only thing they had to share was food they had grown and prepared. So they did just that… as often as they could. It didn’t matter if all they had was a very bad cut of meat or some flour and eggs for pasta; they knew how to cook and made the most of it. Every yard had a chicken coop, and every garden had grapevines.”
One of my most cherished memories is that of my grandmother, Emma Manzo, opening the porch door, leaning out, wiping her hands on her apron, and in her soft, raspy voice hollering her best to any one of us who would answer... “Sonya… Joetta... Georgia… come and help with the sauce!” Or sometimes it was pizzelle cookies, or meatballs, or chicory stew. But we learned… without recipes and without question.
My mother’s heritage is French, Scottish and Native American. Born and raised in Mattawamkeag, Maine, she learned to cook as a 17-year-old bride quite simply to survive living so near to her mother-in-law. In 1996 my parents bought a small house across the street from ours, renovated it, and opened an Italian deli they named “Orvieto” after my mother’s favorite village in Italy. It was a family business but it was my mother’s brainchild, and the memories of that busy six-year chapter in our lives are vivid and rich. The sandwiches on the menu were all named after the characters from the story of Pinocchio. Dad’s homemade Anisette liqueur was a favorite among the regulars. He would invite them into the back room for “just a sip of zoon-zoon”, even if they were on their lunch hour. Vivaldi played in the background, the bread went fast, and the customers kept coming back.
Much has happened since then. My appreciation for family, good food, and the mystery of life’s seasons has made it natural for me to find their common bond. So in the following pages I offer you the mood of the food if you will; some favorite recipes, pleasant accompaniments, helpful notes, seasonal reflections - A Taste of It All.
I hope you enjoy it.