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Le Madri, the Backbone of Italy

They wear shapeless round-necked sleeveless dresses that seem to mark the beginning of the end

madri italy
Mothers rule in Italy. Hardworking, traditional, informed as much in politics as in how to slaughter a chicken and get it to the table, I have enormous respect and admiration for the three mothers I've gotten to know in our town in Le Marche.

I’m not sure at what age this happens, but at some point around 55 or so, lots of Italian women in small towns (and possibly in cities too) give up their fashionable clothes and start wearing muumuus. These are shapeless round-necked sleeveless dresses, usually in dark, dull prints with navy blue or black backgrounds. They are ubiquitous on sale in the markets and rarely share a stall with more fashionable clothing.  They cover up what must have once been lithe or curvy bodies that have now become solid and rotund with age, hard work and their own good food. This garb is worn in town for shopping and evening passeggiate, hanging around the house and borgo, chatting with the neighbors, sweeping up, and of course, doing all the hard work that keeps this culture going.  Many women dye their hair and get short, stylish cuts, so there is still some symbolic nod to fashion and vanity, but the shapeless dresses accessorized with soft terry cloth slippers seem to mark the beginning of the end.

The widows have let their hair go gray and their dresses are solid black.  No more prints in the fabric.  It’s as though the hardship and grief of their lives have been absorbed into these black dresses, and like a black hole, no more light is emitted.

I don’t know how long this tradition has gone onat least I suppose since the invention of poly-cotton blended fabric.  The difference is, in the last few years, these solid, dependable women now have cell phones.  They are completely adept with themno fumbling and puzzled looks on their faces as you see with older people in the States as they try to modernize their mode of communication.  The Italian nonne are chattering away as they walk down the street, gesturing emphatically, laughing and doling out instructions and advice.

I’m always proud of the women I see in the markets who haven’t gone the way of the muumuu, and are wearing slacks, jeans, tailored jackets, scarves and stylish shoes.  The Italians are inimitable in their sense of fashion and beauty.  There’s no reason why age should curtail this innate dedication to always looking good.  I am much more conscientious about how I leave the house in Italy than I am in my Brooklyn neighborhood.  Shorts and sneakers are forbidden in my mind when in Italy, unless you’re a teenager, even in the hot summer.  I won’t go into town without putting on a skirt and sandals.

I have the privilege of knowing three madri in my town.  They are unbelievably interesting and wonderful people and I love them dearly.  The first that I met was Alina, the wife of Ippolito, from whom we’d bought our house.  Alina welcomed us with such genuine warmth and kindness, we were bowled over.  On my walks into town I would often see her working in her fields, deeply engaged in what we came to call “flipflop farming–” working on steep inclines, pruning and pulling weeds wearing rubber-soled zorries.   I would always stop for a chat, and she always seemed glad to see me and patiently put up with my atrocious Italian.  She was one of the kindest and warmest people I have ever met.  Her death a few years after we met her saddened us deeply.  We’d barely gotten to know her and her loss was profound for her family.

Jesse had told Alina and Ippolito about my fondness for figs when he met them at the signing of the rogito.  When I arrived to see the house for the first time, they had rooted seedlings from their own fig trees and planted them on our land.  I was overwhelmed by this thoughtful gesture of friendship.  Later that summer, Alina and her daughters-in-law prepared a welcoming supper for us.  It was a feast the likes of which we’d never experienced.  Sophie was little and Alina had asked us what she liked to eat.  “Pizza and chicken.”  Well, that was that.  The dinner table when we arrived was literally groaning with at least five kinds of pizza warm from their pizza oven, and a mountain of broiled chicken, appetizers, sides and cake for dessert, plus a huge platter of figs from their trees, placed in front of me.

Now we all know how much Italians love children, and Sophie, being in her potholder phase (anyone with a young daughter knows what I mean), had made a little rooster using her potholder loom for Alina.  Sophie was a little bit shy, but I’d coached her with a phrase in Italian.  If you say this, I told her, they will absolutely, guaranteed, give you candy.  “Ho fatto questo per voi,” said Sophie tentatively.  She might as well have made the ultimate blow to the pinatacaramelle and chocolate bars rained down upon her, patted cheeks, wide smiles and praise– she was in heaven.  And so were we.

Leona is the mother of Pasquale and Saranella, the engineers who designed our house, plus another daughter with her three sons who live in town.  She is an amazing woman– a retired elementary school teacher with a vast knowledge of the natural world, especially what’s edible and what’s not.  We once did a foraging walk with her where she pointed out poisonous vs. non-poisonous mushrooms, wild fennel, herbs, wild asparagus and other wonders of the forest.  Always busy, she has started a business selling her own handmade soaps, using olive oil from her trees, flower blossoms and citrus.  That in addition to the lavender harvested from her other daughter’s land, which Leona distills herself, using a contraption I assume her son The Engineer helped her concoct.  She wastes nothing– the lavender oil is sold separately, as is the lavender water which can be sprayed on freshly washed bed linen; the blossoms add fragrance and color to the olive oil soap which is richly emollient and smells heavenly.

Leona has cooked for us countless times– her kids seem to think nothing of inviting all their friends over to their mother’s house to eat.  There is a lovely gravelled courtyard off her kitchen with a long table under a big sheltering tree, next to the pizza oven and Leona’s well-tended hydrangeas and herb garden.  To eat dinner under that tree is magical, drinking homemade wine as the sun goes down and eating whatever Leona has cooked.  In early September, once the weather has cooled, le madri make pizza.  Not just a few pizze, but a dozen, in long rectangular pans with endless toppings– artichokes, red peppers, pancetta, zucchini, tomatoes, mushrooms, sausage, basil, rosemary, pecorino– whatever is coming out of the garden goes on the pizza.  It’s hard to describe how deliciously different pizza tastes when it comes right out of your neighbor’s oven sitting under a tree in their yard.  The other most memorable meal we had at Leona’s was when she made ravioli with nettles.  That horrible weed that stings your legs went into both the pasta dough and the ricotta filling– a subtle taste thrill that rendered us wide-eyed.  She also makes a mean crostata, with her own jam of course.  I was honored when she came to my house for dinner one spring and told me I had made una cena splendida— for me, this was the highest praise from one of my idols.

My friend Angela lives at the top of the road that leads to our house.  We met her and her wonderful husband Sergio the year we went to our town at Christmastime and couldn’t drive our car down the hill to our house because, with the snow, we’d never get it up again.   Pasquale had suggested we ask to leave our car at their house for a night or two until the weather cleared, and they readily agreed.  This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with two people who define “salt of the earth.”  When she was young, Angela worked in one of Le Marche’s once numerous shoe factories, and she has the industrial strength sewing machine for making shoes in her own house, next to the cantina.  She has been devoted to Sergio, their two daughters, one grandchild, their land and animals for years and years.  She has a wicked sense of humor, a big barrel laugh and a heart of gold.  She teaches me how to make jam, and speaks to me slowly and deliberately so I can understand.  Her cantina abounds with pickled vegetables, jams, potatoes, preserved fruits and tomato sauce.  A meal at her house overflows with delicious, stick-to-your-ribs, home-cooked comfort food.  She’s made us roasted chicken (raised in her hen house of course), fried zucchini, stuffed olives, some kind of sinful tiramisu with Nutella and coconut, September pizza in all of its varieties (probably the best we’ve ever had), and her specialty– vincisgrassi.  There are many stories about this dish– about a rivalry between Ancona and Macerata, an Austrian general, and the variations on the recipe.  It is essentially a lasagna with both bechamel sauce and ragu, the ragu containing various organs of the chicken, including its head, which flavors the sauce (Angela’s vincisgrassi recipe).

There’s another rivalry that deserves mention here.  Once, I got up the nerve to have Angela and Sergio over to our house for dinner (I knew my cooking could never be up to snuff for an expert like Angela and I dreaded the comparison to what’s traditional).  We had homemade wine on the table that Pasquale had given us, made from his grapes.  When we told Sergio this was Pasquale’s wine, he jumped in his car, sped back to his house and returned with a bottle of his wine.  Well then.  I guess the competition among clans runs deep. Looks like I’ll soon have to do a story on I Padri…

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