I grew up in a little town outside Paterson, New Jersey where most of the residents were second or third generation European immigrants. True to our family’s Southern Italian roots, and large family size, we ate a lot of pasta! But there was one dish in particular that earned its place forever in my heart as proof that my mother loved me. I was thinking about pastina recently when feeling down.
More than comfort food
I haven’t had pastina in ages, primarily because it’s hard to find here in California. In fact, when I was telling my husband, of Mexican ancestry, that I really, really, really needed some of this “Mommy loves me” food, he stared at me blankly as if I was speaking… well, Italian!
Pastina is a teeny-tiny star-shaped pasta. We are talking less than 1/32 of an inch before cooking. It is usually cooked in just enough salted water to be fully absorbed by the pasta. When we were sick, my mother would dissolve Lipton instant chicken soup mix in the water – a chemical concoction of bullion, herbs and preservatives which, when mixed by a mommy who somehow found time to give you special attention when you were sick, would miraculously make you feel better. Most of the time, she boiled it with just water and salt, simmered until it had the consistency of cream of wheat. One cup of water to ¼ cup of pastina for a single serving – but she made it for 12!
What makes pastina special is what is added to it after it’s cooked. In a spouted measuring cup, whip together an egg with ¼ cup of milk and a heaping tablespoon of parmesan cheese per serving. Slowly drizzle that into the simmering pastina, stirring quickly to cook the egg and melt the cheese (similar to egg-drop soup). Serve in a bowl, topped with a pat of butter on top and a shake of additional parmesan. Oh! I can smell it now! Somebody please find me a box of pastina!
“God Loves Me” Food
Speaking of “Mommy loves me” food, I actually had a “God loves me” food when I was a kid!
Early every weekday morning, my sister and I would cut through the McGinnis’ backyard across the street, to get to the back door of the convent where the Dominican Sisters who taught at our school, lived. Sister Francis Imelda would bring out a large woven hamper that had their lunch packed inside. My sister and I dutifully carried it the three blocks to school and brought it downstairs to the cafeteria. Carrying the sisters’ lunch was not only an honor; it forced me to actually walk with my sister every day. I’d give anything to have those mornings again.
The contents of that basket were always a mystery to me, but since nuns were very nearly saints in my ten-year-old mind, I figured their food must be special and heavenly. My lunch usually consisted of a cream cheese and jelly sandwich wrapped in waxed paper, with the jelly leaking through the bread and the brown paper sack by lunchtime. At some point in my childhood, I had decided it was necessary to differentiate myself from my nine younger sisters and brothers by declaring that I hated peanut butter. HATED IT!!!! It got me the attention I craved since my poor mother had to buy a package of cream cheese every week just for me! (I actually love peanut butter these days.)
St. Anthony’s didn’t have an actual cafeteria where you could buy food. The kitchen was only for volunteer ladies to come prepare and serve lunch for the nuns each day with whatever my sister and I had brought in that mysterious hamper. One day, when I forgot my lunch, I timidly went up to the table where the nuns were eating, to ask if I could go home for lunch. Instead, Sister Francis Imelda offered to share their lunch. Not thinking I was qualified to eat nun’s food, my first impulse was to turn it down and slip shyly back to my place at the third grade table. But Sister Francis Imelda insisted, and I was more hungry than shy, so I accepted the sturdy white plate she handed me, with cream cheese and walnuts on top of three round slices of strange dark brown bread. Back at my place at the table, oblivious to the curious stares from my classmates, I cautiously tasted this strange food. Just as I had suspected all along, nuns’ food was heavenly!
When I went home that day, I ran inside to tell my mother about my delicious lunch from God. She wasn’t too happy to hear that I had begged food from the poor sisters and made me promise never to do it again. I remember that, because the entire walk home I had been plotting how long I should wait before “forgetting” my lunch again. Alas, that brown bread and cream cheese would be my only sample of “God loves me” food for many years. Mom had no idea what I was talking about when I asked her if she could buy some of this round brown bread, and when I went with her to the grocery store, I never saw round bread by the other breads. But I never forgot it.
The search for brown bread
Years later, when I was living in upstate New York, I notice a can in the baked bean aisle of a supermarket that said B&M Brown Bread! The brown bread came in a can! I bought it, along with cream cheese and walnuts. It took some doing to figure out that you had to remove both ends of the can, and give the can a hard slap and shake to get the bread out. But then there it was before me – dark brown, moist, molasses-y manna from heaven! I sliced it, schmeared on the cream cheese, distributed the walnut halves evenly on top, gently pressing them into the cheese. And then I took a bite!
It was every bit as scrumptious as I had remembered!
I bought that canned bread often back then, although I haven’t had it in a long time. Like pastina, brown bread is another thing that you can’t find here on the west coast. It wasn’t an Italian thing, it was a New England thing and I wonder if it’s still even a “thing” back there.
I found a recipe for brown bread in the Joy of Cooking cookbook that I got as a wedding gift back in 1971. I must have made it often back then, when I lived in a farmhouse and made everything from scratch, judging by the fact that it flipped right open to page 773 – Brown Bread, when I opened the book just now. The Joy of Cooking describes it as “traditionally served with Boston Baked Beans”, but it seems somewhat sacrilegious to have it any other way than the way God intended it for saints, sisters and a shy Catholic School girl.
What’s your favorite childhood food story?