On the window sill in her Newburyport kitchen, Pam Federico keeps a small frame holding photos of her grandmothers.
As Federico prepares and cooks her favorite Italian dishes, she often has conversations with her beloved Nana and Nonie, continuing a ritual that started years ago in another kitchen. While Federico’s grandmothers both passed away more than a decade ago, they left Federico with some impressive culinary skills, pride in her heritage, countless memories of cooking lessons, and a book full of carefully transcribed recipes.
“I was really fortunate to have them for so long,” said Federico, 49. Each woman lived into her early 90s.
When Federico grew up in Stoneham, it was common for families to hold a big family dinner on Sundays, she said, and her Italian household was no different. Each week, Federico’s two grandmothers would arrive at the doorstep ready to attend church with her family, and then return to begin making the meal.
“I would sit in the kitchen and watch her cook, and we’d talk,” Federico said. Over a table full of ingredients and pans, her grandmothers would share stories of their childhoods growing up in Italy along with tips and advice on preparing chicken cutlets, pasta, meatballs and sauce, and other classic dishes.
“We just learned by watching them and talking,” she said. “Everything starts with olive oil and garlic.”
By age 9, Federico was helping to prepare chicken cutlets by rolling the pieces in egg and breadcrumbs. It’s a dish her own four teenage sons enjoy today, she said.
It wasn’t until she arrived at Westfield State College that she realized that macaroni-and-cheese can be purchased in a box, or that there was this food called ramen noodles, Federico said with a laugh.
Today Federico easily and quickly prepares family dinners; but she will always keep her well-worn first cookbook nearby — it holds stacks of carefully laminated recipes penned by her grandmothers. Frequently, in the early years after Federico married her husband, Rick, 25 years ago, she would pull a pile of mail from her mailbox and find envelopes from Nana or Nonie containing handwritten notes accompanied by a recipe card.