Making sauce, chasing chickens

By Gina Barreca

The Hartford Courant

Destiny: Those parts of your life you can’t escape no matter how hard you’ve worked to avoid them.

I was making tomato sauce the other afternoon just as my Sicilian grandmother taught me: searing the sausage and the chopped meat in separate frying pans while getting the olive oil, garlic, parsley and the oregano ready in other small pots.

In Brooklyn, where I grew up, we always had sauce – or as my family referred to it “gravy” – simmering on a back burner. The original version had been there since 1948. It was stirred constantly by my Aunt Josephina, who had an arm like a longshoreman. Just one. The only time she left that spot was to go to Mass.

No recipes

The women in my family used no recipes. They used a small handful of salt, fistfuls of fresh basil and olive oil (from somebody who had a connection to the good stuff) that they measured in a cup. A real cup, not a measuring cup. That’s how we learned to cook. The only way I can teach somebody how to replicate a dish is by having them watch me. I can’t explain it.

For Italians, cooking is more choreography than culinary.

My Sicilian family had the traditional kitchen arrangement: The upstairs kitchen was immaculate, perfectly equipped and too good for cooking.

No meal was prepared in that kitchen. The only people who would have been allowed to eat there would have been the people who could have sat in the living room that nobody ever used. That room had three pieces of matching brocade furniture covered in industrial grade vinyl and the lampshades still had the original cellophane protecting them.

So, now, picture me in my Connecticut kitchen, which is as different from the basement kitchen as it is possible to be. It’s airy, big, and looks directly into our nice backyard.

Yet there are echoes of my childhood: the hiss of the meat, the garlic on the chopping board, the scent of basil on my fingers before I drop it in the pot. I’m cooking because we have a big group of friends coming over for dinner.

It’s quiet, and I’m happy.

My husband, not Italian, but originally from New Jersey, so it’s almost the same thing, has gone to buy wine to accompany the meal.

Then, I see the chickens.

Our new neighbors’ chickens decided, like characters out of an old war movie, to make a break for it. A dozen of them scramble over the stone wall and invade our yard. They’re eating birdseed and scratching up the mulch.

Suddenly, the ancient strands of my DNA awaken. I run outside, slamming the screen door behind me, and scream, “Get outta of my yard, you lousy birds!”

I chase them around the yard while flapping my apron as if brandishing a weapon. The graying bun at the top of my head is coming loose, with strands of hair covering my face. I look like a cartoon of peasant life.

Everything I’d ever done in my life I’d done precisely to avoid this moment. I got my Ph.D., wrote a bunch of books and lectured around the world about women’s leadership, and yet here I am, running after livestock and cursing. I am, in other words, doing exactly what my ancestors in Castelbuono did to protect their hovel from the neighbor’s goats.

Without my realizing it, Michael had returned home and was witnessing this scene. When I saw him standing on the deck, I made a futile attempt to collect myself by tucking some strands of hair back into the bun. In a cheerful, slow voice containing a small tinge of horror, he asked, “And exactly what are you doing?”

I replied, “I’m finally becoming the woman I’ve been meant to be. It’s destiny.”

Michael did not look reassured. Still, we ate well that night. And no, we did not have chicken.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books.