By all accounts, my partner’s grandmother was a tiny, independent, and generous woman that I would have loved. Proudly bearing the name Francis Minervini Arnone, she remained a Sicilian at heart long after emigrating. A working single mother, she juggled duties to make sure that the culinary part of her traditions remained a priority, and she fed her family very well.
When her only child met and married a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman from the west, she set about teaching the new Mrs. Arnone the necessary skill with pasta and seafood, sauces and stocks, fresh vegetables and even fresher herbs. To this day, even a late-night arrival or one in the oppressive heat and humidity of an Illinois summer is met with a heaping bowl of homemade ravioli and a simple and exquisite salad of bright Italian flavours. In the dead of each Midwestern winter, Grandma Arnone braved the fish markets of Chicago to ensure that the family could enjoy a traditional Sicilian seafood feast for Christmas Eve. Her home was a place of delicious smells and — mysterious and delightful to the grandkids — the traditional glass of wine with dinner and espresso to settle the digestion.
Along with food, she nourished the family with stories of growing up in Italy, of immigrant life in Chicago, of neighbourhoods and friends through the years. Many of the stories involved food, of course, but one of the family favourites was about olive season in her childhood. She recalled picking bright green olives right from the trees, loading them into baskets on the back of a donkey, and leading the donkey into town to sell the olives at market. Surely such a perfect story must be made up, they thought, but it was a good story and one that was shared over and over.
Then, browsing the aisles of an Italian market in the city one day, Allen’s mother found it: a giant can of Sicilian Castelvetrano olives. Wrapping the can was an illustration of the bucolic Italian countryside, all warm colours and round hills and tidy buildings. Along the path leading through the hills walked a young girl leading a donkey, its baskets heaped with olives. Mrs. Arnone bought what has since become a family staple, olives the verdant green of spring, meaty and fresh, with just the faintest hint of brine. They all taste good, but the most loved ones come from labels seemingly drawn from Grandma’s memories.
When travelling, we search out Castelvetranos in Italian specialty shops and pack home tins and plastic buckets in bulging luggage. They show up in the occasional deli olive bar, glowing among the dull greens and dark purples and shiny blacks. They taste best, though, at those loud, crazy, multi-generational gatherings of family that never seem to happen often enough. There are bowls of olives scattered about the long dinner table, set on kitchen counters to eat while cooking, and shared on the lawn by kids of all ages. Even the gallon tin of oil next to the stove bears the image of girl and donkey winding their way to market.
Grandma Arnone never returned to Italy as she wanted, bringing family to meet old friends and find the sights, smells, and tastes of her childhood. She passed on before we had a chance to go, but that dream and her stories live on in the fantastic Castelvetrano olive. This, we imagine, is the subtle brine taste of a Sicilian breeze during the olive harvest, and of a kind of home.