Remembering Mom with Paprikas

My mother and I would cook together at home sometimes when I was a teenager, and once it became clear that I wouldn’t burn the house down she asked me to prepare dinner after school on evenings when she had to work until closing time. She worked at Luigi’s then, a family owned Italian deli and takeout pizza shop a few short blocks from our house in Yellowknife.

To my mother’s great frustration, Luigi never gave away the secret to his pizza dough. His dough was the best I’ve ever had, anywhere, though the trattorias of Italy came close. Part of the reason we couldn’t make it at home was that we didn’t have a brick oven. But still, his crust had this chew that’s impossible to describe and a taste of yeast, olive oil, and something mysterious. Luigi had brought knowledge with him from Naples and mixed in his own self, turning his pizza into culinary art and comfort at the same time. I think his pizza was my first experience of food prepared with love by a stranger, the kind of global love holy books speak of, extending from the heart of the cook, true hospitality and a gift to all.

Working at Luigi’s wasn’t glamorous or important in big ways, but it mattered to Mom. It gave her pleasure. The pleasure of the company of a boisterous Italian family so different from ours. The pleasure of happy customers. The pleasure of contributing to the happiness of others. The pleasure of experiencing fine foods imported from Italy.

My mother loved working there. I suspect that after a lifetime of various jobs, she didn’t think of it as a job or of Luigi, his wife and his oldest daughter as bosses. They became extended family to her. She kept in touch with them for years after they closed the shop and moved to the Okanagan Valley, but lost track of them in time, though she never forgot them, even near the end when dementia had stolen a chunk of life from her.

Mom died on December 22, 2020, two days shy of her 90th birthday. I couldn’t visit her in hospice because of the pandemic. We managed two FaceTime calls before she became too weak. She also noticed her picture in the corner of the iPad screen on the second call and kinda freaked out. She never liked having her picture taken, even when young and beautiful. For whatever reason, the image reflected back at her was always a disappointment. Close to death, she pointed at the screen and said, Is that me? Ohhh…. Then she fell back against the pillow. I told her I loved her, that she needn’t worry. After that I think she was okay with leaving us to our own devices, and she passed without further communications a few days later.

Mom’s signature dish that I associated with love and comfort was chicken paprikas. Her mother had taught her how to make it, and over the years she fine-tuned it into something only she could produce.

For a long time I never made it myself. Why? I blamed the richness, so much fat! But that wasn’t it, really. It had to do with family and the curtain that flutters in the open window of all of that, the window I jumped through and ran from so long ago, unable to nail it shut behind me.

In recent years I’ve developed a dish that is modern and delicious and all my own, but still contains traces of the past I carry with me, and the joy my mother brought to the table on optimistic days. She had a gift for spontaneous expressions of joy—singing while vacuuming, snuggling a dog, sniffing roses. And so it is her legacy of doing her best to provide for the table something greater than sustenance, chicken paprikas as an expression of joy.

Click here for the recipe.

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