Photo Credit: Jenna Helwig
When I met my husband, my idea of a proper Italian meal was to boil store-bought pasta and top it with Prego. My husband’s version of that meal was sauce made from scratch, plus a salad with homemade vinaigrette. Or maybe he would just whip up a homemade risotto. I quickly acclimated myself to the idea that Dave would do most of the cooking in our relationship.
Then he took me home to meet his mother.
I was excited to move to this next phase of our relationship, and I had heard only wonderful things about Iolanda. What I knew about her life was shocking to me: Born and raised in Italy, she moved to Montreal after an arranged marriage at age 16. As much as I looked forward to meeting her, I also happily anticipated the food. Dave told me rapturous stories of Iolanda’s culinary feats: hearty pasta, thin-crust pizza, homemade sausages, delicate cakes. “Her lasagna is a masterpiece,” he said. Dave knew that just because I couldn’t cook didn’t mean I didn’t like to eat.
And eat we did, starting when I arrived Thursday night. Iolanda welcomed me with open arms and fantastic food. She served us four-course dinners in which just the pasta courses could have been meals unto themselves. I felt like I was dining at Le Cirque every night.
On Sunday morning, Iolanda was in the kitchen by 8 a.m. to begin preparing the most important meal of the week: Sunday lunch. I sipped my coffee as she washed lettuce, marinated chicken and roasted peppers.
“Can I help you?” I asked without thinking. Then I panicked. Frankly, I didn’t want to help. In no time, I would betray my kitchen cluelessness, blowing my candidacy as a dutiful wife to her son. Iolanda looked at me for a moment, as if sizing up my culinary capacity. “No, no,” she said smiling. I exhaled.
She began cutting potatoes into wedges and tossing them in olive oil with sliced red pepper, salt, pepper and dried rosemary that she had pounded into a powder with a mortar and pestle. It didn’t look that complicated, and I assumed this dish would be filler on the table. She slid an enormous dish of the potatoes into the hot oven.
When we sat down to eat, first came the pasta, then the chicken and vegetables. Then the potatoes arrived, and the entire family “ooohed and aaahed” in unison. They were glorious: golden, crunchy and salty with a surprising depth of flavor, thanks to the pulverized rosemary. I knew immediately that I wanted more. Not just more potatoes. But more good, simple food—every single day. And if dishes like those potatoes were that straightforward to prepare, I could certainly learn to cook.
I looked down the table at my future mother-in-law and she smiled warmly, in her element at the head of the table. She took such great pleasure in feeding her family well. I suddenly realized I was going to be spending a lot more time in her kitchen.
This is the first in a series of essays about cooking with her mother-in-law by Jenna Helwig, founder of Rosaberry.