United States Chef
Donata Thomas Profile
Donata's Painted Kitchen
I love a Sunday Dinner. From so early an age I recall sitting around my grandmother’s table, or maybe at a “kid’s” table since the adult table was so full…listening to my great grandmother share some naughty story not meant for a child’s ears. Or so I thought anyway as even at a young age my mother called my mind carnal. Great Grandma spoke with a thick Italian accent with her large lips and slight mustache where on certain enunciations she would end up spitting to speak.
I was in awe of my mother’s big family and felt grossly naïve of the relationship she had with her 3 brothers and 2 sisters. Growing up they were largely left alone to play the day away, as were most children of that era and so they shared all sorts of inside jokes and stories. And at times, during my grandmother’s bouts of depression would fend for themselves and live in worry about what might be happening behind their mother’s bedroom door.
My grandfather was strict, having no time for “girl giggles” or whining or rough play. A hug was something he seemed incapable of until he found himself taking over the role of nurturer during my grandmother’s lengthy fight with Alzheimer’s.
I always found his aloofness befuddling as it was so obvious that he and my grandmother had a very fulfilling intimate relationship. (Even aside of the not so subtle jokes about his “Helen Dot”, that suspect of a woman that provided my grandmother with a source of jealousy over their journey as a couple).
On these particular Sundays, though, I did have a part, aside from helping with dinner. I would sit on the back porch with my youngest uncle and sing Kenny Rogers songs. The Gambler sticks out most vividly. I felt rather protective of my uncle as he was not quite the same after a terrible car accident in his young teenage years.
My grandfather, even in his aloofness, lovingly taught me to bake chocolate chip cookies. I remember vividly the way he took the cookies out of the oven (the dough pre-made by my grandmother) and gently shooing away the metal spatula I wielded and telling me how we must let them cool on the pan for a few minutes to allow them to hold their shape before scooping them off the cookie sheet with the hard metal.
My grandparents never stayed in one home for very long. Yet, surprisingly, every house was most definitely their home. Every home had a flourishing garden. Every home had carefully selected current pictures of each child and grandchild, and of course of
Great Grandma and Uncle Jimmy. Every home had a guest room sparingly yet perfectly attired. Every home had a canning room.
How I loved the canning room. Every canning room in every home smelled exactly the same, the smell like some magic energy that carried from place to place as a lost soul might, but without the chill of the earthly departed. Instead the canning rooms were lusciously cool despite any exterior heat. Their rooms always lined with shelves most lovingly made by my grandfather.
On these shelves, as surely as grandma were to attend Sunday Mass, you would find the deepest darkest green pint size jar of the most perfectly selected cucs, magically morphed into Sweet Pickles and most definitely a deep ruby red jar of Pickled Beets. On any given year you might find a deep mustard colored jar of Mustard Pickled Vegetables, cauliflower, pearl onion, carrot, green pepper. Grandma canned apple sauce, and fruit butters, and apple pie filling, and sweet meats, and green beans, and dill pickles, and the most divine Bread and Butter pickles. The whole display as appealing to the eyes and nose as it was to the feeling of comfort and stability I felt to my very core.
On rare occasions my grandma would share some tidbit of gossip or secret as she cooked and cleaned. Maybe it would be about the transformation of one of my uncles from his violent years as a young father, to the wonderful, yet strict, man he’d now become. Sometimes she would share the very deep and dark poems my mother had written in her younger years. Sometimes she would share her own stories.
“You know”, she would say,” I was engaged to someone else when I met your grandfather”. And I would imagine my grandmother and her sisters all dressed up in their nylons with the seam up the back in their collared and button down dresses with the big patent belts and matching patent shoes. Their hair rolled and curled to perfection in typical 1940’s fashion, with dark reddish orange lips expertly pouting on their faces, going out on the town after their work in the ship yards to drink martinis and dance the night away with the navy boys who were in town; which, as I imagine it, is how she met my grandfather in Seattle who was originally from Virginia.
My grandmother, apparently, was the first to marry. My great grandmother, in her infinite carnal wisdom, said that she must see my grandmother the very “morning after” her wedding night to get a good look at her to see if she looked any different. What was going through the woman’s head I can only imagine, and often do! But with 9 of her own living children the older woman must have felt a need to arm herself with the most intimate of details to protect her younger offspring.
And protect she did. For all of her physically capable elder years my Great Grandmother lovingly cared for my uncle jimmy, whom from some accident of birth had water on the brain; as it was told to me anyway. Uncle Jimmy was very loving and resided not with our grandmother, but in a wonderful Chalet for people with neural issues in Snohomish, Wa. Grandma always dressed Uncle Jimmy in blue and white striped over alls and he was always clean as a whistle. Someone would always pick grandma and Jimmy up for church, or Sunday dinner, or a holiday, or special family event.
Jimmy gave the best hugs, drooled a lot, and communicated a bit. But in the Chalet, in the Chalet, he was a rock star. What with being one of the longest residents and always having a girlfriend around. Plus, he had the most cool room, decorated with all of his arts and crafts and things from home.
Going to the Chalet was a special retreat. My mother had worked there during high school so I always felt as I was learning a little bit about her, she being a sort of private person regarding her younger years. Although the visit would often bring back memories for her and sometimes she would share. She took up smoking while working at the Chalet, she was once in an accident on the way to work on a little winding road around Blackman’s Lake. Stories like that.
Slowly the little wall of stability for me cracked as the universe became more clear and more family stories shared.
My mother had taken off to Italy once when she was sixteen, and again when she was 19. She had family living in the north of Italy and I imagine her intent was to “feel” all of the stories that were held by my great grandmother and great grandfather who immigrated to the states during the ‘20’s to find prosperity in dairy farming.
I lack many a detail, but while working at La Cremea, in Chiavenna, she met a couple of boys, one an English boy and one a Southern Italian boy whose mother had absconded from a family of criminals, or Mafioso, to raise her son in a crime-free environment. Mom really liked the English boy, but felt oh so sorry for the Italian boy and ended up following him into the woods for a weekend to hang out. She says she had no intention of sleeping with him, and is a bit unsure and speculative of how it happened…maybe a Mickey??...but, alas, I was conceived.
Mother’s famiglia were none too happy that she had carried on with this Southern Italian garbage and hence she moved north to help a woman in a ski lodge near St. Moritz, which consequently, is where she found out about my existence. The woman she stayed with was most gracious, even offering for her to stay on and raise me. But my mother trudged home, boldly, holding her head far too high for a good catholic girl of the early ‘70’s.
Once home, as supportive as my mother’s nuclear family was, the plan was to find a father for me, and to find one quick! And find one the family did. And so far, a good 35 years and 4 children and 15 grandchildren, and too many Sunday dinners have sprung from this most interesting state of affairs.
But I digress, Sunday dinners for me were like foreplay for the big family reunion, La Famiglia Nostra. La Famiglia is always held the second weekend of August, the weekend of my birthday, which is also the day of Ferragasto, the celebration of The Virgin…
From Wikipedia: Ferragosto is an Italian holiday celebrated on August 15. Originally, it may have related to a celebration of the middle of the summer and the end of the hard labour in the fields. The Catholic Church celebrates this date as a Holy Day of Obligation to commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the real physical elevation of her sinless soul and incorrupt body, into Heaven.
Before the Roman Catholic Church came into existence, however, this holiday was celebrated in the Roman Empire to honor the gods—in particular Diana—and the cycle of fertility and ripening. In fact, the present Italian name of the holiday derives from its original Latin name, Feriae Augusti ("Festivals [Holidays] of the Emperor Augustus") .
Almost the entire month of August was taken as a holiday and leisure time in Italy in honor of this feast day.
In present days, Ferragosto is mainly a short holiday when Italians take brief vacations. The holiday often coincides with peak activity of the Perseid meteor shower, leaving Italians at a particular advantage to view the astronomical event seen best at pre-dawn hours…
La Famiglia always starts at noon on the second Saturday of August. A huge buffet dinner happens at precisely at two. This is the only part of the picnic that has not changed in the 37 years that I have attended. My favorite year was one that ended up in the Snohomish tribune. There were something like 300 people present, I was probably nine. It was held at the new St. Michael’s building where CCD was held, the new church not yet in existence. Our picture was taken and put in the paper with a brief family history.
We played baseball, we ate copious amounts of food, we held a raffle to pay for the following year, we had our annual auction. I had my annual crush on my second cousins…oh there are plenty of kissing cousin stories, but really, why tell them!
I envied my older cousins blossoming bodies, and looked in awe at cousins who were obviously having sex because they were having babies…silly.
My grandmother cooked and cooked and cooked for this. Making spaghetti and risotto and jello salad, bringing her canned goods and baked treats and some years, vino. Alcohol being a tradition that comes and goes over the years based on the level of alcoholism present in the famiglia… Always there were black olives and hard Italian wine salami, sometimes polenta, sometimes those yummy deep fried cookies. Always, always there were Biscotti and Sherry Cake and Pasta Salads and Lasagnas and Fried Chicken and Zucchini in a billion different dishes.
Not a lot of Italian was spoken at these picnics, now and again a cousin who resided still in Italy would pop in, or someone would bring an Italian friend. But this was just really the offspring of a few brothers who came here to farm and raise their families, a generation removed from their heritage.
I am uncertain if the family intentionally chose this date, I’d like to think so. I would also like to think that my name was chosen by divine powers.
The story goes that my mom wanted to name me Donata Rosa. Donata mi una Rosa, she often says. Meaning, He gave me a Rose, meaning God gave her a rose. My aunt found this name far too Italian. And I’m sure my Grandmother did as well. Grandma was spit on in her younger years for being a whop. She and her siblings didn’t speak English well into elementary school, as it wasn’t spoken at home and they suffered terrible ridicule for this. Purposely and so boldly marking this supposed little girl as Italian didn’t work for her. The choice was no longer theirs, however, when they burst into the hospital halls and saw no one but heard a voice yell, “Dona, where’s Rosa!?”.
I figure, if the good lord (or the Universe, as I like to call it) took the time to choose my name, and give me this wonderfully holy of birthdates, it surely must have some sort of divine plan for my life…I’m waiting…maybe it’s to host Sunday Dinners….
My grandmothers were my first cooking influences. One grandmother was an all-american type cook raising two children in the '50's. She always had a vegetable garden and did her own canning. The other grandmother was of Northern Italian descent raising 6 kids in the '50's and always had an herb garden and veggies. Both grandmothers loved to bake, both loved to ply their grandchildren with food, both survived their own childhood through the depression, hence both were very like minded with a "waste not want not" approach to living. I learned so much at there side and am often amazed at the collective memory of my own feeble mind.
Julia Child and the other channel 9 chefs lured me away from MTV as a teen and enhanced the base of knowledge I'd inherited from my grandmothers.
As a young bride I received the cookbook, The Silver Palette. In this book I found the most wonderful revelations: proper cheese boards, scrumptious crudités ideas, decadent desserts...and in this book I found my first successful bread recipe.
While nursing my infants and doing the copious amounts of laundry that ensue...I watched, with the first, Martha Stewart, and with the third, The Food Network and Fine Living. I absorbed every little bit of detail that I could from these show.
Having a strict budget while raising a family has had the biggest impact on the way I cook and cater.
- The Silver Pallette
- I typically despise cookbooks for anything but generating news, but this is my fav...
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