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A Little Happier: A Question That Seemed to Make No Sense Was in Fact a Declaration of Love

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I recently read Dawn Drzal’s memoir The Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites (AmazonBookshop), which is a memoir that takes the form of a food alphabet, where each letter is associated with a food experience in the author’s life. The first chapter is called “A is for Al Dente,” and I was very struck by a story she recounts.

She writes about her Italian grandmother, who was a wonderful, enthusiastic cook with very high standards for everything she put on her table. But even after decades of cooking, she claimed that she couldn’t tell when the pasta was al dente, that is, when it was cooked to the ideal consistency. At a certain point, as she stood over the boiling pot she’d yell to her granddaughter, “Pop! Go find Pop!” and whatever Dawn Drzal's grandfather was doing, he had to come to the kitchen to sample the spaghetti to pronounce that it was ready or that it needed a few more minutes. Or of course, often the spaghetti became overcooked in the time that it took him to arrive.

Dawn writes:

This charade, as I used to see it, drove me and everyone else in the family crazy. What was the point of bothering him? Why couldn’t the woman test it herself, for God’s sake, or use a timer, or let someone else do the tasting? It wasn’t rocket science. My grandparents had been dead for many years before I understood that it wasn’t about sense, or convenience. It was one of the rituals of love. My grandfather was central to the meal, it said. He was indispensable. His opinion was valued above all others. Despite how thin-skinned my grandmother was, she repeatedly braved our ridicule to tell him these things. When I left home and finally learned what al dente pasta tasted like, I realized she had sacrificed her perfectionism for sixty years to say in overcooked spaghetti what she could not put into words.

Sometimes, gestures of love don’t look the way we expect. I found it wonderful to think that, many years after this time has passed, the writer realized what she’d been witnessing.

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