This is more of a love letter than an opinion column. A very Italian love letter.
Meatballs. Eggplant Parm. Grilled octopus. Sauteed brussel sprouts with pancetta. Trofie pasta with pesto. A good ciabatta and a little extra virgin olive oil. I come from a home where life revolves around dinner — the kind of home where you would be in far more trouble if you bought a jar of premade tomato sauce than dropped an F-bomb at the dinner table. I am literally taking breaks between writing sentences of this column to stir the bolognese sauce cooking on the stove, as per my Father’s request. It’s the one constant which never changes in times both good and bad — there’s always something cooking on that stove. Almost every Italian American family has their own rendition of the supercharged family dinner. As New York faced crisis in the early months of the coronavirus, Governor — and crush of Italian mothers everywhere, apparently — Andrew Cuomo lifted spirits by sharing a photo of his family’s “Sunday Dinner.” In my German/Italian American family, our “Sunday Dinners” are actually something more like Saturday and Sunday Dinners, and each one is something sacred, featuring whatever creative spin on an old classic dish which my Father can dream up. This food, this tradition means even more now amidst such turbulent times than it ever did before.
As Cornell shut down in March and ushered its students away from campus, I found myself on a flight back to Miami internally debating how to safely return home. While I didn’t think that I had been exposed to coronavirus, I knew that I had been in contact with countless people on campus and while traveling. With a father over the age of sixty with various coronavirus risk factors and a mother who has impressively remained thirty five years old for all twenty years of my life, I was especially leery of the potential of carrying the virus asymptomatically and infecting my parents upon returning home given their moderately high level of risk. With an isolated quarantine more or less impossible in our home, that meant taking on the significant financial burden of holing up in an extended stay hotel until we could be sure that I was uninfected. On that first day, I stood in the extended stay parking lot six feet away from my mother as she pulled up in her car to give me some food. She set it down on the ground and retreated six feet away. I collected it and waved. That was all. We hadn’t seen each other since January, but this was the new harsh reality to which we have now all become so accustomed. No hug. No long conversation. Just dinner in a bag on the pavement.
I returned alone to my room and sat down at the scratched up desk under a flickering bulb. I opened up the bag to find meatballs in tomato sauce, eggplant, rotini, and a bit of good Italian bread. Still warm. I was alone in that room halfway across town, away from my family. But I was home. As we ate that same dinner separated by so many city blocks, we were still together. So long as we had our food, our special dinners, we knew we would be alright despite the uncertainty and downright fear of the approaching pandemic. That food meant something extra to me that night. It meant home in a moment when returning home wasn’t possible.
And now, so many months later as I stir this bolognese and prepare for my return to Ithaca in just a few short weeks, I am reminded once again of how much it means to sit with my family and eat this food — of just how profoundly lucky and privileged I am to have that in my life. We live in frightening times — times which frequently demand that we separate ourselves from one another, that we keep our distance, so that we may keep one another safe. And in these times, there is nothing more essential than remembering those little things which keep us together despite distance, which offer us familial comfort, which remind us of how much love we have in our lives and how lucky we are to have it. For my family, that means an excess of delicious food on Saturday and Sunday nights. For yours, it might mean something completely different. It might not even be with your family. But whatever it is, don’t forget about it. Don’t let yourself be distracted by the pressures of Cornell or by the terrifying headlines or anything else. Focus on those little traditions—those things which may seem silly or routine to everybody else—and enjoy them because that is what will keep you going through all this, no matter what.
Don’t forget what really keeps you going. Don’t forget to stir the sauce.
Andrew Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this summer.