Dealing with loss through memories of the best-in-the-world lasagna

Words by Liliana Tommasini; Art by Jemma Jose

My parents had a somewhat conventional love story. My mother, Giuseppina Cirino met my father, Bonifacio Tommasini, when he was a carabiniere, or law-enforcement officer, stationed in Palermo, Sicily.  She was working at her father’s clothing store when one day he walked in to buy shirts.  He was immediately attracted to my mother, a beautiful young lady with a crown of long dark wavy hair, as she was to him, a handsome moustached man in uniform.  After many visits to my grandfather’s store, my father asked him for my mother’s hand in marriage.

Shortly after they were married, my father resigned from the carabinieri in search of better employment. He heard there were many job opportunities across the Atlantic and so he travelled to Quebec, Canada, as he had an uncle who could accommodate him until he found work. After a year, my mom joined him. She arrived in Canada in February, one of the coldest months of the year, and immediately wanted to return to her sunny Palermo. She was homesick for her family, and once she and my father settled in Montreal, my mom’s five siblings and her parents also immigrated to Canada. They could not bring the warmth of Sicily with them, but they did bring their traditions, love, their work ethic and, of course, their Sicilian recipes.

Since my mom did not speak either French or English then, she worked at a clothing factory sewing clothes. She worked hard all day and then came home to take care of us. I have vague memories of those days when  my sister and I used to wait for her at the window of a neighbour who used to babysit us during the day. No matter what kind of day she had, she always had a smile and a big hug for us. When I started school, my mom walked me to the bus stop to make sure I got on the city bus before she took another bus to go to work. I always chose a window seat so I could watch her wave at me. I recognised her red coat with diagonal black stripes and waved until she became a small figure in the distance. I can now imagine, as a mother, how distraught she must have felt while waving back, watching me leave unaccompanied on that bus.

Mom was from a close-knit family and every Sunday they gathered at our house for the traditional Sunday lunch. Plates of antipasto, pasta, meatballs and sausages would be passed around the table along with homemade red wine. Her specialities were delicious arancine (fried rice balls filled with meat sauce), crochette di patate (potato croquettes) or caponata (sweet and sour eggplant relish). Most of this were food sold by the street vendors in Palermo.  She missed her beloved Palermo and often talked about her childhood. Mom would always serve the arancine or chrochette on an oval yellow plate, so whenever she took it out of the cupboard, we knew we were in for a treat. My younger sister and I used to sneak behind her to steal hot and crispy croquettes as they came out of the fryer and into the yellow plate.  Mom made believe she didn’t see us.

One of my most vivid food memories is of a morning, when I was in my early twenties, and I woke up to the aroma of a savoury, robust tomato sauce wafting through the house. Glancing at my frosted bedroom window, I felt all snuggly and warm under the blankets. The sound of the hustle and bustle in the kitchen beckoned me to leave the comfort of my bed. I sat up with a jolt when I realised that it was Christmas day and I had promised mom that I would help her prepare the traditional lasagna for the luncheon.  I jumped out of bed, slipped into my sweatpants and T-shirt and dashed down the stairs to join her in the kitchen.  

I stopped at the kitchen door to admire her as she stood in front of the stove stirring the tomato sauce with a wooden spoon. She wore an apron over her ‘kitchen’ clothes. I reached for the Moka pot and poured myself an espresso and sipped it while devouring a slice of citrus-scented homemade panettone.

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While her signature tomato sauce full of tiny meatballs and sausages simmered on the stove, Mom measured out the flour on the marble slab on the counter. She made a well in the flour, added the eggs, olive oil and salt. She started to mix the ingredients by stirring the eggs in the well with a fork and then pulling in the flour to form the dough for the lasagna.

I spent many hours in the kitchen as Mom’s sous-chef; so as she kneaded the dough, I took the pasta machine out of the box and hooked it onto the table.  After the dough had rested for about five minutes, we cut the dough into squares and passed it through the pasta machine a few times at different settings (from large to small) to form thin lasagne noodles. We placed them side by side between layers of pristine white cotton towels and covered them until it was time for them to be cooked and assembled.

I put a large pot of water on the stove on high heat. While we waited for the water to boil, I grated the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese into one bowl and the fresh mozzarella into another. Mom brushed olive oil into the large lasagna pan to make sure that the lasagne noodles wouldn’t stick. As the water boiled, Mom added noodles into the water to cook them for a minute or two. “Remember,” she told me, “the lasagne noodles should be undercooked when you remove them from the pot as they will continue to cook in the oven.”  Once the lasagne noodles were ready, Mom drained them in a colander and placed them side by side on clean white towels.

To assemble the lasagna, Mom placed the lasagne noodles in the pan, and I added the tomato sauce and cheese. We continued layering the lasagna to make seven layers. The savoury smell of the tomato sauce and meat combined with cheese was comforting. I couldn’t wait to savour those thin melt-in-your mouth lasagne noodles. I knew Mom always assembled a smaller lasagna on the side if there were any leftover ingredients, so I would ask her if I could taste it to make sure it was delicious as it smelled.  Mom would smile and oblige as she knew her lasagna was the best in the world.   

Six years after my father passed away, Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was in her late seventies and her love for cooking diminished as did her passion for life. It was heart-wrenching for my sisters and me to watch her slowly disappear into herself.  She was a proud woman, so she struggled to cope and keep her dignity every day.  Our mom, the strong woman we knew and loved, who raised us with love and taught us values, who taught us to be passionate, kind, honest, giving and loving, passed away five years ago.

Making lasagna with my mom is one of my most treasured memories and it is such wonderful recollections that help me cope with her death. It was important to me that I teach my two daughters the same values taught to me by my parents and to keep our family traditions alive. Her death also had an impact on her grandchildren who loved her very much.  I know that she would be proud to know that now I make her best-in-the-world lasagna for my family’s Christmas supper, alongside my two daughters who are now the sous-chefs. “Remember,” I tell them now, from the memory of how Mom had warned me, “the lasagne noodles should be undercooked when you remove them from the pot as they will continue to cook in the oven.”