Bumping into God in the Kitchen: Pizza Day

by Fr. Dominic Grassi

The day would begin with a large pan of boiled Idaho potatoes cooling just inside the screen door by the stairs above the kitchen. The first floor of our house was called an English basement; to go outside from there we had to go up five steps. At the top of the steps was where Mom put the potatoes to cool, early in the morning before we left for school. The potatoes were the welcome sign that it was “pizza day,” because Mom’s pizza (and homemade bread) started with potato-based dough.

My brothers and I were among the few students at our school who did not eat lunch in the cafeteria. We’d go home for lunch, and on pizza day a variety of delicious aromas would pleasantly assault our senses when we walked in the door. The potatoes from that morning would have been transformed into thick dough. Mom used a large tin laundry tub for this task. In it she would knead pounds of dough, the yeasty stuff engulfing her arms up to the elbows. As soon as we walked in the door, she would nod to us to get our sandwiches from the refrigerator. While we ate our lunch, she would continue kneading the dough, at intervals sprinkling it (and herself) with flour. The yeast gave off an intoxicating, alcoholic scent, and that aroma mingled in the air with the odors coming from the pots on the stove. One contained the tomato sauce that would cover most of the pizzas. Another was filled with onions and olives and other ingredients that would fill the stuffed pizzas—true pizza pies.

With everything smelling so good, we hated to leave for afternoon classes. But we knew what awaited us when we rushed home from school, skipping the altar servers’ practice or the fast-pitching game or anything else that would normally keep us around the church or the schoolyard for hours.

When we reached that screen door, we were met by the smell of bread baking in the oven. We’d wait anxiously until Mom told us it was ready; then we’d each grab a stick of butter from the refrigerator, take one of the small loaves baked just for us, tear it open, and cover the bread with butter that instantly melted from the steaming heat. That was as close as we could ever get to eating manna from heaven.

Mom knew what she was doing. Our hunger now satisfied for a while, we’d do our homework or go out to play without bugging her for a taste of the pizzas, which she would soon place on both racks in her oven. Pizza was our dinner, plain and simple—no side dishes, no soup, no salad. It was pizza and milk or, if we were lucky, pizza and ginger ale. We would each get one slice of the stuffed pizza pie, with the onions and olives and sliced meatballs falling out of the baked crusts, and as many slices as we wanted of the simple yet delicious red-sauce-and-cheese-covered pizza.

When we finished eating, Mom would line us up. There would be a pizza to take to Mrs. LaFrance, in the boardinghouse near the church; another to take to the Durbin family, across the alley; and others to whomever else was on her list.

When we returned home from these errands, it would be time to open the back gate so that Dad could park the Chrysler when he came home from work. He and Mom would sit down to the last of the pizza and bread, which she had put aside for them. And they would eat it together when her stomach, afflicted by an ulcer, would allow her to join in.

Then Mom would get to the dishes, pots, and pans, washing and cleaning until nearly eight thirty, before joining us in the living room to watch a little television. She would look totally exhausted. Even as a child I thought she seemed so small compared to the other mothers. How could so much great food come from such a little person?

Much to our disappointment, there were never any leftovers on pizza day. We always seemed to have to take what was left to some other person or family. What began before dawn with the simple boiling of potatoes ended well after dark, with all the pizza gone, gone until the next pizza day a few months later, when there by the screen door would be the telltale pan of cooling boiled potatoes.

Years ago, my brother Tony finally convinced our mother to walk him through her recipes for her pizzas, with their sauces and fillings. Now he will occasionally cook them as part of a special meal. Everything tastes wonderful. And I am most appreciative of his preserving the recipes and a little bit of those memories for all of us.

As a priest, every day I break bread and pray, “Do this in memory of me.” My brother bakes the wonderful bread that becomes the pizza that we share in memory of Mom. As good as it is, and as much as it brings back memories of her, it is not quite the same. Some days I just miss Mom, and her pizza, so much. Does the bread I break and pray over and share every day even come close to what Jesus gave his disciples on that first Holy Thursday? I know that as a priest I am supposed to say yes, and on a good day, I do—with confidence. But I wonder what we, in our humanness and our poor memory, miss of our feast with God, even on a good day.

Fr. Dominic Grassi

Fr. Dominic Grassi

Dominic Grassi is a pastor on the north side of Chicago.

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