Joe Pisani talks creating a bounty from nothing
Last week as I was wandering through the cyber wilderness known as the World Wide Web, looking for the latest news about the coronavirus crisis, places to shop online for groceries and how to keep my family safe from infection, I stumbled upon a mother lode of practical wisdom and good advice. It wasn’t from the CDC or the World Health Organization. It was from a 94-year-old Italian immigrant, who lived through the Great Depression and two World Wars ... and a lot more.
Calogera Bonfani Cannucciari, known as Clara, was born of Sicilian immigrant parents on Aug. 18, 1915, and in her mid-90s, she became an Internet sensation — a celebrity chef with YouTube videos and a book titled, “Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, Recipes from the Great Depression.”
“When people find out how old I am and that I lived through the Great Depression, they ask a lot of questions, especially these days,” she wrote. “How did you live on so little — and how did you stretch out what you had? How did you eat? I tell them that it wasn’t easy, but we managed. We just relied on what we did have — the ability to sacrifice and put our needs in perspective. To be resourceful about what we got. And by preparing and eating simple, filling foods.”
She had wisdom to impart to the rest of us as we confront the prospect of a widening pandemic. You might start with her YouTube video titled, “Great Depression Cooking: Poor Man’s Feast,” which has been viewed more than 3.2 million times and tells you that you can live a good life and eat well without great resources. This woman, who herself lived a full life, passed away in 2013 at 98 years old.
You might ask what a woman in her 90s could teach the rest of us know-it-alls, and I’d respond, “Everything.” Everything about how to live, how to endure hard times with a smile, how to share, how to keep your sense of humor, how not to be a “hoarder,” as they called them during the Depression, and how to take it a day at a time because that’s all we really have.
She reminded me of my grandmother, a single mother named Angelina who raised nine kids with no assistance on the East Side of Bridgeport during the Depression. The boys went out to work, shining shoes and picking up coal on the waterfront, which they brought home to heat the apartment.
They ate a lot of pasta, vegetables and Italian bread. They ate ordinary dishes like squash and eggs, panecotto, dandelion salad and bruschetta. Long before it became an overpriced appetizer in trendy Italian restaurants, bruschetta was something that poor Italian families ate, along with macaroni, ditalini with peas and lentil soup.
If they were lucky, they had a small piece of meat once a week on Sunday. Maybe a thin slice of beef, a meatball or chicken roasted with rosemary.
Whenever we think that life is getting the best of us, my wife and I sit back and wonder in absolute amazement how one woman could raise nine children by herself during the Depression. We struggled with four daughters, and three of those daughters have one child and say that’s it for them.
For several years when I was young, I lived with her on the East Side in a second-floor apartment across from St. Mary Church. Every morning, there would be a racket outside as an old farmer drove his antique Model T Ford truck down Sherman Street, calling out in Italian that he had fruit and vegetables. The women of the households would go out to the sidewalk and buy produce for that day’s meal. The meals were simple. A salad with lemon and olive oil, pastina with butter, beans and escarole, a baked sweet potato.
And it always seemed to me that a grandmother could make an unforgettable meal with a few simple ingredients that made you think life wasn’t so hard after all.
Joe Pisani can be reached at email@example.com.