As my summer canning classes wind down, I’m transported to my upbringing in Italy. As I reminisce on how I came to master these wonderful canning techniques, I simultaneously feel joy and pain.
Between the ages of 9 and 13, I lived in the province of Avellino which is in the Campania region of Southern Italy. My family and I were living in my paternal grandparents’ home. At birth, my father decided to name me after his mamma, Annunziata Falco DeLucia.
Yes, I am Annunziata DeLucia, aka Nancy DeLucia Real (“Real” is my married name). Annunziata means “Announced” or “Annunciation” – my name commemorates the Annunciation of Mary. Here’s my favorite depiction of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico. In this scene, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and become the mother of Jesus. In almost every depiction of the Annunciation, Mary always looks either scared or annoyed with the enormous task she’s been given.
That’s exactly how I felt in the summer of 1970 – annoyed at what a terrible summer I was about to have. During the school year I had really looked forward to hanging out with my friends in our paese or village.
However, after giving me just a few days of summer freedom, my Nonna escorted me to greet the workers of her 100+ hectares of land. They laid out truckloads of peaches and plums all over the courtyard. I was told that we had to convert all those kilos of fruit to preserves.
My maestra or master was Nonna Nunzia (that’s her nickname and mine, of course). She told me we had to fill a few hundred jars with our homemade delicacies. Dio mio (this means, “Oh my God!”)! Would I ever be free to see my amici or friends in the village piazza?
I was so good all year, reciting all that text about Alexander the Great, Emperor Hadrian and the majesty of the Roman Empire by memory, each day in front of a whole class. Why couldn’t I join in the fun and go with my friends to Paestum – a beautiful beach at the Tyrrhenian Sea?
My friends and their families were all headed there, except for me. I could just imagine everyone going to visit the 6th-century B.C. Greco-Roman temples dedicated to Poseidon, Hera and Athena, also located at Paestum.
But not me. My reward for being the best student of the year was to get stuck in a canning project with Nonna. She’d make sure I was smorta or dead tired for the next month. And then, with the excuse that “it’s too dark for you to go out,” I knew I was in a jail kitchen!
Early in July, we worked on fruit. My daylight hours were spent washing, cutting and pitting plums and peaches. We cooked the fruit, canned and labeled it. For the next year, our family members would be spoiled with delicious homemade jams and preserves.
In August, Nonna’s farmers brought us the tomato bushels. I could see all the pomodori or tomatoes, but no hints of freedom, cinema or ragazzi – these are sexually-charged Italian boys with Dante-like poetic skills. With their cool looks and smooth, romantic tactics, all of our defenses went through a rapid meltdown!
Back to the tomatoes for now. They were grown from natural seed (hailing from the previous years’ crops) – and they were not “GMO’s”. I boiled the tomatoes for a few minutes and thought this was the last step in our canning project. In reality, sorting through those tomatoes would take days.
Eventually, our truly “vine-ripened” tomatoes were transformed into food ingredients for winter cooking. Our finished masterpiece took the form of whole peeled tomatoes and tomato puree – all canned and ready for the pantry shelves.
The orto or vegetable garden produced a bounty of eggplant, zucchini, onions, garlic and bell peppers. These ingredients went into our stufato di verdure or ratatouille for canning.
I finished all my work by mid-September. And then, my freedom finally arrived – school! The class benches we sat on seemed to be remnants from the Middle Ages – not deeper than 8 inches. This was not great for us annoying and complaining adolescents! As for me, the discomfort was heavenly compared to all that summer work in the courtyard!
Although it has been a “no pain, no gain” education for me, here I am, Maestra Nunzia, happily sharing my passion for canning techniques, international gastronomy and art history with all my sous-chefs!
Nonna Annunziata, if you can hear me, mille grazie per tutto cio che mi abbia insegnato! This translates to, “A thousand thanks for all that you taught me.”
Text and Two Photographs (canned preserves & Nancy in kitchen with
sous-chefs) ©2013 Nancy DeLucia Real