The Seven or Eight Deaths is a work of historical fiction about the author’s ancestors, who persevered through extreme hardship. More than bare history, it is a family saga that spans a century; a story of maternal love, and of how that love lasts through many violent and transformative experiences.

Mariastella—the protagonist and the author’s grandmother—lives for more than a century. She grows up in Calabria, Italy, and moves to the States as a young woman. Stella is nuanced and charismatic, and dreams of independence. She wants to work and save to buy her mother a house, to spend time with her sister Cettina, and fantasizes about her idyllic village, Ievoli.

Her fate, however, is to marry and bear children. Mariastella had disdained the idea of marriage and child birth after seeing its effects on her mother, Assunta, who lived through an abusive marriage. Being a wife in Assunta’s time meant doing whatever her husband wanted, “obeying and serving.” Assunta had to have sex when her husband when he wanted, regardless of her own desires, and must immigrate to America for him, leaving her ailing mother behind. Being a wife in Mariastella’s time proved no better: the ordeal begins when, on their honeymoon, her husband rapes her. 

The author highlights the catch 22 of immigrant mentality—Stella and her siblings need to carry on the family traditions and religion, but also fit into the new country and adapt by learning English and changing their appearances. Throughout the novel, Grames looks forward into the futures of relatives and friends mentioned in the story, developing their characters. The reader, as a result of Grames’s attention, has an information-rich idea of the world that the characters inhabit.

Food plays an important role in the story. Several of Stella’s near death experiences involve food—a pot of boiling oil for frying aubergine; an angry pig trampling her for a treat. However, gathering around the table and sharing a meal often brings the family together (even if these moments of unity are fleeting). Assunta is described as an excellent cook who learns Italian-American recipes when she moves to Connecticut, and Cettina follows suit and helps to prepare mountains of food to feed all the men in the family. Stella refuses to set foot in the kitchen, which is her way of rebelling against societal expectations. 

 

There are some Italian superstitions about food, like using mint leaves to “ward off the evil eye”, which appear several times in the story. Food also serves as a marker of the family’s financial success. During the wartime years, when Stella’s father runs off to America, they are barely able to afford ingredients for minestra, a vegetable soup made of odds and ends. The girls go to work harvesting olives and chestnuts and learn how to hide some in their clothes to bring home. Right before they leave Italy, they attend a carnival and their mother gives them a few coins and tells them to pick a treat. They choose doughnuts with chestnut honey, an aromatic relief from their otherwise bleak lives. Once they arrive in America, and begin work on a tobacco farm, they start eating meat for the first time at their father’s insistence. Beefsteak, fried chicken cutlets, and polpette appear on their table.

In my recipe, I attempted to synthesize a dish from the novel’s many meals, that could be placed at the center of the Fortuna family dining table. It is inspired by the fragrant chestnuts picked right from the tree, the angry pig going after his snack, and the (qualified) success the family found in America where they could at least eat a nice spread for Sunday lunch. 

 

Recipe:

To be frank, I’m not an obsessive recipe follower and don’t expect our readers to be either. If you use a different pasta shape you find in your cupboard, it will still be delicious. If you use bacon instead of pancetta, it will be delicious. If you don’t want to buy a bottle of wine, use stock, and it will be delicious. The more easygoing a recipe is, the more likely it is to be cooked. The flavours in this pasta are complex and comforting and if you can multitask it can be ready in half an hour (and it’s only one pot and a baking tray to wash; victory!) 

Ingredients:

1 kg of cubed squash (we used Red Kuri squash which has a chest nutty flavour that complements the dish very well)

100g pancetta

3 cloves sliced garlic

1/2 bunch of sage, chiffonade (roll and thinly slice the leaves)

1/2 whole nutmeg, grated

500g fettuccine 

1 medium onion, small dice 

125 mL dry white wine

200g roasted chestnuts, peeled and chopped (instructions below)

30g of butter

50 mL double/heavy cream 

60mL olive oil

Sea salt and black pepper to taste.

Method:

First step is to get your squash roasting. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C while you cut it into small diced pieces; I used red kuri squash which has thin skin and left it on but peel your squash if you prefer. Place the squash on a lined baking tray, drizzle with half the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast squash for 20 minutes or so, until tender but still slightly firm. During this time, you can place a large pot of salted water on to the boil for your pasta and chop the rest of your mise en place. When the water comes to a boil, cook your pasta for one minute less than the package instructions, reserve a mug of pasta water, and drain. In the pot you used for the pasta set over medium heat, add your olive oil and pancetta. When the pancetta has started to crisp, add your onions and cook for 6 minutes until they are starting to become translucent. Add the garlic and sage and cook 2 more minutes. Deglaze your pan with the white wine. Check your squash; if it is ready add it to the pot. Add in the cream, butter, chestnuts, nutmeg, and a grind of pepper. Toss your noodles into the pot and stir them into the sauce. Lower the heat to low. Check the seasoning and viscosity; add a splash of starchy pasta water if needed, and leave for a couple minutes to come together. Plate up and serve with the rest of the white wine. 

Chestnuts: I couldn’t find any cooked chestnuts so I roasted my own. I bought 400g assuming the shells would weigh about half that of the nuts. I cut little x’s into the chestnuts with a paring knife and put them on a baking tray. I roasted them at 375F/190C for about 25 minutes until the shells were peeling away. I let them cool for a little while and then peeled them; it was quite easy to get the shells off. I cooked them the day before I made the pasta and put them in an airtight container in the fridge. 

 

 

Toast, performed at The Other Palace, is a stage adaptation of Nigel Slater’s memoir. It tracks his development as a young chef, and the story underscores the role food plays in our social interactions. It brings people together, and drives them apart.

The story of Slater’s youth is told through moments around the table and in the kitchen. It begins with Nigel and his mother baking together. It is not so much the cooking that his mother enjoys, but the time spent with her son in the process. She is presented as the ideal mother, and their relationship is happy and harmonious. All the more tragic then that during the first act, his mother’s heath steadily deteriorates (the illness is more obvious to the audience than to the nine yearold protagonist).

After her death, Nigel’s relationship with his father becomes strained, and sometimes violent. Mr. Slater remarries quickly, to Nigel’s dismay. At this stage Nigel has begun to take cookery classes at school, and is a promising baker. When he brings his creations home, his stepmother becomes jealous the praise he receives from his father, and she begins to bake in a competitive spirit. She bakes a glorious lemon meringue pie, and also some of Nigel’s mother’s signature desserts, in a malicious spirit. She is in fact the quintessential wicked stepmother—it is hard to say whether Slater has accurately depicted the woman.

Nigel begins to spend more time away from home, taking a job in the kitchen at a local hotel. There, he is encouraged by his boss, who supplants his stepmother as the nurturing force in his life. When, tragically, his father also passes away, Nigel has already developed the courage to move away from home and pursue a career as a cook in London. Food has become his solace and identity. During this time he is also coming to terms with his sexual identity and realizes that he needs to leave his small town to be accepted and find his own community.

The distinction between the audience and the players is bridged by food in this play: periodically, the audience is given food to eat along with the cast. The actors also break the fourth wall by interacting with the audience while sharing treats, which is a charming touch.

The acting in the production was very well accomplished; there were four actors playing various roles as well as the actor playing Nigel. The small cast really captured the personalities of all the characters. The mother portrayed very well the urgency of someone who knows their days are numbered, and who tries to make the most of that limited time with her child. And the staging was very professional. The set was highly mobile: what served as kitchen counters also served as a rotating dance floor

We would recommend seeing the play if you’re able; there is also the original story published in a book as well as a film adaptation.

To capture the essence of the story, of course we had to make toast. Mrs. Slater certainly isn’t very good at making toast but it’s the love and care behind it that is so comforting to him. Inspired by the dish Nigel cooks for his mentor at the hotel, we made mushrooms on toast.

Slater wrote a collection of mushroom recipes for the Guardian that gave us an insight on how to prepare our recipe and why the dish is so important to him.

“When I am asked (for the 200th time) to name my favourite food, I invariably mutter, ‘Mashed potato.’ In truth, that is more a comfort thing and has more to do with my state of mind than my tastebuds. What I should really say is, ‘Mushrooms on toast.’ But they need to be quite perfect; that is, cooked thoughtfully, tenderly and with almost obsessive attention to detail.”

 

The Recipe

Ingredients:

Thickly sliced crusty white bread

1 tbsp. fine quality butter

1 tbsp. olive oil

2 sprigs thyme

2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

5 cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced

one handful of salad greens; peppery arugula or watercress is nice

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Although this is a very simple recipe, have all of your “mise en place” ready. This is a professional term for having all your ingredients in their place, ready to use. Have your bread cut and ready to toast, your mushrooms ready to sauté, and your salad greens washed and dried. Get your mushrooms on before you toast your bread and try to time them to be ready at the same moment.

First place a medium/large sauté pan on a medium heat (You need enough room to have all your mushrooms in one layer). Drizzle your oil around in the pan, and when it is hot add your garlic and thyme. The thyme will crackle a little, which tells you when to add in your mushrooms. Give the pan a good stir, then let them brown for a few minutes before moving. Once the bottoms have coloured, add in your salt and pepper and continue to cook until the the mushrooms have released their liquid and then absorbed most of it again, remove from the heat.

As soon as the toast is ready, slather it in good butter “wall to wall”. Place a pile of salad greens beside the toast on your plate. Spoon the mushrooms and their juices over the toast; discard the thyme stems. Sit down and revel in the perfect piece of toast.