These were the names on my street in New Brighton, Pennsylvania when I was growing up: Pfeiffer, Schaeffer, Smeltzer, Pfleghar, Anderson, Golbertson, Tunno. It’s like those second grade quizzes where you pick the one that doesn’t fit.
The 50’s and 60’s were not the diversity-loving present. I was born only 10 years after WWII ended, and back then things like internment camps were a reality. My parents wanted us to fit in, so we weren’t taught to speak Italian, but we learned it in bits and pieces anyway (mostly the swear words).
I wanted my family to be like Wally and Beaver’s on TV or like Kathy Pfleghar’s family across the street – normal and American. They had weekly menus with macaroni and cheese, ham loaf and burgers. They did laundry every Monday. They had a whole volume of encyclopedias, not just the A’s because they were free with your purchase at the grocery store. They followed recipes! They had actual schedules that included bedtimes, dinnertimes and bath times. Their household ran like clockwork.
Ours was Italian freestyle.
My mom was born in the United States, but was raised in Italy until she was about 14. She made it to second grade but didn’t like school much, especially after she moved back here. She said the when class was doing a math problem once, she blurted out the correct answer in Italian and everyone laughed at her.
She was proud of her heritage, but also unquestionably American and proud of that too. This was reinforced by the fact that her birthday was the Fourth of July, as though the founding fathers planned it that way.
Each year, she demanded we take a birthday photo of her standing alongside the American flag.
I both loved our ancestry and was embarrassed by it because it made us so different. I saw TV mothers in pearls and spotless house dresses with perfect hair, speaking calmly and holding a plate of warm cookies and knew my mom didn’t come close.
She wore a housedress and apron, usually stained by something she’d just picked in the garden. Her wavy, black hair was pulled to the side with bobby pins. She was maybe five feet tall and 220 pounds with a belly as round as a meatball, restrained by the hardest working girdle in town. She grabbed you and hugged you, even if she’d just met you.
Hospitality was her forte. My mother believed that when people visited, you invited them in and offered something to eat and drink. She took it one step further and basically force-fed guests until they begged her to stop.
So, even if you were just dropping off a package or getting a paper signed, she’d cajole you with, “Oh come onna honey you gadda eatta someteeng a!”
Once inside, a plate appeared in front of you with neat circles of salami surrounding, chunks of sharp, creamy Fontinella, or Asiago cheese. That was followed by another plate with thick slices of homemade bread. If she had leftover pizza, she’d pull that out too, along with everything else in the refrigerator. If you didn’t’ eat, she’d look at you crestfallen and say, ‘What’s a matta — you don’d a like a my food?”
She didn’t drive or get out much, so when someone visited, it was her time to perform and food was her act. If you liked her food, you liked her. She passed this passion on to her kids by making us her sous chefs in the kitchen.
Way before Pam spray was invented, you actually had to dip your fingers in butter and spread it all over pans before you baked. I was the official pan butterer. I’d hear birds chirping, see the sun’s golden light shining through the dining room window and wish I was outside.
Other kids were playing and my hands were covered in butter.. My mom would chatter away, giving me instructions: “Honey, after you butter da panza — grate a da cheese anna choppa da ham, denna slize uppa da pepperoni.” I was wasting a beautiful day when I could have been playing.
Eventually grumpiness gave way to laughing at some story she’d tell in broken English. We’d talk about school or life and it always ended up being a great afternoon with hot bread, fresh pizza or festival roll to eat. The only thing I regret now is being such a boob as a kid.
So, here’s the bread recipe. Maybe you can make it then force feed anyone who stops by your house! Or just torture your kids with pan greasing for this recipe and create some memories. This bread dough is the basis for my mom’s pizza and festival roll recipes and the festival roll recipe is coming soon! (The Danish Puff recipe will return in its own blog soon.)
Ma Tunno’s Soul Soothing Bread Recipe
(Makes enough for two pizzas and 3 loaves of bread)
2 large cakes of yeast or 3 packs dry
4 cups milk
2 cups water
1\2 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. salt
1/2 cup oil , 1/2 cup melted butter
4 lbs Gold Medal unbleached flour (approximately)
In a very large bowl, mix yeast together with warm mixture of milk and water. Milk and water mixture should be warm, but not hot. “Just a warm enuffa so you can a smear it uppa witta you hands,” was how she described it to me. (About 110-120 degrees) Make sure yeast dissolves by mixing it with your hand. (Be careful because if the water is too hot it will kill the yeast and your bread won’t rise.) Then add sugar and salt to warm liquid mixture and stir until it dissolves. Add oil and melted butter. Add 8 to ten cups flour and mix until dough becomes sticky. Then pour dough mixture onto well-floured surface.
Continue adding flour, and knead the bread until it no longer picks up flour – about ten minutes. (Do not make the mistake of punching the bread, my mother used to do this (probably when she’d call me and I wouldn’t come) and said it made her bread crumbly, so just gently knead it.) Then place it in a container covered with a clean cloth. Place it in a warm space and let it rise.
After the dough doubles in size, remove it from the bowl and knead it again on a well-floured surface. Once the dough is kneaded for about five minutes take some dough (about 3 cups) and roll it out to make a pizza. Use the rest of the dough to make another pizza or small loaves of bread. Place the bread dough in greased pans. Cover the pans with clean cloth and let the dough rise again before baking. Place the loaves in the oven and bake at 200 degrees for 15 minutes. Then raise oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 45 minutes or until uniformly browned. Take the bread out of the pans and let cool. (If you like a soft crust, brush the crust with butter when it’s done baking. If you like a harder crust, lightly spray the top of the dough with water as it’s baking in the oven.