Tonietta's Table


Diane Fenaroli Hagan

Sunday Meals at Tonietta's Table

An Eating Extravaganza

It wasn't negotiable. Every Sunday we went to Clinton Corners to have lunch at my Grandparent's house, Antonietta (Tonietta) and Ettore Fenaroli. This wasn't just a meal. It was an eating extravaganza that can never be replicated. It started at 12:00 PM and I remember being on-time was crucial, especially to Nonno. And often, my cousins were there. That's when it was really fun.

Meeting the Family

Serious courting for a Fenaroli meant bringing your beloved to Tonietta's table. We were a very friendly and lively group, but I'm sure the guest was tense. They were asked many questions and Nanni wasn't bashful. In her direct but kind approach, she fired away.

Once at the table, a guest would often get some coaching, such as, "Pace yourself." It was recommended that they follow the suggested strategy of eating a little bit of everything. If they didn't, they wouldn't make it through all of the courses.

Antipasto & Mushrooms

The first round was always antipasto. This was served on the lazy-Susan with lots of mustard yellow plates filled with our traditional favorites. These included pickled mushrooms handpicked from the woods behind their house.

Mushrooms and mushroom picking is in our genes. The love of finding and art of preparing them was acquired from our roots in Italy. In fact, still today in Borgotaro, the porcini mushroom is extremely valued and their biggest local industry. Just like many previous generations, they are found in the wild. Those that do this for a living are aggressively territorial of their prized locations in the woods. During our last trip to "the top of the boot," when we were exploring the local mountain roads, we would occasionally see a car parked inconspicuously off-road near a dense grouping of trees. We knew it was coveted porcini turf.

That is why Fenaroli's love fungus. They must. It's in their DNA. So, every special meal included them. I remember two types. One was soft and smooth. It had a golden top with a smooth yellow, velvety bottom. The other was off-white with a crunchy consistency. This one was referred to as Garofilo. It looked like a large coral bush and could be up to 100 lbs. Nonno, like the pickers in Italy, was secretive of its location. It grew at the base of an oak tree in the woods at the top of the hill. He removed it at the same time during the fall of each year and carried it out of the forest in a large fruit basket.

I loved both types of these earthy treasures, but I imagine our guests found them strange. The antipasto also included pickled eel, deviled eggs, coleslaw, red peppers and anchovies, prosciutto wrapped around breadsticks, chicken liver pate on toasted tips, and olives. IÕm sure there was more, but thatÕs what I remember.

Nanni's Pasta

After antipasto, there was a pasta dish. This was always homemade from scratch by Nanni. My favorite was spinach ravioli. I remember my Uncle Lou didn't like tomato sauce, so he always got his served with butter and cheese. I think my brother Pete started down that road, too.

Stew with Polenta

Then, there was meat, served with vegetables and a starch. Often this was stew with polenta. Sometimes, the stew was made from local lamb or the rabbits they raised, and at other special occasions it was from blackbirds. But there was always an alternative main dish when it was those. They were caught Tonietta-style, a makeshift guillotine she engineered from a mousetrap inside a glass jar that was hung sideways and had bird seed at the bottom of it. It swung from a branch of a huge oak tree right outside the kitchen door so she could keep a close eye on her catch. The poor victims bent their little necks to peck at the seed and down came the trap. It was their last supper before they went into Nanni's pot.

I remember studying the mechanism she used and wondering how she could determine that the bird in the trap was indeed a blackbird. When I asked her, she just shrugged her shoulders. In her world, protein was protein. I quickly deduced that the meat came from any feathered victim unlucky enough to fit through the small opening in the jar.

Women Washing Up

The main course typically finished around 3:00 PM. Then, the women would start their work and the men would waddle into the living room, unbutton the top of their pants, and doze off to digest. My brothers always mocked me as they exited with the older beached whales.

I thought this was extremely unfair and I wondered why the women never seemed to mind. Eventually, I got it. The kitchen was where they told dirty jokes and gossiped away. Extremely dedicated to their families, the men were all hard workers during the week, so the kitchen duty for the women was payback. I loved being in the middle of it all and if I was quiet, they would forget I was there. That's when I heard some really juicy things.

Nanni's Wrath

After washing up, dessert was served. At this point, the men stumbled back to the table and like clockwork, this would happen. Mabel Burhans, the old lady from next door, would be spotted. She made her way across the side of the yard and to our kitchen door. There was always enough time before she arrived for Nanni to blow without her hearing or seeing it. Nothing irritated my grandmother more than this. It may sound very unfriendly for Nanni to behave like this, but she had her reasons. Over many years, Mrs. Burhans never once offered her a cup of tea and yet she would invite herself to our table without even a hint of discomfort.

This was a real thorn for my grandmother. There is an unspoken code in the Italian culture and Mabel from her Quaker upbringing must have been clueless because she violated it repeatedly. With every give, there should be a take. This dynamic must be somewhat equal or you're being taken advantage of. So, following this rule, Nanni's wrath was very deserved.

My cousins, brothers and I found this extremely entertaining. Watching the inevitable buildup, to the string of Italian/English slurs, followed by complete hospitality once Mabel walked through the door, was predictable and hysterically funny to us.

I enjoyed the Burhans routine even more than the dessert. And, by the way, the desserts for me were always disappointing. Nanni's sponge cake made with a dozen eggs was dry and boring. I wanted something super-sweet and dripping with chocolate, but that never happened.

Cherished Memories

My grandparents focused their lives on family. I often fussed about having to go to Clinton Corners, especially as an adolescent. But, I now realize the time I spent in that kitchen and at that table were memories I will cherish for my lifetime. I will be forever thankful to them for their hard work and dedication in making feasts both uniquely Fenaroli and spectacular.

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Bon Voyage...........