Teresa Dirosa stood in her kitchen kneading dough at the long counter next to the sink, staring out the window. The smell of garlic and olive oil competed with fresh-brewed coffee, and the radio was on the sixth day of Christmas, which irritated her.
“Give your gifts and shut up,” she said to it. For herself, she preferred “Gesù Bambino,”
especially for kneading bread.
She’d been at the bread making for the Bread and Roses party much of the day. She had the focaccios, and now was working on the plain Italian. She wouldn’t make the Tuscan grape until Saturday, since that wouldn’t keep as the others would. There would be other breads, of course, but Amberlin would bring them — amaranth and corn bread and something with a lot of seeds that she called To Your Health Bread.
Amberlin always shook her head at all the work and said, “Teresa, use the machine. It’s more efficient.” But Teresa preferred the feel of dough in her hands to efficiency, at least when she had time.
Light snow danced outside the big picture window in the breakfast nook. Today was only a little warmer than yesterday, and all the trees on her suburban block were sheathed in ice that coated their branches like layers of glass. If she were to walk on the grass outside her kitchen, she would feel the powdered sugar of snow give way to thin, crunching sheets of ice candy, which coated the grasses she’d let grow so long this summer that the lawn police had come after her. She was breaking an ordinance, they told her. For unrestrained growth of grass. That carried a $350 fine, and a fifteen-day jail term.
She mowed reluctantly, only after her son told her it would be the final embarrassment in his last summer before college if she had to go to jail for not mowing her lawn. She felt as if she were shaving a prisoner’s head as she watched the bristly blue, yellow, and gold flowers disappear beneath the blades. Wild thyme and mint wafted spiky scents as she bruised them, catching her attention like her name whispered near her ear. After she mowed, she lay on the stubbles, which felt dry and sad, as she did.
She pressed a finger against the corner of the window, melting a patch of frost that gathered there. Summer was far away. Soon the lavender and gold sky would melt into the deep wine of darkness. The little pink Christmas lights would blink in the living room. The house was quiet and empty. She supposed she should enjoy it while she could.
Tomorrow, her huge kitchen would fill up with people and activity as bread went in and out of ovens, platters were filled with cookies and little crespollini and thin veal and braciole in green sauce, and the thirteen fish that were traditional to Christmas Eve, though that was still two weeks away.
But she wanted to remember her grandmother this year, so she would have raw oysters and clams to slide down the throat, crisp cold shrimp to dip into cocktail sauce, smoked salmon and mussels, and herring in mustard sauce. Then, for the fried fish there would be the smallest pieces of smelt she could find, rings of squid and squares of ginger trout alongside fried flounder smothered in green sauce. And, of course, there would be the seafood salad, with lobster, crab, and conch.
Amberlin and Delia and Christine would stay over tomorrow, as they always did on the night before the open house. Delia said she wasn’t sure if her children would come along. Jessamyn, at nine, preferred painting her nails with her friends to spending time with her mother and adult company. At twelve, Anthony was wrapped in the long cocoon of prepuberty. He liked video games and mumbled a lot. Of course, Teresa’s own son wasn’t available this year. Of course.
Teresa clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Her thoughts kept going to places she didn’t want them to go, and she had to treat them like dogs that needed calling out of the neighbor’s yard before they dug holes. She focused on the bread dough, which had ceased to be sticky and reached that point the cookbooks called elastic and smooth. She turned it over and over, pulling it into itself, pushing her hands into its soft center and turning it again. When she thought about Donnie, she was better off getting back to food as quickly as she could. Food was easier to understand and hurt her less.
She lifted the dough into a bowl, where it would rest, covered with a dishcloth, for an hour. She wished she could get in with it and rest for an hour, then have someone punch her back into shape.
A clatter at the back door brought her attention to her hands, which needed wiping before she put them on the doorknob, but she didn’t need to bother. The door opened, and Delia stood inside, shaking snow out of her red curls and laughing.
“Hey,” she said, her big voice rolling into the kitchen with a wave of cold. “I brought the brochures for the table, and the tablecloth Christine wanted. You know — the lace thing from my aunt Lucy. I thought I’d get it all into the living room before tomorrow, so they wouldn’t get mixed up with the dishcloths.” She grinned and held up two shopping bags, stomped her long feet against the mat at the door, shook out her treelike legs.
“Good idea,” Teresa said. “Don’t worry about your feet. It’s pointless. The buffet drawer’s probably safe.” She wiped her hands on the pants of her coveralls and Delia walked over and slapped at them lightly.
“When’re you gonna get out of that habit?” she asked.
Teresa looked down at her pants and shrugged. They bore the signs of painting and cooking and gardening, indelible remarks on the nature of her life. She could never remember to either put on an apron or wait until she got a dishcloth to wipe her hands. Always, her hands went to her pants and wiped. Always, she had something from the kitchen or the garden on her clothes. Delia, on the other hand, managed to keep life from sticking to her — or at least to her clothing. It was a trait Teresa alternately felt worthy of envy and worthy of scorn. She was certain Delia felt the same way about her.
She brushed away a strand of dark hair that had escaped from the barrette she held it back with. Her olive skin and black hair were already streaked with flour, making her large dark eyes stand out like bits of night sky peering through clouds. “At least I’m learning to put on playclothes first,” she said.
“And you learned that when — last year?” Delia put her bags down and took off her coat, tossing it onto the back of the chair at the small table in the kitchen nook. She held her hands to her cheeks for a moment. Her paper-white skin had flushed an almost wine red with the cold, temporarily obliterating her freckles. When she took her hands away, the impress remained briefly, then was swallowed by color. “Cold,” she said. “God, I hate it.”
She pushed her shoes off carefully and left them on the mat, then brought the bags over to where Teresa stood.
It had been Delia’s idea to have an open house for Bread and Roses. Good PR, she said, especially in the first few years of its existence. Now, even though the business had grown and they didn’t really need the publicity, Teresa insisted they continue to have it, and at her house rather than at the Lark Street shop where Teresa usually prepared the food for big events. The shop was just downtown, only a few miles from her house, and it had the café section that could be organized into a reception area, but for Teresa being at the shop felt like work, and being in her house felt like a party.
Besides, her house was big enough, with a state-certified kitchen and not one of those Realtor’s definitions of gourmet, which usually meant a side-by-side refrigerator-freezer, a Jenn-Air grill, and ducks on the wallpaper.
No. She had a double oven and stovetop, double refrigerator and full-size freezer in the cellar, and a center island with a grill built into it with another smaller oven underneath, surrounded by enough counter space for pasta to be rolled and spread even with two other people chopping and arranging vegetables. Her cupboards stayed open so the inner workings of the kitchen were visible and accessible, and all pots and pans hung from hooks just at the right length for her arms to reach.
The breakfast area, on the other side of the island, was big enough for six people. The dining and living room were one large open space just the other side of the stove wall, and the big crackling fire in the living-room fireplace always made people feel cheered, even after the snows of upstate New York turned dirty and gray.
There weren’t any ducks or cows on the wallpaper either. Just an old brass-framed photograph of her great-grandmother, Emilia Campilli, sitting tall in sepia tones with her daughter, whom Teresa knew as Grandma DiRosa, on her lap. They stared at her as she cooked, ancestrally supervising Teresa’s moves in the sacred realm of the kitchen.
“How’s it going?” Delia asked as they passed under her shadow and into the dining- and living-room area, where a fire crackled in the hearth.
“The usual. Bread’s almost done, and now I gotta worry will the fish get here fresh, and the flowers okay, and so on.”
Delia arched her eyebrows knowingly. “I don’t think there’ll be any trouble with the flowers. Do you? I mean, Rowan’s bringing the order, isn’t he?”
“Don’t start,” Teresa said.
Delia claimed that Rowan Bancroft, who owned the garden shop where she purchased flowers for parties and plants for her garden, was interested in Teresa. Teresa claimed he was just being a good businessman with a good customer and Delia said Teresa had lost her wits if she really believed that. Teresa said she was divorced less than a year and had a right to do without her wits for a while. Delia said nuts. Sam had made it official last year, but her marriage was long dead and it was time Teresa had some fun. Teresa said Rowan wasn’t her type. He wore his thick gray hair in a ponytail and had too much beard, too much in the way of eyes. Delia said she was surprised Teresa had noticed his eyes, and didn’t he have wonderful hands too? Too big, Teresa said automatically, and Delia said uh-huh. So you did notice.
But the truth was, she hadn’t noticed anything until Delia mentioned it, and now she felt uncomfortable, nervous, around him. Even then she felt a flush move up her face. She moved closer to the fireplace and threw a stick in, but Delia saw, and after knowing Teresa since junior high didn’t have to work very hard to read the signals.
“What is it?” she asked, her whole face hungry for news. “Did he — did you — I mean, what is it?”
Teresa pointed at her, then her hand sliced back and forth through space. “Nothing,” she said. “Niènte, niènte e più niènte. Capisce?”
Delia grinned. “I’m Irish,” she said. “You know I don’t capisce.”
Teresa threw her arms up in the air. “You’re about as subtle as a freight train.” She went to the buffet and opened the top drawer, moved old cards and stationery out of the way. “Brochures here. Tablecloth on top. Okay?”
“Sure. Fine.” Delia retrieved the brochures from the bag and stacked them neatly in the corner of the drawer, pulled out the tablecloth, and smoothed it down on top, her well-tended hands touching it lovingly. “I was thinking of giving it to Christine for her wedding present,” she said a little wistfully.
“Oh, no, Delia,” Teresa protested. “This has to go to your daughter, for certain.”
Her aunt Lucy had brought it from Ireland, one of two hand- made tablecloths of true Irish lace that her ancestors had gathered around while they discussed what to do when the famine came and they had nothing left to eat. They were the only things Delia’s great-grandmother wouldn’t sell, insisting that they make the passage to the new country when the time came. In its threads were the conversations that brought Delia’s people here, hungry and afraid, but hanging on to their stories, woven into this cloth.
“Jessamyn’ll get the one with all the people in it — you know, she calls it the story cloth because she’s always telling stories about them. But I thought Christine should have this one, with the flowers. She loves it so much, and — well, she’s family too, Teresa, after all this time.”
Teresa’s face worked around a complexity of emotions she couldn’t articulate. She was always better with food than words. The language of food was so fundamental, it couldn’t be misunderstood. It was difficult to miscommunicate your intent in pasta or bread.
“How about this,” she suggested. “Let’s make sure there is a wedding first.”
“Oh, no. Trouble in loveland?”
“I think so,” Teresa said.
“Y’know, you could have the good grace to pretend that makes you unhappy,” Delia suggested.
“What? Did I look happy? I’m not happy when Christine’s upset.”
“No, but you looked excited. And I do think you’re prejudiced, Teresa. You don’t like James because he’s a shrink, and you think all shrinks are witch doctors.”
“No,” Teresa said. “I don’t think they’re witch doctors. If I did, I might trust them.”
Excerpted from Feeding Christine by Barbara Chepaitis. Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Chepaitis. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.