Food & Drink · Lifestyle

Michelina’s Snails

We love this vivid, lively reminiscence from our newest writer, Amy K. Hughes. She’s 56—a longtime book editor and the mother of a 26-year-old daughter. She’s also a Keenan Woman—and that means, it’s clear from her Mother’s Day memoir, that she’s got spirit. We don’t usually publish reminiscences (except on holidays), but this story is so charming, we had to post it.

NonnaMichelina_1986(1)Nonna Michelina.

“Piove!”

Michelina was standing at the kitchen window looking out at the afternoon rain shower soaking the up-sloping rutted road that passed in front of her house in Riva Valdobbia, a small village in the Italian Alps. The massif of Monte Rosa was obscured by clouds.

I grabbed the English-Italian dictionary I kept nearby and started riffling the pages. “Piove!” she said again, then gestured toward the window. “Piove,” she fluttered her fingers in a downward motion. Rain.

“Piove,” I said back to her, likewise tracing the falling droplets.

“Sì, sì! Piove! Lumache!”

“Lumache?” She began to describe, with accompanying gestures, what I did not know. But her grandson came in then, whom I would marry and move to Rome with two years later. I would become fluent in Italian and be able to converse easily with my Piedmontese grandparents-in-law, known as Nonna Michela (pronounced Mee-kay-la) and Nonno Pippo. For now, our most successful conversations consisted of their asking me two questions—“Hai dormito?” (Did you sleep?) and “Hai mangiato?” (Did you eat?)—and my enthusiastic reply of “Sì, sì!” to both. These questions took care of the basics.

It was 1984. We’d been in Riva for a week, opening the house for the summer, enjoying the fresh air, breathtaking scenery, long hikes, hearty meals, liberal pourings of wine, and deep sleeps in the cool, dark quiet of the alpine night. Each evening we left the empty milk pail at the end of the road, and went back later to pick it up, filled with milk fresh from a neighbor’s cow, which would be boiled for our morning caffè latte. Behind the house stood the village fountain, at which the locals filled their water jugs and some still washed their clothing.  There was no telephone, and when someone needed to call, they would dial the number of the bar/caffè in the main piazza down the hill. The owner would put the phone’s receiver down on the counter, and send one of his children up the hill to the house, shouting “Telefono! telefono!” All the while the caller waited on the line, listening to the sounds of village life, the toll charges mounting.

“Lumache are snails,” my husband-to-be explained. “She wants us to go collect snails in the field.” When it rained, the snails came out, just as worms do, and kids from the village were sent out with buckets to collect the biggest and choicest ones. And so as soon as the low evening sun started to sparkle on the foliage, we waded into the field on the other side of the road and plucked golfball-size snails out of the grasses. While we picked, Nonna Michela stood on the balcony and shouted instructions, sending us lì and là (here and there) and warning us to watch for vipere, venomous snakes.

“Ben fatto!” (Well done!) she exclaimed, in joyful approval, taking our buckets and sifting through their living cargo. She placed the containers in a cool corner of the kitchen, draping a dish towel over each, with plans to begin the prep the next day.

The first task of the following morning was to re-collect all the snails that had escaped the bucket. Snails were on the ceiling, under the fridge, heading up the walls. The dish, Nonna Michela explained to me, waiting patiently while her grandson translated each step, would involve feeding the snails for several days both to purge them of what they had been eating outside and to season them for cooking. She would feed them polenta and fresh herbs and give them wine to drink. They would be steeped in salt and vinegar, and then boiled. Finally, she would be sauté them in butter seasoned with garlic, parsley, and chives. Her eyes shone with pleasure as she described each step.

 

RELATED: “Crossroads: She Moved to Paris for Work . . . and Stayed for Love

Michela’s daughter and her husband, my future in-laws, would be arriving that day from New York. By then Michela had the feeding snails stashed on the balcony. As her daughter’s car pulled up the dirt road, she gave us important instructions: “Don’t tell Mama about the snails.”

For as soon as her daughter got wind of the mollusks on the shady back balcony, the fights began. I didn’t understand much of what was said, but it was clear that Nonna Michela wanted her snails and her daughter wasn’t going to allow it. Sure enough, she was soon pitching them outside into the field from whence they came.

“They’re too much trouble!” she barked at us, curtly, cutting off any further conversation.

Nonna Michela, bitterly disappointed, didn’t get her snails that summer. But she worked on all her other favorite projects: vitello al tonno; fresh ravioli with a buttery, rosemary-infused tomato sauce; chicken in aspic; green sauce with bollito misto; and nearly every night a minestra for the primo piatto, with salty grana grated on top. She loved to explain what she was making and how. Thirty-two years later, and years past her death, I still make my tomato sauce with butter and rosemary, I chop the herbs and garlic when I make her green sauce with the mezzaluna she handed down, and I roll out dough with the long skinny rolling pin (which she called a picchia-marito, or husband-beater) she gave me.

Nonna Michelina never stopped sending children out to collect snails.

“Nonnabis [great-grandmother] makes me pick lumache for her,” my daughter complained at age eight, seeming to equate the action with plucking fruits from a tree. “And then my Nonna yells and throws them out the door.”

The mother-daughter argument was a ritual of the Riva summer that began long before that summer, when I first met the Piedmont branch of the family, and continued for as long as Nonna Michelina lived. For a few days, the elderly Italian housewife and her Americanized daughter would fight, each complaining about the other to anyone in earshot. But still they practiced the customs of life in a small rustic village together, and soon were companionably strolling to the weekly market to shop for the coming meals, which they planned and cooked together. They seemed to need that disagreement before they could connect again. As far as I know, Nonna Michelina never did make her lumache again. But maybe that wasn’t what she was really after. In retrospect, I think those fights were Michela’s way of telling her daughter not to abandon her family, her home country, and their ways—and her daughter’s way of saying, “I’m here, aren’t I?”

RELATED: “Crossroads: Nice Was Nice, but . . .

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Kathy Coleman June 30, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Having grown up in a family of reticent, grudge holding Irish and Swedes, I am fascinated with the annual “clearing of the air” screaming match. Equally so with the amazing cooking traditions…I can almost smell the rosemary and garlic!

    Reply
  • Esther Rosenfeld June 29, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Such a lovely, charming memoir. Loved the mother-daughter interchange. So vivid.
    I don’t think I could’ve brought myself to eat the snails, but the preparation left me thinking about my nona, who cooked brains – (“meeoyu” say it phonetically). I watched her prepare them, but never could eat them.

    Reply
  • Amy Hughes June 29, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you, Olly, what a terrific heart-felt response! I’m so glad you shared it. I hope you still find a way to get to Italy one day.

    Reply
  • OLLY June 29, 2016 at 11:03 am

    OH AMY! WHAT A BEAUTIFUL, BEAUTIFUL STORY. I WAS BORN AND LIVED I NEW JERSEY ALL MY LIFE UNTIL 20 YEARS AGO WHEN I CAME TO FLORIDA TO RETIRE (?). FROM THE EARLY 70’S I LIVED IN A PREDOMINATELY ITALIAN AREA (LODI/GARFIELD. I MET MY BEST FRIEND (ITALIAN) AND WAS INTRODUCED TO ALL THE “FAMILY” AND THROUGH THEM, I WAS TAUGHT (PHONETICALLY) THE LANGUAGE (SICILIAN THAT IS). I WAS THE ONLY IRISH/SCOTSMAN AMONGST THIS VERY LARGE GROUP! MY LOVING SWEETHEART DIED MANY YEARS AGO AND NATURALLY…HE WAS ITALIAN BUT FROM THE UPPER ITALIAN COAST. HE SPOKE THE BEAUTIFUL ITALIAN LANGUAGE. YOUR STORY BRINGS ME BACK TO THOSE DAYS AND HOW THE OLDER WOMEN COOKED. ITALY HAS BEEN #1 ON MY BUCKET LIST FOR MANY YEARS BUT NOW AT MY AGE IT JUST ISN’T POSSIBLE. STORIES LIKE YOURS BRING ME CLOSE TO A DREAM I ONCE HAD.
    THANK YOU FOR THIS LOVELY PIECE OF WRITING.

    Reply