Now You Eat!

My Grandma ‘Nana’ was never one to simply put a plate of food on the table. Part of her joy came from explaining the food – what it was, where it came from, how it was prepared. She felt one should always appreciate the ‘provenance’ of a dish. With a tempting little plate of heaven mere inches from my face, Nana would remind me “Not yet!”

During family dinners, we were never allowed to “dig in”. I have vivid memories of mouth watering dishes releasing their aromas to taunt me as Nana would point out the color of the fresh tomatoes and the method for sauteing the onions that comprised the sauce we were about to enjoy.

Cheese Manicotti by RickAt the time, it could be pure torture. (After hours out in the sun on the school playground next to Nana’s house, I was starving!) But as I grew older, I began to appreciate her love for food and her passion for sharing that knowledge. Once she was satisfied that we recognized the beauty and wonder of the food she had put before us, Nana would deliver her signature phrase…

“Now You Eat!”

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Nana was an Italian teenager who fled Europe with a handsome young French baker (my Grandpa, or ‘Papa’ as we called him) two weeks before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. The young couple arrived in St. Louis and stayed (in separate rooms, of course) with a shirt-tail cousin of my Papa until they married at City Hall in April, 1940.

The newlyweds moved into a rented apartment near Tower Grove Park with their one (and only) wedding gift from Papa’s cousin – a brand new stainless steel colander. Nana could not pronounce the word and always referred to it as her “macaroni stay – water go away bowl”

70 years later, I still have that colander. I use it regularly too.

Amused by the couple’s mixed heritage, neighbors called her “Bello Nana”, Italian for beautiful and French for girl. Being newcomers in a strange land, they connected with others and scratched out a living the only way they knew – through food.

My Papa “Frenchy” was an enterprising sort who landed a job at a nearby saloon soon after arriving in St. Louis. The owner was a frugal Scotsman who paid Papa a slave’s wage to clean, scrub and polish from 1am until 10am. Since Papa worked alone, he decided to put the fireplace in the saloon to good use – he baked while he cleaned.

At 7am every morning, Papa would open the back door and put an empty beer crate at the side of the steps. This was the signal for Nana (who walked their dog at 7am) to come and pick up what he had baked during the night.

My Nana would carry the baked goods home and create the beautiful baskets she would sell that day. By 9am, she was out the door, visiting neighborhood restaurants. She would pull a little red wagon filled with baskets of fresh bread, croissants, pastries, and bottles of her famous “basement Chianti”. Being unfamiliar with the language, she would communicate in ways that didn’t require words.

Fresh Baked Bread by Pen Waggener

She would knock politely on a restaurant’s door and say “Boss please”. The boss would return to see a beautiful dark haired Italian girl with a bright smile and a basket of aromatic treats. She would point to the nearest table and make a motion to suggest that the owner take a seat. Quickly she would lay out a cloth and display a small sample of the day’s baked goods. Inevitably the owner would reach for a taste, but Nana would quickly intercept, gently moving his hand away while saying sweetly “Not Yet!”

With a flourish she would pour a small sample of her ‘basement Chianti” and recite the pitch Papa’s cousin had taught her….

“My husband make the BEST bread and I make the BEST wine. Your customers will like very much. I sell you basket of bread, bottle of wine for $3. You sell for much more – everybody happy!” She would smile and wink. “Now you eat!”

My Nana was a master of the ‘close’. She would stand quietly with her hands crossed behind her back until every morsel was gone. She would never speak first. Without fail, the owner would make a positive comment about what he had just tasted. Only then would Nana would seal the deal…

“You a smart, honest man with good taste! I leave basket and wine – you pay me tomorrow!”

At that, Nana would gather her things and leave, knowing full well she would return the next day to collect her money (plus a tip!) and make another sale.

© Doug Fish, 2013