Growing up in an Italian-American household was, for me, pretty special. My mother, Gina, an immigrant from Calabria (the "toe" of the Italian "boot"), held on to so many of her family's traditions that at times, regardless of the fact that I was living in the United States, our home felt like an annex of Italy.
To this day, my mother only speaks to me in Italian. She may sprinkle in English terms and expressions from time to time, but our conversations are, for the most part, in her mother tongue. And most of those conversations revolve around food.
While eating breakfast, we often discuss what we will make for lunch and right after lunch, we begin to figure out what's on the menu for dinner. For us, food — Italian food — is an important part of our lives. We live to eat, not eat to live. The food my mother prepared for me and my sister as children is the same food my grandmother created in her small farm kitchen high up in the mountains. Our lives have always revolved around those special dishes in our American home.
So, it surprised no one that I dedicated the past four years of my life to a new cookbook, Heirloom Kitchen, which records and preserves the recipes of our ancestors, my family's, and those of the families of many of my friends. These heritage recipes link us to our individual pasts as Americans and propel us into our shared future.
One of my family's heritage dishes I made sure to learn and perfect is my mother's arancini di riso (Italian rice balls). Arancini, in Italian, means little oranges. After you roll some leftover rice into a small ball, place a piece of mozzarella in the center, then bread that and fry it, the golden exterior resembles one of our favorite citrus fruits. For my family, it also showcased my mother's ability to always find a delicious way to never let anything go to waste: last night's savory risotto was repurposed into this perfect mid-day snack or dinner appetizer.
My mom Gina grew up on a farm where the fruits of their labor directly transferred into the food on the table, and wasting any of it was blasphemous. Every day was "Thanksgiving" because times were tough, so food — and how it found its way onto the table — was a sacred matter.
My mother has always been respectful of ingredients. I believe it's because she is keenly aware that someone, somewhere worked hard to create the food we put in our grocery cart. Waking up early and working in her garden, much like the one she had as a child, reminds her of that. One of the greatest lessons my mother taught me in the kitchen is to cook what you have on hand, and to never let anything go to waste, because a bit of creativity can create a new, delicious dish.
So, when I take a perfect little arancino out of the hot oil and crack it open, I am immediately transported back to my childhood: I am a little girl getting off the bus and running through the back door to the smell of last night's risotto transformed into gooey, crunchy goodness. This small snack symbolizes so many important tenements in my life: my mother's waste-not philosophy, her ability to take a few simple ingredients and transform them, and finally, the way she carried her mother's recipes to the U.S. in her mind and heart so she could, years later, teach me about my heritage through food.
Heritage food is Sunday dinner with the family. It's comfort food. When we preserve and recreate dishes like that, we feel a sense of pride and also a sense of continuity. Heritage food is the love we receive from our parents and grandparents, and it's the love we in turn give to our children and grandchildren, years later, who understand where it all stems from. Heritage food is food that makes you feel safe and protected wherever and whenever you eat it.
Eating arancini, and all the other recipes my mother continued to make here in the U.S. after leaving Italy, allowed her to teach me who I am, where I come from, and why I should be proud of it all.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The crispy, cheesy rice balls that transport me back to my childhood