As a child, I often watched my tiny Italian grandmother board a city bus cradling a mason jar of hot minestrone. This meant that someone--Uncle Carmine, Aunt Antoinette--was down. It didn't matter whether they'd been felled by the flu, a feisty gallbladder or the evil eye. Having heard the alarm, Nonnie tied on an apron with all the surgical intensity of her TV heartthrob, Dr. Ben Casey, and started banging soup pots.
For nearly half a century, Nonnie (Italian for grandma) was the Designated Soup Carrier (DSC) for a sprawling Neapolitan network of family and friends in our scrappy Connecticut city. Somewhere between a field medic and a shrink, a DSC is found in many cultures and is usually female. In the midst of a crisis, her prescriptives are basic and sustaining: Stop a minute. Taste this. Life is good.
Nonnie was gleefully mysterious about the formulas for her healing alchemy. With her floral-printed back to us, she coaxed the meanest tubers and desiccated legumes and the bitterest greens into dense soul-soothing infusions. I sat at her kitchen table playing with dried beans and pasta as she ladled her elixirs and straightened her seams before attending to the next wake, sickbed or domestic malefaction.