“I want revenge,” Franceschina says to Concetta.
“Bastardo,” Concetta sympathizes. “Pezzo di merda.” Concetta is an imposing Amazon of a woman with mountainous dark curls and a deep, sensual voice. Franceschina is her diminutive friend, with skin a darker shade of pine nut. She is older in years but younger in the ways of the world, having been born of protective Italian-Canadian parents, at a time when women were still expected to arrive virgins on their wedding nights. Most of her friends call her Francesca. Only Concetta calls her affectionately Franceschina. They are chatting on MSN Messenger. Concetta tries to re-assure Franceschina that Sicilians are experts in revenge. “Any vengeance that takes less than thirty years is not worth pursuing.”
“I don’t have that kind of time,” says Franceschina.
“He’s going to die a lonely old man, with no one to push the wheelchair,” Concetta offers a sisterly solidarity for Franceschina’s unexpected abandonment in her harvest years by a man she still loves. By way of consolation, Concetta sends Franceschina YouTube links to melanzane recipes. She couples these with other YouTube links featuring sexy Italian males.
The recipes are manifold and wondrous, as are the seductive bulges of the men in bathing suits and unbuttoned shirts, talking on cellular phones as if wholly unaware of their lustful female audience – outrageous enough to make Franceschina laugh.
Concetta tells Franceschina that Longo’s is having a sale on melanzane. Franceschina has no appetite for anything these days. While Concetta complains of “My Covid-19,” meaning pounds, Franceschina has lost weight. Obedient to Concetta’s urgings, Franceschina puts on her mask and rubber gloves and risks Longo’s to purchase a six-pack of melanzane.
Franceschina has been in the process of purging. Her French-Canadian neighbour, an RCMP officer, together with another male neighbour, take her Weber barbeque curbside. This is the barbeque on which he-who-cannot-be-named used to sear those inch-and-a-half-thick steaks Franceschina marinated every Friday night in the winter, with his glass of super-Tuscan Brunello or Montepulciano Ripasso in the snow-coaster on the back-patio table. Inside, Franceschina used to sauté rapini with garlic, mushrooms and onions, side twirl of pasta cooked al dente in the rapini water and added to the aglio e olio, just as the steaks were brought to table by her man – il mio uomo, as she had affectionately called him. Dinner was always followed by the fireplace and sometimes the uncorking of a second bottle. Franceschina laid out his pool-patio cushions – stored winters in her basement – in front of the fire and covered these with downy sheets, bringing pillows and blankets down from her bedroom. For over twenty years, her seduction meals worked with fire, now ended in ashes, as of last winter.
“Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.” Concetta and Franceschina are both reading The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
“Do you have the new barbeque ready to replace celui-ci?” her handsome neighbour inquires in his adorable French-Canadian accent.
“No replacement,” Franceschina says through her mask.
Another neighbour has given her the DeLonghi electric Barby-Q Grill, urging Bumble and other dating sites, for whenever Franceschina is ready. The DeLonghi will do, with an extension cord, on top of the concrete patio table.
Tonight, she intends to take the DeLonghi for a test run, with grilled melanzane.
“Don’t be intimidated by eggplant!” the first cookbook she consults effuses, “This is one of my favourite vegetables.”
It’s not intimidation, Franceschina realizes. It’s a question of will. These days, she has none. Nor energy. She barely has the will to watch the YouTube demonstrations of recipes from La Bella Sicilia website Concetta keeps sending. The electric DeLonghi Barby-Q Grill stays in the basement, while Franceschina throws leftover sausage and potatoes in the oven with leftover zucchini. Leftovers. She is beginning to feel like a leftover herself.
“Sing to me, O Salt,” Franceschina says out loud to herself in the kitchen, before she realizes it is an ancient voice in her own voice she is hearing. “Salt and wounds.” The salt is supposed to take the bitterness out of the aubergine. To make even the pain taste sweet or at least less purple.
Franceschina thwaps a long plump eggplant onto her cutting board, roughly peels back the green cap and cuts off the tip.
Slicing the melanzana in half-inch thickness with her sharp cutting knife gives Franceschina a bitter satisfaction. She slices down but doesn’t pierce the skin of the other side. She fans out the slices and sprinkles with sea salt, then lets the melanzana rest, while she prepares the balance of the ingredients.
She makes a basil, olive oil and garlic pesto in her Magic Bullet. She slices the bocconcini cheese.
She tweezes the cheese slices between wings of prosciutto and rams these between the melanzana wedges. The melanzana fans out in a beautiful presentation. She drizzles this with two tablespoons of the pesto. So that the juices from the prosciutto, bocconcini and pesto will drip down into the melanzana. She decides to prop the fan by using miniature potatoes on either side. She massages the potatoes by hand in olive oil and sprinkles with Ariosto seasoning imported from Italy, cradles the melanzana in the bed of potatoes, then puts the whole in her toaster oven to bake for 45 minutes. Franceschina’s kitchen begins to fill with a heavenly scent.
For months after her man abandoned her without explanation, Franceschina tried to eradicate his scent. His arm behind his head, reclined after love-making, Franceschina used to roll toward him and tuck her nose into the pit of his arm. “What are you doing?” he’d say and try to push her away. “Can I not breathe in that which I love?” His scent was like a drug to which she became addicted.
“Her sheets must smell like Paradise!” says a man without class in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “No stink of manure there!” The classless man is singing the orgiastic praises of Angelica, bride-to-be, and offends the aristocratic Prince.
Franceschina’s mattress had to be sawed in half to be taken out the front door.
The new mattress was pulled by ropes over the Juliet balcony off her bedroom, as the stairway to the second floor has an impossible bend that would not accommodate the delivery of the new Queen-size mattress.
New mattress. New sheets. New bed-coverings. And still she can smell him.
Franceschina eats all the potatoes and half the eggplant the first night. For dinner, the next day, she makes pasta with garlic and cherry tomatoes and chili flakes, heats the leftover egg-plant, garnishes again with fresh pesto. The hardest part of cooking for one is eating for one.
The Prince ladled out the minestra … there came a sound … a threatening tinkle of the ladle against a side of the tureen.
There is something unseemly about an older woman mourning the loss of her sexuality, thinks Franceschina, the loss of love, not getting over it, the wound that cannot heal, the persistent tinkle of the ladle inside her head.
“You’re giving him too much air time in your head,” her adult son says to her. Her son wants no more than to see his mother serene and accepting, if not entirely happy, at least not so very sad. Her friends say the same, those who remain friends. “We’ve all known women who can’t get over it, not after years of mourning, even knowing he’s moved on already, through other women, children, even.” Franceschina knows this. She’s an intelligent woman. It’s the heart that doesn’t know. “You got over the first one,” she tells herself. The man who fathered her son. It took the second to drive out the first. But this time is different. This man was what the first ought to have been, the honeymoon she never had. This man she had loved. Loved for over twenty years. And now she is alone. Alone in a time of pandemic.
Franceschina does so want to stop the tinkle. She wants to be happy. She’s angry with herself that she can’t control her own anger, can’t control who is there and who is not in place at her very own table. Franceschina wants to feast again, even if she can’t taste what she prepares. Pretend to do so. Remember the flavours. Fake an appetite, if she must, like some women fake orgasm, trust herself, trust her appetite to return. She doesn’t want to feel this way anymore. Shrivelling away in isolation.
“Thank you, Angelica, but I’m not hungry. I’ll take something standing up. Go with Tancredi, don’t worry about me.”
Franceschina wonders if she’s the only reader who sometimes loses patience with Don Fabrizio. He’s at a ball. A banquet. Take the largest plate, not the small, and fill it. Taste, at least. Stop being such a prince!
This grief must end. “And if I can’t let it go,” thinks Franceschina “soak it in salt like the melanzane. Let the purple melanzane suck it up. You can always count on the timeless pairing of melanzane and salt. This is a human always, of course, slow to let go, slow to change, like Sicily after unification, but change or die, die to be re-born – the Risorgimento. The human ‘always’ – to the extent anything human can ever be always. Even a pandemic. Even grief.
So, cook it and eat it – your purple pain, its skin deceptively thick, as if already bruised, no further harm can come to it. Compost it, true to your Sicilian peasant roots. The best melanzane ever to grow come from manure.
Franceschina sings it out, her own Italiese version of the mangia-cake, Patti-cake, Baker’s men: “Cook it and eat it and mark it with P, just for Fran-ces-china and me.”
“Cooking Sicilian with Concetta and the Prince, in a Time of Pandemic” was a finalist in the 2021 Accenti Writing Contest.
Darlene Madott is an award-winning writer and retired lawyer. Her accolades include two Bressani Literary Awards, an Accenti Award, and the Paolucci Prize. Her latest book, Dying Times (Exile Editions, 2021), is a fictional exploration of the last journey, www.DarleneMadott.com.