moved from the outskirts of Philadelphia to Knoxville, Tennessee
in 1943. She was 32-years old, the mother of a pudgy two-year-old
and a fabulous Italian cook. She suddenly found herself in a beautiful
but strange land where essentials like oregano, basil, decent olive
oil, Italian sausage, not to mention capocollo, prosciutto, sopressata,
eels and squid were all but impossible to find — a land where the
natives ate spaghetti out of a can.
coped with the natives as best she could; she fed them. She fed
her new friends and neighbors her special pizza, maybe the first
pizza ever baked in Knoxville. (She called them tomato pies in those
days.) She fed them polenta and deep-fried pumpkin blossoms and
veal with tomato and peppers and her special spaghetti with braciola,
meatballs and homemade sausage. For more than 50 years she fed them.
Around Knoxville, she was known as Mama K or just Vera, depending
on your generation. If you bought children's shoes in downtown Knoxville
during the second half of the 20th century you probably bought them
Moffo Kendig, my mother, was born in Bristol, Pennsylvania, on the
Delaware river just outside of Philadelphia. Her father was an Italian
immigrant, a cobbler who later opened Moffo's Shoes, a retail store
on the main street of Bristol where Elvira learned to fit children's
shoes. Her mother spoke almost no English, and most of her seven
brothers and sisters were born in Italy.
mother and older sisters, especially her sister Ida, taught her
to cook. At her mother's table chickens arrived with the head and
feet still attached, and there was an established pecking order
in terms of who got what parts. Her father, my grandfather, had
first pick, usually from the heads and feet. What was left, along
with the livers, gizzards, hearts, necks, backs and other prized
parts, was then distributed to the males, ranked by age, guests
first. The breasts were left to the women. On special occasions
the centerpiece might be a sheep's head, with its eyes in place,
the brains removed, cooked, and returned to the skull - surrounded,
of course, by mounds of pasta and vegetables.
met my father, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, in Bristol and it was his
transfer to a defense plant in Tennessee during WW2 that brought
her to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Harry was even
more of a fish out of water in Knoxville in terms of the foods he
loved — liver puddins', stuffed pig's stomach, real Lebanon bologna,
souse, head cheese, potato buns. Once they moved into a house he
dug her a garden and Elvira started to grow a lot of what she couldn't
find in the local stores. She had a fig tree and pumpkin vines planted
solely for their flowers or blossoms. She would go out early in
the morning to pick the pumpkin flowers before they opened in the
sun. She then dipped them in batter and deep fried them into a golden
brown appetizer more addictive than cigarettes.
soon discovered the few Italians there were in Knoxville in the
1940s, most of them transplants like herself. Her friend Mrs. Maglio
made ricotta cheese in a process that involved Epsom salts and a
canvas bag tied around the faucet of her kitchen sink. Like my mother,
Mrs. Maglio adjusted. She concocted a tasty eye-opener known as
whoopee chicken, a southern version of chicken cacciatora that got
its whoopee from a pint of Jack Daniels.
never measured anything. It was always a handful of this, a pinch
of that, with a lot of tasting. She never cooked with wine; wine
was for drinking. She didn't write down recipes but she wasn't secretive.
If you wanted to learn how to make something she invited you to
her kitchen and cooked it for you while you watched. It wasn't the
best teaching technique. I watched her make her salad for years
before I realized its distinctive taste came from fresh celery leaves.
should say that Knoxville didn't remain an Italian culinary desert.
Somewhere along the road from Julia Child to Emeril Lagasse Knoxville
grew from a hillbilly town to a fairly cosmopolitan city. More and
more Italian-Americans migrated south from the northeast and imported
pasta and real parmigiano cheese began to appear on grocery shelves.
Elvira was delighted.
herself liked dry-cured olives in olive oil and hot pepper, aged
provolone and swiss chard, but what she loved most was fresh-baked
Italian bread. To the end she was never satisfied with the bread
in Knoxville. She kept longing for the torpedo rolls, hot from the
oven, that she got from the Italian baker down the alley when she
was growing up in Bristol. When she came to New York to visit she
would go into raptures over the bread.
these pages you'll find some of her recipes. Since she never wrote
anything down, these are my recreations, as faithful as I could
I'll add more of Elvira's recipes when I get a chance.
Maglio's Whoopee Chicken