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about Elvira

Elvira 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.

Elvira 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 from her.

Elvira 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.

Her 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.

Elvira 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.

Elvira 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.

Elvira 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.

I 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.

Elvira 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.

On these pages you'll find some of her recipes. Since she never wrote anything down, these are my recreations, as faithful as I could make them.

Enjoy. I'll add more of Elvira's recipes when I get a chance.



Elvira Moffo Kendig:

About Elvira

Elvira's tomato sauce

Elvira's meatballs

Elvira's braciola

Elvira's sausage

Mrs. Maglio's Whoopee Chicken

Elvira's favorite stuffing