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kitchen, aromas, family...memories

Scientists say that smell is closely linked to memories. In my case, it is just a fact and part of my daily life. The Panza might be new to most, but its beginnings go back more than 35 years. As far back as I can remember food, is not only a biological need but a way of expressing love and gratitude.

It is a way of bringing people together and sharing time as a family. Many of my earliest childhood memories involve the smell of butter or olive oil searing with garlic and onions, as they became the base for some delicious sauce. Or the smell and sound of the pressure cooker and the aroma of freshly baked cake overtaking every corner of the home.

After my mother lost her battle with cancer, I moved in with my Puerto Rican-Italian grandmother. She would take me early in the morning to “La Plaza del Mercado” (Farmer’s Market) in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Which was, most of the time torture for a teenager, but it was a ‘must’ to get there as early as possible because ‘the early bird gets the worm’. Despite my teenage neurosis, I got to witness her ‘doing her thing’. Talking to the farmers that she had gotten to know through the years. Diligently picking out the produce and meats that would become the delicious meal of the day. As lunchtime started to arrive, so would my family. We would all try to move around the hall-style kitchen, with big glass windows at the end that overlooked the park and the Atlantic Ocean. And always someone trying to taste the sauce directly from the pan with a piece of warm freshly-baked bread. ‘This is the way it should be tasted’, we would all claim every time we got caught with the bread inside the saucepan.

A staple in her repertoire of desserts was la tarta de Guayaba (guava tart). I vividly remember coming from school one afternoon, after having quite the ‘crappy’ day. She listened to my story and said: “let’s make something that will take your mind off of the day’s frustration and make someone else happy”. As I slowly started to mix all the ingredients, I felt how the stress would steadily disappear. After ‘my de-stressed’ masterpiece was baked and ready, she carefully packed it and off to the post office we both went. On the drive, she explained this particular tarta de Guayaba was going to Italy. Her best friends lived in Rome and were missing some of the island’s flavors and warmth. So there we where, with the postal officer looking at us like “are you mad?” And asking “You’re sending a guava tart to Rome because your friends have the winter blues?”. “Yes”, she politely responded and explained, “that giving something you made yourself and someone would later enjoy, was the best way to express how much one truly cares”.

For years this had been her ‘modus operandi’. She wasn’t very affectionate, I always guessed it was the way she was brought up. But we all knew, friends and family alike, how much she really loved all of us. This was showcased through the effort and dedication placed into each meal she prepared. This is also true for my father. As he inherited the same cooking skills and ‘show-love-through-food’ mentality. For me, my Dad makes the world’s best pancakes. So every time I would come back from attending college in Boston, I would wake up to the smell of freshly made pancakes and bacon, all beautifully set up. He would even place a small bouquet of flowers, always white, he had just picked from his garden. Nowadays, it is my daughter that rips all the benefits of being spoiled by her beloved ‘Granpa’.   

I sometimes wonder if it is part of our Italian heritage or part of our Puerto Rican culture. Or just a mix of the aforementioned, combined with a lack of knowledge on how to express one’s feelings. Regardless of what it was or is, I always felt the extent of their love in every bite. As the years went by and my grandmother got older, she became adamant that I learn how to make her dishes. She always said “there will be a day when I’m not here and you won’t be able to taste the flavors of your childhood, nor be able to pass it down to your children”

Now, and especially in 2020 those memories are priceless treasures. In a way that served as the foundation of what The Panza is and why I do it. Life is hard enough. It is through those special moments and the memories created through them, that remind us why we must put all heart and might into anything we do...the recipient will always feel the love you placed into it.

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