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The Feast of Gods

HOST: Sometimes we think about those we look up to as gods. Giulia Leo always saw her Italian grandmother as one. But what happens when your gods turn out not to be perfect?

LEO 1:

The gods of ancient Greece feasted on two heavenly victuals, ambrosia –their food, and nectar –their drink.

I was born and raised in Southern Italy, where we have our own version. Our ambrosia is panzerotti, deep-fried half-moons of dough stuffed with all kinds of fillings. Our nectar is Peroni beer, preferably one that’s sudata, or “sweaty.”

I wholeheartedly believed panzerotti had a divine quality to them. Perhaps because the person who’s always made them for me, my grandma –nonna Gianna –, was a god in my eyes.

I remember almost worshiping her skilled hands as she worked the dough. Once she had what looked like a thousand circles displayed in front of her, she would place the mozzarella and tomato sauce filling in their center with the precision of a surgeon. Then, she would wet her index finger with some water and gently press it along the edge of the dough. When she folded the dough into half moons, she inched her face toward the wooden working surface to make sure the two ends matched perfectly. She took particular pride in her sealing technique. It worked like magic, and it never, ever failed. Every time I ate panzerotti, it tasted like home.

Nonna Gianna was just as infallible as her panzerotti. Her short, dark-blonde hair was always flawlessly displayed in tight, hair-roller curls. Her house was spotless, the fancy and sparkly silverware showcased in large glass cabinets. But the most god-like thing about her was her calm and forgiving character. She didn’t scream at me if I broke one of her ceramic plates, or if I lost my monthly pocket money.

As I grew older, my life drifted further and further away from Southern Italy– first to Rome and then to New York City. Somewhere along the way, I realized my grandma isn’t as infinitely perfect as I once thought.

I would love to tell you there was one particular moment when the spell broke. But that wasn’t the case. It could have been the time I told her I found a boyfriend in the States, when her face turned pale and she asked with fear in her voice about the color of his skin. Or when I broke the news I would go to graduate school and she told me that if I was going all the way to New York, I might just as well be dead.

The thing is, ever since then, I became afraid that recognizing my nonna’s imperfections, turning her from god to human, would mean losing my special connection with her.

Lately, it’s become even harder not to see her as a mere mortal. Her health has been declining. Her vision has gotten blurry because of cataracts. She has carpal tunnel, and her hands have gotten numb and clumsy. And now, her panzerotti sealing technique, once infallible, has failed her.

When she makes panzerotti now, they don’t taste the same. Those once perfect half-moons now look more like shapeless blobs, the burned tomato sauce and mozzarella like black polka dots on their once-golden, once-spotless surface… But I’d eat them any day if I could.

I’ve realized I don’t need a god. Having the mortal love of my nonna is really all I need.

Sometimes, I still like to play pretend. I’ll sit down at the dining table and she’ll bring out a full tray of panzerotti just for me. And right then, it still feels like I’m about to take part in the feast of gods.

HOST: Giulia Leo has now mastered her grandma’s special technique.

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