A step back: in praise of family, food, and music
Concert halls and theaters are dark. Sports arenas are empty. Students are taking classes via the internet. Flights are suspended. The stock market is in chaos. I have three elderly relatives in nursing homes—all are under lockdown quarantine. In the span of 48 hours, everything changed.
Crisis brings out the best and worst of human nature. Some are driven to panic and hoarding. Others—like our soon-to-be-overworked healthcare professionals—march straight into the storm and bring comfort to those suffering. The rest of us are finding ways to adjust to a temporarily suspended society and working to make the best of this time.
I’m lucky. I’m healthy, as is everyone else in my household. I live in a part of the country that has yet to see an outbreak of COVID-19. But this unprecedented situation gives pause. It reminds me that so many things I thought were as absolute as the seasons can be cancelled in minutes. And it reminds me of what truly gives me life richness—conversations with loved ones, the music I’m privileged to make every time I touch the piano keys, and the nurturing power of heritage and family.
I’m half Italian-American. My grandfather emigrated from Calabria, Italy early in the 20th century and set about learning English as soon as his feet touched American soil. My father grew up knowing very little Italian. My knowledge of Italian is limited to music, food, and a few choice (and colorful) terms and phrases best not shared in polite society. The true Rizzo lingua familiare? Food.
I live to cook. It’s a passion that is almost as old as my love of the piano. And while my palate and interests lead me to many different styles of food, my specialty is Italian—specifically the southern-Italian food I learned to appreciate and make through my grandmother, aunts and uncles. And so, as the rolling wave of cancellations swept the country, I shut my computer, retreated to the kitchen, and made the food of my people: eggplant parmesan.
The smell of the this is Proustian. In it, I’m transported back to my Grandmother’s kitchen in the basement of a townhouse in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. I’m brought back to my Aunt Fran’s kitchen in Apopka, FL. I’m reconnected with my father, the Italian cook in my childhood home. My grandmother is long dead, and neither my Aunt nor my father cook anymore, but their legacy lives on in my DNA, and in the DNA of each family recipe I make.
Music, like food, is about heritage. And like food, the music of my childhood is as embedded in my life as my family’s sauce recipe. I had Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in piano lessons, but the family soundtrack consisted of Protestant church hymns, movie musicals, anything played by the Boston Pops Orchestra, and (on the Rizzo side of the family) New York, New York. Each one of these form part of my musical legacy—a history shaped by church and avoidance of all popular music, but also a legacy where New York, New York pulled my staunch Seventh-day Adventist grandmother to her feet at her 90th birthday party to teach everyone to dance.
What matters most in times of crisis? The threads that connect us to each other, and the ties that connect us to our past. ‘Cause when all the distractions and unimportant things are stripped away, we fall back on what truly matters: a homemade meal shared with people we love, a phone-call to a shut-in, and the music that brings us home to ourselves.