Baking for the Ancestors
“You work in a pizza shop?” my birth-grandmother asked, “Paul was a pizza cook, too.” It was 2012 and we were in the waiting room of a hospice in western Maryland. Down the hall my birth-father was dying. I’d just met him—taken the train from Boston to Maryland when my birth-mother called me to tell me he was sick, his liver giving out after years of depression-fueled substance use—and was already struck by how similar our mannerisms and dictions were, the way we both said “weird” to mean “unusual.” An aging goth, Paul refused to go to the grave without freshly painted black nails. “You know,” he said, holding them out to show me, his genderqueer birth-child, “I’ve always been kind of androgynous.” Me too, I wanted to say but didn’t. Later, I imagined those hands kneading dough, the polish flaking off in sparkly chunks.
I didn’t tell my birth-grandmother that at the shop where I worked, alongside several of my friends, I failed to get promoted to cook. I alternated between cashiering, prepping, and scrubbing burnt crust off of pizza pans in the dish pit. The only task I liked was making the dough—loading the wet and dry ingredients into the Hobart mixer, then weighing and forming balls to proof. Slowly, each of my friends became pizzaiolos and my jealousy simmered. I longed to toss pizza into a perfect circle, smooth on sauce with the back of a ladle, watch it crisp in the oven and, when done, pull it out and slice it into eighths. I could feel this longing somewhere deep in my body, as if the process of baking pies, the muscle memory and weight of the dough as I stretched it, was some sort of cipher. One night, a month or so before my birth-mother’s call, the manager told me I could train as a substitute cook and I flew home on my bike, heart soaring, like I had solved something. It was as though before I even knew Paul was sick I was reaching for him, like I could build a bridge between us out of flour, yeast, and thick streams of olive oil.
“Those of us who love baking love it for the very reason that others shy away from it: the praxis of it, the dexterity of movement and imagination of its construction and the boundaries that can be teased out and pushed,” writes Rakesh Satyal in “Bake Your Fear,” an essay about turning to piemaking to cope with and transcend the bullying he experienced as a queer kid growing up in Ohio. While I was also a bullied, queer child, I came to baking as an adult and for a somewhat different set of reasons. Still, Satyal’s words—dexterity, imagination, boundaries, teased—resonate. I love them because they’re ontological, world-building words. He suggests that baking—through its careful, slow movements and the myriad of ways you can keep a recipe static or change it—is a way to resurrect old stories and shape new ones. You can take what’s already there and push it, ever so slightly, into different territory.
Six years after Paul’s death, I cranked cannoli dough through a pasta maker in my tiny Tucson kitchen, over and over again, until each sheath was thin enough to cut into circles. I wrapped the dough around metal forms, raised a pot of canola oil to the indicated temperature, and dropped three or four in at a time. I leaned over to watch the first batch sizzle and unravel in the oil. Another baker might have improvised—slicked ricotta filling between two fried circles and called it a cannoli sandwich—but I was determined: I felt as though I should, as though I must, figure out how to make these Sicilian treats. I grumbled, paced, and then, at the request of my concerned partner, watched a couple of how-to videos. In the end, I got fourteen intact shells out of a recipe that was supposed to make twenty-four.
I took one shell, filled it with cannoli cream and sprinkled it with chocolate chips, then bit into it. Nostalgia and ancestry mixed as the pastry shattered between my teeth: One bite reminded me how much I loved ordering cannolis at the red sauce restaurants where I grew up, in the suburbs of New York City. The next brought me to the records I’d recently read through thanks to Dina, Paul’s sister and a genealogist: names of our Sicilian ancestors and the town they were from, Santa Caterina Villarmosa, a hamlet in the center of the island where a white-washed church framed by two palm trees towers over the main square. I wondered how many generations had loved this iconic Sicilian dessert, descended from the Arab confectionary traditions that flowered under the Emirate of Sicily, an Islamic kingdom that ruled the island from the ninth to eleventh centuries CE. I imagined my ancestors walking through the town’s sepia streets to a pastry shop or bent over a pot of oil on a wood burning stove, trading scarce and precious resources for a bit of sweetness.
In the days after I made that first batch of cannolis, the idea that Italian baking traditions were some sort of practice through which I could reach my ancestors—both genetic and adopted—emerged again, this time with more fervor and a wider scope: I wasn’t just baking my way back to my birth-father, I was tangling and untangling what it meant to be of and from multiple families at once.
I’ve always known that I was adopted. My parents, transparent in a way that was rare in the 1990s, told me the story of my birth as soon as I could make sense of the world. My Irish-American birth-mother sent me letters as a child and I met her, and my younger sister, when I was a teen. At my wedding, after slices of red velvet cake—chosen because my mother made it almost every year for my birthday—she and my birth-mother danced together. I’ve only recently understood the bravery in this: the way that both families refused to participate in an open-shut narrative of adoption and the myth that a child can belong to one, preferably nuclear, family only. Still, my relationship to being of Irish and Italian descent was tenuous as a child. As a white adoptee in a white family, all of us pale and blue-eyed, it was easy to pretend I was Swedish- and German-American like my parents. The lessons I received about Italian culture came from two sources: church and food.
Growing up, my family attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a predominantly Italian-American Catholic church. It was years before I understood the subtle ways southern Italian traditions wove into our worship: Necklaces of the saints Anthony and Joseph were more common than crosses, and the Virgin Mary, the church’s namesake, took pride of place outside the church door. Mt. Carmel taught me a visceral form of Catholicism that made the churches we attended on vacation or with extended family in the Midwest feel painfully bland, like someone had picked the buildings up by their steeples and shaken all the superstition and rich, ancient symbolism out.
I was a squirmy kid—as an altar server, the bible would shake in my hands as I held it open for the priest—and my favorite part of Mass was the monthly coffee hour afterward. I’d pour myself a cup of Swiss Miss and dunk pizzelles and pignolis, made by nonnas with last names like Martino and Bianchi, in it. Sometimes, one of them would bring rainbow cookies from the bakery across the street and I’d eat so many of the almond-paste-filled Neapolitan treats my teeth would hurt. On occasion my mother—who, more than anyone, taught me to delight in food and celebrate its many flavors and textures—and I would stop by that bakery and I’d pick out a few butter cookies dipped in chocolate and sprinkles. They reminded me of the spritz cookies she still makes each Christmas by squeezing dough through a press to form wreaths and evergreen shapes that she sprinkles with sanding sugar.
If I hadn’t been adopted, my patronymic would have been Ciccone, which translates to “Big Frankie.” Instead, my given last name is a Germanized version of the Czech Koblischke which, according to some sources, means “sweet tooth.” I was raised to be one, delighting in donuts, flan, and my father’s favorite dessert, cherry dump pudding. His mother learned it as a Girl Scout back in the 1930s and now it’s a family tradition, the tangy fruit cobbler made even better with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
“I…had become adept at taking the things the world could give me and turning them into something more beautiful, more bolstering,” Satyal writes. I was given the burden and gift of being born to two families at once and separated from the heritage of a birth-father who is no longer alive. Still, I could take those sometimes painful fragments and turn them into whipped ricotta and olive-oil drenched focaccia; into lovely, fortifying things. I have an essayist’s tendency to unpack everything, and with each recipe I baked I thought about what my gestures—mix, beat, sift, slice—were inscribing.
I’ve been thinking about how baking can be a way of creating an ontology, a way of being Italian-American but also adopted and not raised that way, I text my friend Aria, a student of rhetoric whose work incorporates theory and philosophy, but would that actually be creating an epistemology?
Some folks say the difference between “knowing” and “being” isn’t a hard difference, she replies. Or a solid line. But I think maybe the act of baking is the ontology and the reasoning, connecting, your drawing of the dots is the epistemology. The act of being a baker ‘bleeds’ into the art of theorizing self-as-baker as historically co-constituted.
The reasoning, connecting, drawing of dots always goes so far much farther than I expect.
“Let’s do it,” I said to Inmn as we stood in their kitchen two springs ago, “Let’s make zeppoles.” Inmn looked at me, exhausted: they’d already spent the whole day cooking risotto, then teaching me to form it into arancini, for the Italian-inspired meal we shared that night. Still, their kindness and my enthusiasm won out, and we cracked open Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine and read the steps. Compared to other sweets we made together, zeppoles were easy: we whisked up dough, flavored it with lemon zest, then dropped dollops into hot oil until they came out golden. I let the fritters cool before dusting them with powdered sugar—a timing mistake, because the sugar just sat there instead of turning into a glaze, the way it did at St. Anthony’s Italian Festa when I was a kid, where I’d buy a piping hot half-dozen and eat them straight from the paper bag.
I consider Inmn a chosen sibling—we’ve known each other for over a decade, have lived in three different cities at the same time, and collaborate on an annual queer Shakespeare production with a group of our friends. We also baked together a lot when I started delving into Italian recipes and they were an apt collaborator: We both come from Italian roots that we’re, for different reasons, separated from. And they were one of the friends I worked with at the pizza shop in Boston, the only one who let me make a few pies with them when they worked a pizzaiolo shift. When we made cannolis together a few weeks after the zeppoles, Inmn applied their fry cook skills to the shells and they came out browned to perfection, although we broke down laughing when we realized we had over thirty pastries and nowhere to bring them. Later, we sliced through parbaked biscotti in between rounds of Magic: The Gathering and traded notes on gelo di melone, a Sicilian watermelon pudding. I enlisted others, too: After my partner’s mother gave me a pizzelle press for Christmas, we scooped homemade dough into the machine, watching and waiting until it transformed into a lace doily of a cookie. And my colleague-turned-close-friend Leela and I made rainbow cookies for a queer country music fundraiser, dying them a purple ombre and nicknaming them “Lavender Menace cookies” in honor of the 1970s lesbian protest group. The recipe wasn’t easy—stacking the thin cake layers was a two-person job—but we laughed through it, even when we had to drive all the way back to Leela’s apartment to get the raspberry jam she forgot to grab.
“As a queer person,” Satyal writes,“Being creative—exercising the right of creativity, the liberation it could provide, the solace it could generate—was an act of survival on my part.” When I think about those afternoons baking with queer friends and chosen family, creating liberation and solace over stoves and cutting boards, it occurs to me that I can’t untangle this life experience from being adopted. To hold either identity is to face the myriad ways families can be made and unmade, and to know they are far more complex than blood lines and nuclear units. I think Paul would approve of how my genderqueer and adoptive identities overlap. He did tell me, as I sat on the edge of his hospice bed, that he was androgynous, and there’s a kinship there, a similar way of moving through the world.
Halfway through writing this essay, I ask Paul’s family if they know anything about the pizza shop he worked at. It was the Pizza Boli’s in Mt. Washington, my birth-grandmother says, and tells me that Paul made a sauce recipe for them that they reportedly still use and lost his job, ultimately, to substance use. Dina offers to make a Facebook post asking for memories and I take her up on it. Paul’s younger brother chimes in: He had some kind of old car. I used to live up the street so I visited him frequently in there!!! And we would sit and listen to The Monks all the time …!!! Yes I remember vividly when he worked there. It was mid to late 80s. Sometime before I was born in 1989.
I listen to The Monks—I’ve never heard them before, but I like them, with their proto-punk loops and organ music—and then call the location where Paul worked. A friendly pizzaiolo on the other end gives me an email address but the note I send bounces. I visit the Pizza Boli’s corporate website and peruse their menu, where I find that many of their pies include something called Our Secret Recipe Pizza Sauce. I email the headquarters, asking for the recipe and explaining why I’d like it. As I type, I’m cognizant of how my story—a deceased birth-father who may have invented the recipe before losing his job at the company over thirty years ago—comes off like fiction. That’s often how it feels to be both adopted and queer, identities that involve taking fragments and shaping them into some kind of whole; and that society refracts through the overdone cultural narratives of rainbow flags and rags-to-riches rescue fantasies like Annie.
They don’t respond and I’m not surprised; honestly, I’m not even disappointed. Ultimately, the sauce recipe doesn’t matter as much as the dough: the way the yeast bubbles, how flour and water rise into something springy and smooth, how I can knead my way back to lost histories and shape them into something new, something mine.
This essay is published with gratitude to the friends who gave me feedback on earlier drafts; Paul’s mother and siblings, who have so generously shared with me and encouraged my writing about my birth-father and our ancestors (thanks especially to Dina, whose genealogical research and fierce openness has informed my baking, writing, and life); and to my beloved Grandma Lee (of the cherry dump pudding), who passed on from this world in December 2020.
Wren Awry is an essayist, editor, and aspiring archivist interested in community cookbooks, radical food history, and abolishing the carceral state. Their essays have been published by The Rumpus, Entropy, Blindfield Journal, and in the book Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief, among other places; and they’re currently editing a foodways anthology for PM Press.