Diamond Lil: My Italian Grandmother and My First Taste of Food with Heart and Soul

Lillian Minerva, aged 95. My Italian American Grandmother.

I don’t think that Lil was known on Facebook or in the blogosphere, so I want to mention her here today. (Her occupation was that of a typist, she worked long before word processors and computers became commonplace in the office.)

Lil was my maternal grandmother and she died suddenly this morning at the ripe old age of 95. The last time I saw her, in the middle of the cold Minnesota winter, she was still going for a walk everyday. Wow, now that is healthy!

Diamond Lil: My Italian Grandmother and My First Taste of Food with Heart and Soul

Delmonico's Italian Foods

She must be one of the last Italian Americans of her generation. She made wicked good homemade ravioli, which she taught my father and I to make last time I was back home. My mother and father divorced when I was about 5 years old and my father and Lil still kept in contact over the years. I will never forget the smiles and the sparkle in their eyes when they reunited. Lil was pretty crazy about my father. Once when I was staying at her house in San Jose, before she moved back to Minnesota, she told me that she liked my father more than her own children. Now that is a ringing endorsement!

When I was a kid, my father used to tell me stories about when he was dating my mother. He would go to her house in North Minneapolis most Sundays for Italian dinner and feast on Lil’s pasta, lasagna, ravioli and so on. He said that Diamond Lil, as he always called her, would keep serving you food until you were down for the count, literally. Of course you could and would decline more, but she would just nod sympathetically while dishing up your third or fourth serving. I experienced this too. My father told me that he would sometimes just end up laying down on the floor behind his chair at the dinner table when he could no longer keep himself vertical. As a little boy, I vaguely remember a few frames from a few of these feasts.

When I became a teenager, I began to realize that while Lil’s Italian food was great, it wasn’t completely authentic Italian, and it wasn’t so refined. (Yes, I was already into authenticity and on my way to becoming a refinement hound. I guess that is why I ended up in Kyoto.) But, there is a difference between Italy and Italian America.

But, did you know that Italy can (probably) thank America for pasta carbonara?

I can’t recall Lil ever cooking anything that wasn’t red — like red meat sauce — loaded with spicy Italian sausage. The sausage would have come from Delmonico’s Italian Foods in North Minneapolis – the Italian ghetto of Minnesota when she lived there. In fact, the little Italian grocery that is now Delmonico’s was started by her father, my great-grandfather.

After some reflection today, it dawned on me that I owe grandma Lil more recognition as her hearty home cooked cuisine was the first ‘real’ food I had experienced. The kind that is not so common in American households these days. Even my mother, who can really cook, pretty much just makes ‘quick and convenient’ food now.

But there was one dish Lil made that was so good it caused family feuds: marinated roasted red bell peppers. And, oh my goodness were these sublime!! Grandma Lil lived in San Jose and her sons and daughters lived in Minnesota. One sibling would go out to Cali to see her and come back to Minnie with a few quart Mason jars of her marinated peppers. They were under strict orders to pass them out to the other siblings. However, when I was a kid, I recall stories, overheard phone calls and direct accusations of holding out or maybe feigned forgetfulness and just plain old paranoia about not being given one’s due with regard to these marinated roast peppers.

Lil would get bushels and bushels of ripe red bell peppers and spend days roasting them over charcoal. Then, they would go into bags to steam in their own heat. Once handleable, their skin burned black would be meticulously pulled off. Next they would be sliced and cooked in olive oil with maybe a little bit of spice and then canned in Mason jars.

When I was a kid, I never understood what all the fuss over them was. Once I grew up, I did. So much that I asked Lil for her recipe — which didn’t exist. (I understand that now too.)

Once, back at home from college one weekend, I decided to give them a try one night after searching the fridge for a snack. I had bread that gloriously thick and heavy sourdough bread from the French Meadow Bakery on Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis. I doubt I was eating real butter then, so it was probably I Can’t Believe Its Not Butter (what a perfectly horrible product name for a perfectly horrible product!!). I slathered it on thick, laid on the pungent, oily burgundy colored roast bell peppers and Oh My God!! It was an epiphany!! I was in love. Worth feuding for!

The next autumn I went to the farmers market in Minneapolis and purchased 8 bushels of red bell peppers from a Vietnamese immigrant farmer. I spent all of a Saturday grilling peppers over charcoal in front of my apartment near MCAD and all of Sunday canning the peppers. Mine tasted pretty ok, I guess. But, somehow they didn’t look so good. That was the last time I made them as they last a long time and I moved to Kyoto a few years later.

Someday, I promise myself that I am going to make the best dang marinated roasted red bell peppers in the whole wide world. Gonna be epic and dedicated to Lillian Minerva. Thanks grandma!

Diamond Lil: My Italian Grandmother and My First Taste of Food with Heart and Soul

Delmonico's Italian Foods

Diamond Lil: My Italian Grandmother and My First Taste of Food with Heart and Soul

Delmonico's Italian Foods

image credit note: I did not take the photos used in this article. I found them on Google+ and was unable to figure out who the copyright owner is. I would really appreciate being able to use these photos here. As I am on the other side of the planet, I am unable to pop over to Delmonico’s and take some photos myself.

One Response to “Diamond Lil: My Italian Grandmother and My First Taste of Food with Heart and Soul”

  1. kat says:

    so sorry for your loss, but what a great tribute to your grandmother! take care.

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