Memories and a First Cookbook

By Elizabeth M. Williams

Nana’s Creole Italian Table gathers memories and recipes from a Sicilian American family in New Orleans. Elizabeth M. Williams discusses the rich cultural exchange that occurred when early Sicilian immigrants brought their way of life—in particular, their food traditions—to their newly adopted home. Here the author describes the challenges and satisfaction she experienced in writing the book.

Some of the ingredients for Williams’s “Nana’s Basic Tomato Sauce”

Time is fluid, and our perception of “a long time ago” changes with age. These truths have become very apparent to me as I watch my children move into middle age and my grandchildren take up their own lives. I have sometimes worried that I might lose my connection to them, or rather that they would lose their connection to me.

So I did what I usually do when I worry about such things: I began to cook. And as I created the old family dishes that are my comfort food, I saw one way that I could leave my children and grandchildren, and even their children, something tangible that would allow them to feel a connection to me. I could write down my memories and my recipes for them. That was how Nana’s Creole Italian Table was born.

Williams’s Lemon Pecan Cornmeal Cake

With the help of my wonderful editor, Cindy Nobles, and the members of the LSU Press staff, the book became polished and professional. Cindy coaxed and compelled me—always in the nicest ways—to make my recipes reproducible. I am one of those cooks who opens the refrigerator and cabinets and prepares something with what is there, instead of intentionally making a particular dish, so writing recipes is hard for me. That is the reason why this is my first cookbook. But now I am so glad that I did it. I lacked the discipline to sit down and record these recipes on my own; the structure of the book and the oversight of an editor made that happen. I managed to thwart my own tendencies and instincts by making this book public.

I hope that other people who grew up in the old Sicilian community in New Orleans will see things in this book that jog their memories. I hope that they remember the recipes of their grandmothers. And I hope that those who want to study the history of Sicilian immigrants in the city will find information in this book that is useful to their research. It is filled with memories of my Sicilian-born grandmother and my New Orleans–born mother and the wonderful intermingling of cuisines that gave rise to the Creole Italian food we eat today.

In moments of introspection, I have asked myself about writing another cookbook. I don’t know. This experience has given me a new respect and appreciation for cookbook writers. I think that I like the squishiness of narrative over the precision of recipes. If you read Nana’s Creole Italian Table, feel free to adapt these recipes to your own taste, just as I did with my family recipe for olive salad (aptly titled Three-Generation Olive Salad). This book of memories and recipes is not about holding on to tradition, but about knowing it, so that our food and culture can carry us through the generations. Mangia bene.

Elizabeth M. Williams grew up eating in two great food traditions, those of New Orleans and Sicily. Founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, now part of the larger National Food and Beverage Foundation, she has a weekly podcast, Tip of the Tongue, about food, drink, and culture. She is the author of many books and articles about foodways in New Orleans and the South.

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From meatball po’boys to Creole red gravy, the influence of Sicilian foodways permeates New Orleans, one of America’s greatest food cities. Nana’s Creole Italian Table tells the story of those immigrants and their communities through the lens of food, exploring the ways traditional Sicilian dishes such as pasta and olive salad became a part of—and were in turn changed by—the existing food culture in New Orleans.

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