Last week, my family lost a little giant. My father’s cousin Eva passed away in Salle, their hometown in Abruzzo. I never imagined when I bade her farewell on Ferragosto, that it would be the last time I would see her.
At about 4 and 1/2 feet tall, Eva’s diminutive stature was in no way indicative of her strength, neither of body nor character. Born in 1935, Eva was the daughter of Lucrezia, the eldest of my grandfather’s nine siblings. She, her parents, her sister Norina and her much-younger brother Antonio are the only members of the enormous “Stefanucci” family (this is our “sopranome” or nickname, after our legendary benevolent patriarch, my great-grandfather, Stefano) to remain in the tiny mountain village of Salle. Eva’s three other siblings immigrated to Montreal while the remainder of her aunts, uncles and cousins left Salle in search of work and new opportunities in Torino, Belgium and New York.
Endowed with a seemingly endless supply of energy, Eva dedicated her life to her family. She was a workhorse by nature – traversing the treacherous mountain terrain in the dead of winter to fetch water in a large copper “conga” precariously positioned on her head; washing clothes against wooden boards at the banks of the river; working long hours at a chair factory in the coastal town of Montesilvano; caring for her aging parents and looking after her feeble-bodied sister. She never married or had children of her own, but helped raise her two young nephews when they lost their mother far sooner than any children should. She kept meticulous track of the lives of her nieces and nephews in Montreal and proudly showed off their photos and accomplishments to anyone who’d listen.
Eva played another significant role in the Stefanucci clan – keeper of the keys. Those of her cousins, including my dad and uncle, with second homes in their ancestral town all entrusted Eva with a set of housekeys. She watched over the homes throughout the year and prepared them for our arrival in summer, when Salle’s population swells with returning emigrants. She took it upon herself to preside over the homecoming of all of her family members – a veritable one-woman welcome wagon – all smiles, hugs and terms of endearment in thick Abruzzese dialect.
When I learned of her passing, I realized that Eva had not only been the guardian of the keys, but also of our family’s history and legacy in Salle. She was a treasure-trove of knowledge about our family’s past – a story littered with war, fascism, earthquakes, poverty and separation, but also with unity, loyalty and unbreakable familial bonds. This past summer, as she recalled memories about my father and his cousins prior to their exodus from Salle, she was overcome with nostalgia and said, “non avevamo niente ma c’era piu allegria” – we had nothing but there was more joyfulness.
The general sentiment of the Stefanucci across Italy, the United States and Canada has been the same – none of us can imagine a Salle without Eva – pint-sized, bear-hugging, ever-smiling Eva.
Addio, carissima Eva….surely, the gates of heaven swung right open to welcome you.
Although not Eva’s recipe, this simple, non-too-sweet cake is exactly the sort of dessert that she always had on hand to serve to guests with a strong cup of espresso. My friend Giulia of Country House Casale Centurione in Manopello, Abruzzo was kind enough to share her recipe.
- 1 ½ cups unbleached AP flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 large eggs at room temperature
- 2/3 cup of sugar
- 1/2 cup of whole milk
- 1/2 cup of canola oil
- Zest of 1 lemon or Meyer lemon, if available
- Confectioners’ sugar (for sprinkling)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a bundt pan. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt and baking powder together until evenly incorporated and set aside. Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs, milk, sugar, oil and lemon zest on medium speed until evenly combined, abut 2 minutes. Switch to low speed and slowly beat in the dry ingredients until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake-taster inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool to room temperature. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar prior to serving. Buon appetito!