I imagine there are not many people out there whose former boyfriends or girlfriends send them food in the mail. At least the kind that’s not laced with poison. I’m one of the lucky ones. For many years, my ex-girlfriend, Teresa, whom I dated through most of my early 20s, would send me slices of her Aunt Anita’s famous Easter Pies in the spring. Pizzagaina or Pizza Rustica as it’s called in different areas of southern Italy, is a savory pie that often includes ricotta, basket or farmer’s cheese, sopressata and prosciutto. It’s a Italian-Catholic traditional way to celebrate the risen Lord and the end of Lenten fasting. And then there is Pizza Dolce, or sweet pie, which is basically a citrusy Italian cheesecake. I grew up eating both every year, though we often purchased them from a bakery in our Jersey City Heights neighborhood. Teresa guessed correctly that these Italian specialties would be hard to find when I moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Taking pity on me, and perhaps worried I’d lose touch with my upbringing, she mailed them to me. She’d freeze them and pack them in dry ice, and I would keep a close eye on the tracking number to make sure they didn’t sit at the post office or on my porch too long after being delivered.
At some point, ten years or so years into the exercise, Teresa realized it was better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish — or perhaps she just got tired of the whole icing and packing rigmarole — and decided to send me Aunt Anita’s recipes. In order for the tradition to survive, I would have to carry it on myself. It would join many of other culinary traditions I grew up with that I continue to keep alive. The paste e fagiole and escarole and bean soups, the broccoli rabe, the eggplant parmigiana, the Sicilian-style baked ziti, the lentils on New Year’s Day, the fish on Christmas Eve, and most recently, the zeppole di San Giuseppe on St. Joseph’s Day (which I had to start making after the one restaurant in Nashville that made them closed).
The Easter Pies were on another level, though. The recipes seemed sacred, scanned from the original typed copies. The fact that Teresa waited so long to give them to me only further added intrigue.
I also needed to buy a Kitchenaid mixer. Fortunately, my friend Will had an old one he was willing to part with that required just a few small repairs at a local machine shop. I was in business.
The first year I made the pies, I was living alone in an apartment, terribly ill with a sinus infection. Too sick to even leave the apartment, but determined to make the pies, perhaps needing to make the pies, two friends came to my rescue by shopping for everything I needed, which included an additional 9” x 13” Pyrex pan because I only owned one. I wasn’t sure who was going to eat the massive pies other than me and my mother, but that was the size the recipes called for, and I wasn’t going to mess with Aunt Anita’s measurements.
It took me the whole day — the preciseness of baking is not my forte — but I was successful. I had made the traditional Easter Pies. That was seven years ago, and I’ve been making them ever since. Much has happened in that time. I’m married and have children now. I’ve made a few adjustments to Aunt Anita’s recipe to account for a smaller round pie, because, as it turns out, I’m the only one who seems to love these things. I’m hoping my daughters, as they get older, come around to them.
We are now a few weeks before Easter as I write this. There is always a moment when I question the wisdom of making them. The meat and cheese gets expensive. The process and the measurements are tedious. The kitchen is going to be a mess for an entire day. Half of each of them usually winds up in the freezer. I’m reminded, however, of this passage from the great Baltimore writer, Rafael Alvarez, from his collection of short stories, Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown:
“Tradition, Basilio’s grandfather often said, is nothing more than hard work and planning. The calendar is not a line, but a loop and you could not trust something as important as tradition … to chance.”
And so, to quote another writer named Bob Dylan, “I guess it must be up to me.”
Tradition matters. It matters to Aunt Anita, who makes these pies every year, and to Teresa, even if she broke the tradition of mailing me the frozen ones. By doing so and sending me the recipe, she was one only acting within the bigger tradition. It matters to my wife, Keri, who’s embraced the tradition while helping build new ones. And to my daughters, who may carry them all forward one day.
It’s time to make the Easter Pies.