My mother lived the majority of her life in Tennessee, until my father took a job in Los Angeles in 1963 and moved the family out west, to the land of palm trees and crazy liberals.
But move they did and it wasn't easy...mother cried the first time she saw her teeny tiny house and the bizarre palm trees that surrounded it. She says, "My very first impressions were pretty sad since I had moved from an acre lot and a beautiful 4 bedroom home with a big bay window to what I thought looked like a Pan Am filling station." Imagine moving from an idyllic suburban existence in Nashville to the heart of South Central Los Angeles, on the precipice of one of the most violent periods in L.A.'s history, with two teenage daughters and a husband who was married to his job. Dramatic to say the least. [I came along about 8 years later, making me the only member of my family to actually be born in La La Land.]
"I knew this would be our home so I just decided o.k., I hate it, but I couldn't allow your father to feel like he had made a mistake, and I also didn't want didn't want your sisters to have the same feelings I had." [Of course, my sisters were thrilled. Think Beach Boys and bikinis and eternal sunshine...] Ever the optimist and able to turn any negative into a blessing, my mom settled in, with the help of many dear and loving friends who found themselves in the same situation as my family...transplants in a very foreign land.
I can only imagine what her first trip to a grocery store in L.A. was like, her first look at an artichoke, her first bite of pizza. "We had great grocery stores in Tennessee so I didn't think the ones here were any bigger or better. The foods were different; we saw things I didn't even know what they were. For instance, jicama...what in the world was that? And since Tennessee was a 'dry' state it was a real shock to see beer and wine in grocery stores and also drug stores."
Mexican and Italian food were introduced to the family as well. Her recipe for Manicotti probably came from the box of manicotti noodles, which she picked up after trying the dish in a restaurant. It is the lone Italian dish in her collection. The recipe doesn't resemble anything that you would find in an Italian cookbook...no garlic, basil, olive oil, homemade sauce. But it is delicious anyway. I, of course, tinkered with it and added a few more items, namely homemade ricotta cheese...
I found a recipe for ricotta in this month's issue of Bon Appetit. I read it and was amazed at how incredibly easy it would be...kind of like my epiphany about bread. So off to Sur La Table I went to buy a candy thermometer and cheesecloth, bought yet another quart of buttermilk, pilfered some of my daughter's whole milk, and less than an hour later, I had made cheese. I made the cheese that would fill the shells for the manicotti that my mother's makes. Cool in many ways.
I think this recipe is a very typical one from my mother's collection. Like many others, it is not a difficult recipe, it does not have a complex array of ingredients or instructions, it's not necessarily authentic, but it tastes good in the way that only something your mother makes for you can taste good...and every time you eat it for the rest of your life, it tastes like family and home. And in the case of my family, it was a flavor that was only experienced after they moved across the country to a very new place, during a very difficult time, where everything that was familiar and comfortable was many miles away, where new worlds of food were available for the first time.
Manicotti with Homemade Ricotta
15 oz. ricotta cheese
1/4 lb. mozarella cheese, grated
1 Tbsp finely chopped parsley (I added basil and oregano as well)
12 manicotti shells, boiled al dente
1 jar marinara sauce
3 Tbsp grated parmesan
2 tsp granulated sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
Boil shells until al dente. Let cool. Mix ricotta, herbs, sugar, and egg in a bowl. Fill shells with ricotta mixture. Cover bottom of baking dish with marinara sauce. Place stuffed shells in baking dish in a row. Cover with marinara, mozzarella, and parmesan. Cover dish with foil and bake for 25-30 minutes at 400. Remove foil and bake another 5-10 minutes uncovered until bubbly and slightly browned on top.