Of my memories of my two grandmothers, both now long since passed, many are of their food.
They were both Italian and both only a few generations removed from southern Italy, but they cooked two distinct sets of recipes. Even their meatballs and gravy were entirely different from each other. My paternal grandmother made the best minestra maritata – or, “Italian Wedding Soup” – I’ve had in my life, to this day. My maternal grandmother made potato gnocchi from scratch – springy, substantial gnocchi the likes of which I’ve never since tasted again.
Some members of my father’s family can duplicate the Italian Wedding Soup, but my mother and I cannot recreate those gnocchis. We’ve both tried. Despite making them many times with my grandmother, I couldn’t possibly tell you the recipe.
There wasn’t one. She eyeballed the ingredients every time, combining them by hand right on her kitchen counter, cracking the eggs into a mound of flour. She could never settle on the most efficient process to cut and “thumb” them – that is, put the little divot in the middle. She alternated between a butter spreader, a pizza cutter, and her bare hands, never satisfied with any of the methods.
(Once I attempted to make them myself from memory right on our kitchen counter, not realizing that our countertops were not actual granite and would not withstand hundreds of passes with the pizza cutter, my tool of choice.)
There is one recipe of my maternal grandmother’s I can make. “Scapels,” she called them, a sort of plain, egg crepe rolled up like cigars with sharp grated cheese inside and served under scalding hot soup. I only know how to make them because she could not eyeball the ratios of ingredients in the batter. My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression and barely had a grade school education. She wasn’t confident writing more than a few words in longhand and couldn’t easily multiply entire lists of ingredients.
I became her walking recipe card and recipe multiplier. The phone would ring. “PeEEter,” she would say in her Philadelphia accent, “it’s gram-mom.” “I’m makin’ scapels. Eh, what is the recipe again? Three ta three ta one?”
“Three to one to one,” I would reply, exasperated, probably interrupted from reading a book.
“Right, right,” she would reply, as if she was just testing me and had known all along. “But, I wanna make a triple recipe. How many is that?”
“Times three, gram-mom. Nine eggs to three to three.”
“Awright, thanks. Love you.”
The recipe for her scapels is dead simple – 3 parts eggs to 1 part each flour and water, plus some salt, pepper, and parsley, and rolled up with Pecorino Romano cheese.
The hard part is cooking them to the right consistency.
If you’ve ever made pancakes, imagine doing it at a fiftieth of the thickness and a fraction of the time. Scapels cook the instant the batter hits the pan. They must to be parchment thin but still soft and pliant, and carefully flipped so not to adhere to themselves. If they come out too thick or doughy they are gross.
I am really, really good at making scapels of a perfect consistency. I’ve always been better than my mother. I might have even been better than my grandmother. Once I developed my guitar calluses and I discovered I could reach into hot pans to amend bad flips I was unstoppable.
I asked many times, but no one on my father’s side of the family knew about scapels. I think they might have mentioned a cousin or elderly aunt making them. No other Italian I met knew what they were, even when I described them. Any time we’d go to a real Italian restaurant I’d check the menu, but they never appeared. That is, until once – in San Francisco while E was pregnant with EV – our dear Brazilian-Italian friend F took us to what she deemed the best Italian restaurant in SF’s little Italy.
I did my customary scan of the menu. They didn’t have “scapels.” They had “scrapelles,” served with hot soup. I quizzed the waiter, and maybe also the chef? There was no question – they were the same dish. All this time and it was my grandmother’s garbling of the word that had gotten in the way. After all, if she could never spell it, all she had to rely on was sixty plus years of saying it in her South Philly accent.
Now armed with the correct word, I scoured the internet for recipes – had she been doing it right all along, or had she simplified the recipe as much as she had the word? There are many spellings, including “scappels” and “scrippelles” (apparently the proper name).
Some had a similar story (from the same region as my family), but many recipes included milk. Even the most authentic-seeming recipe had more eggs to water, and considerably less flour. The only recipe I’ve found that matches mine is this one, on Food.com, which offers my grandmother’s simplified version (even calling it “scapels”) and declares it a northern Italian dish.
How did my grandmother wind up with her simple scapels? Was it a recipe handed down from her family or did she learn it from someone else in South Philly? Despite her being from southern Italy, was it handed down to her from northern family members? Was it adapted to be less rich, losing the milk and with fewer eggs, due to the abject poverty of the Depression, or was it that way when she learned it? Was it always 3:1:1, or had she simplified that, too?
Neither my mother nor I know, and there is no one else left to ask.
I considered “correcting” my recipe to be more like the ones on the internet. It might be fun to try once, but then they wouldn’t be my grandmother’s scrapelles (yes, I’ve officially adopted the “r”).
Thus, last night I fired up multiple pans, cracked some eggs into the mixing bowl, and got started- with one new addition: EV.
I sat her on the top of a stepping stool across from the stove and explained all the steps, drilling her on the 3:1:1 ratio, showing her how to rotate the pans to spread the batter, flipping them high in the air, and then finally rolling one up tightly with cheese to let her taste. And, earlier tonight we brought them to Lindsay’s house, to share them with another family’s next generation.
I don’t maintain many traditions, culinary or just sentimental, from my family. I am glad to be passing down this one.