Nov 1, 2010

Ossa dei Morti ~ Bones of the Dead

...He didn't get a chance to meet her, she died when I was still a child.

My Nonna Titta raised me like a mother; like all grandmothers do in Italy–even before it was customary for working moms to leave home to bring income to the household.
Yet Giuditta–Titta for her friends and immediate family–was not your average granny. She told fairy tales, baked cakes and occasionally knitted; but in her youth she had been a talented, successful and beautiful theater actress. And with a childhood worthy of a novel.


Born into a theater family, she began touring around the world with the Ermete Zacconi theater company along with her parents and brothers from when she was old enough to stand (as a small child she was forced to play only boys' roles, a female child in theater was not happy news). The kids (four boys and one girl, Titta) were the younger thespians acting opposite turn of the century celebrities, while my great-grandfather was the "trovarobe," in charge of painting backdrops, collecting furniture, set dressing, props, etc. Nowadays this role is called Production Designer. His wife, my bisnonna Luigia, was a seamstress. She designed all the costumes for each production, and was in charge of cutting, stitching and fitting all.

This wild assortment of talent traveled away from Italy each summer, headed to South America, where the company performed mostly for immigrant patrons in theaters all over Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Italians didn't only land in Ellis Island…
My nonna Titta didn't speak a word of English, but thanks to these annual 6-month tours, she was fluent in Spanish and grasped the rudiments of Portuguese.
Once the season ended abroad, the company would pack the staging equipment and navigate the Atlantic on steamships back to Europe, just in time for winter in the northern hemisphere. Titta loved the summer, because for so many years of touring, she said, summer was not an option.

Later, as she grew into a teen and then into a young woman, her talent and sophisticated flair put her in the limelight. She soon became leading lady in many popular 1920s stage productions, and her repertoire spanned from the Greek classics, Shakespearean drama, to humorous, intelligent and ironic contemporary pieces. In 1930 she met my grandfather, whom she formed a company with, and eventually married seven years later. My mom was born the following year, and this gave Titta the chance to finally retire from the theater scene at age 42.

Nonna and Nonno in Venice

Despite her separation from my grandfather (divorce didn't exist in Italy at the time), the hardships of WWII Italy, and being a single mother in the 1950s, Nonna managed to keep it together, and star in 25 films between 1933 and 1966. One of the last roles she played was in 1962, as Marcello Matroianni's mother in the Fellini masterpiece 8 1/2.

As I said, like many nonnas, mine was a key figure during my childhood, she was there for me while my mom was working full time, adjusting to divorced life, and mourning my grandfather's premature death. Nonna Titta was great company, a playful, unconventional, tender and witty companion. She and I produced wonderful role games, during which I'd introduce her to my latest child (I owned many dolls at the time) and we'd chat and gossip like ladies over teacups of sugared tap water. Nonna spoiled me like only grandparents can (and are allowed to). And she taught me to appreciate good food through her virtuoso cooking skills.

Me and Nonna, 1970

My son didn't get a chance to meet his great-grandparents, one of my biggest regrets. It's important that he learn about his extended family, here in Italy and the one abroad. I can start by introducing him to his great-grandmother Titta, by telling him her wonderful stories, showing him photographs and paintings, reproduce her recipes and replicate those everyday gestures of love I grew with.


We don't celebrate Halloween in Italy. The related observance we do honor is on the other hand i Morti: an Italian two-day festivity bridging November 1st (All Soul's Day) and November 2nd (Day of the Dead). This is not a morbid or mournful holiday, rather a celebration of life. Ossa dei Morti, or "Bones of the Dead," are among the numerous traditional (and almost always almond-laced) Italian cookies commonly enjoyed on this occasion. There are many different regional recipes for Ossa dei Morti, these particular hard and crunchy meringue ones are from Piemonte, where nonna Titta was originally from.

She was very superstitious, so I hope she won’t mind if I associate her to this rather disturbing, sepulchral recipe name. If you hear thunder tomorrow, it’s probably her, complaining from heaven.



250 gr (1 1/4 cups) flour
100 gr (1/2 cup) hazelnuts (ideally from the Langhe region, in Piemonte),shelled and left whole
100 gr (1/2 cup) almonds, coarsely ground (I put them in a freezer bag and pound the heck out of them)
400 gr (2 cups) brown sugar
2 egg whites, beaten
Juice from 1/2 lemon
A pinch of ground cloves
A pinch of cinnamon
Butter and flour to grease and dredge the cookie sheet


In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, egg whites, and lemon juice. Work in the nuts and spices, and continue kneading until you have a fairly firm dough. Roll the ball of dough out with your hands forming it into a rope. Cut the rope into 2-inch sections.

Preheat oven to 180° C (360° F).

Butter your cookie sheet, dust with flour, and lay the 'bones' on it distanced form one another, and bake for about 20 minutes. Let the cookies cool to jaw-breaking hardness before serving with a glass of Moscato or Vin Santo. Amen.

Image © Savoring Time in the Kitchen

45 comments:

  1. Dear Lola,
    That is simply the most beautiful story I've read in quite a long time, you tell it in a very touching and lovely manner. I think you are a very lucky and obviously talented lady, and I'm lucky to have discovered your blog some time ago.

    Very best to you. Now... do you think the bones of the dead would survive if you mailed some ?
    :-)

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  2. smiles. some nice memories there...and an intriguing holiday...

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  3. What tender and sweet remembrances! Love the recipe, for this and many other days.

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  4. Brava Eleonora - amazing piece. It brought back memories of my Nonna too - I miss her! Buon eterno riposo alle nonne...

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  5. What an amazing family story you have shared (and some delicious looking ossi)!

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  6. Owen~
    thank you for your words. Actually, given the cookies' hardness, I believe they would survive!

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    Brian~
    I forgot to say that today Nov. 1 besides baking cookies, people go to the cemetery to pay homage and lay chrysanthemums on the graves of their late loved ones.

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    Rosaria~
    Grazie, I'm happy you liked it. Ciao

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    Daniele~
    Evviva le nonne indeed! Che piacere il tuo commento. Thanks.

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    Lost in Sicily~
    Grazie for your sweet comment. Glad you enjoyed reading this piece. Happy holiday to you!

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  7. Just lovely :) I was very close with my grandmother as well, so I tend to love grandmother stories but this one is especially touching <3

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  8. What a touching and beautiful story about your Nonna.

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  9. Michelle~
    Grandmothers are such important figures in our lives, we should be celebrating them all the time!

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    Linda~
    5'm happy you liked it. Happy holiday!

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  10. Hi Lola, your Nonna and Nonno make a spectacular couple, and I love the picture of you with your Nonna too.

    I like your celebration of Nov 1st and 2nd much better than hallowe'en (which originated here in Irl!).
    I always associate Hallowe'en now with my Mom's funeral, Nov 1st, which is All Saint's day here!.
    So, thank you for this recipe, which I will make this evening. And, as of today, I'm giving up on Hallowe'en and honouring Ossa dei Morti instead.

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  11. lola,

    this is the most lovely post i've read in a long time. what a generous and heart-filled tribute to your talented nonna - from your words it sounds like she lived a big, bell-ringing kind of life. how generous of you to share her story, these wonderful fotos and this perfectly-suited recipe. i can only imagine she is smiling at her granddaughter and great-grandson - amen to that.

    xxx

    amanda

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  12. Beautiful tribute Lola...just beautiful.

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  13. Do you also crush the hazelnuts?
    Thanks for a delightful story and a new recipe to try.
    Lisa

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  14. This is a wonderful, beautiful story! Thank you so much for sharing! (I'm also happy to know about the cookies!)

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  15. What a wonderful story and such a beautiful tribute to your gorgeous nonna. Thank you for sharing and for the recipe.

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  16. Beautiful post. I was partially raised by my German grandmother, as well.

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  17. El-
    I knew only my father's mother as a child (you've seen that picture) and alas, she was 'too old' and spoke almost no English so I never spent any special time with her.

    Now that I think about it-- she lived in 'A-mer-i-ga' for about 60+ years-I wonder how much English she did speak

    Your story is wonderful --you have such a great legacy from your family, too. xo

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  18. Mimi~
    I had no idea Halloween originated in Ireland!! Thank you for your sweet comment.

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    Amanda~
    She was a great lady. I miss her.

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    Rosa~
    Smiles, thanks...

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    Lisa~
    As I mention in the ingredient list, I crush the almonds and leave the hazelnuts whole.

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    Annelle~
    So happy you enjoyed reading about my nonna.

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    Janie~
    Grazie!

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    Nancy~
    So this is all very familiar, I bet.

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    Roseann~
    I'm always amazed to hear stories of immigrants, their habits, recipes and language...

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  19. What a truly moving story. I believe your son will know your nonna well through your stories and her recipes, especially if they are like this one. My mother also used food stories so I would know my grandfather well. He was a baker and passed away when I was only two. Thank you for introducing your nonna to us.

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  20. Eleonora,
    I imagine your grandma smiling, not only about the loving way you are telling her story here, but also seeing what a great young woman she has helped bring up!
    Abbraccione,
    Merisi

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  21. What a lovely story - I am sure she is proud of your chosen career path - then again, did you choose it or was it destiny? It's your DNA :)

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  22. As a former-actress turned playwright, I wished to be at your grandmother's feet and listen to her stories of theatre, struggles, touring, love and food. What worlds she saw! What tales she must have told! This post went to my heart.

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  23. Lola: tua nonna era straordinaria. E tu non sei da meno! Ho avuto nostalgia della mia leggendo il tuo racconto.

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  24. A lovely touching portrait of your grandmother.What an amazing woman she was!

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  25. Just read your post today. I loved every word. Thank you.

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  26. And won`t you make a wonderful Nonna yourself one day!!!! You are so like her!
    No, Lola, I did NOT receive your mail! Can you retrace it?? Please?

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  27. You paint a vivid portrait of your Nona - what an accomplished, fun and amazing woman she must have been. Thank you for sharing her with us...

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  28. Kathy~
    And thank you for your wonderful comment!
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    Merisi~
    I am touched by your words. Grazie, amica.
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    Lisa~
    I tried escaping destiny, but it was a choice dictated by DNA!
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    Claudia~
    You would have fallen in love with her, like many. De Chirico wanted to paint her nude, and she refused!!! Mom always made fun of her for that...
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    Amelia~
    È proprio quello che desideravo: accendere il ricordo e la tenerezza delle ostre adorate nonne.
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    Sarah~
    She was, and in such a simple way. Thank you for your comment.
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    Bodach~
    Thank *you* I am humbled by the kudos. Smiles.
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    Geli~
    I hope to be a good nonna like hger someday! I'll look for the lost email and forward it asap.
    ~~~~~~~

    Fern~
    Thank *you* for stopping by, and leaving your sweet comment!

    Ciao

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  29. Oh my goodness. Lola, Amanda said it the best, this is a lovely lovely post.
    I think there may not be thunder, but maybe rain, which could be her tears of happiness falling down. You have surely honored her here.

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  30. Lori ann~
    It actually did rain and I formulated the same thought... ;)
    Thank you for your loving words.

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  31. Questa e un periodo, quando ci ricordiamo dei nostri familiari,che non ci sono piu.Penso che a tutti noi i nonni hanno avuto un ruolo marcante della nostra infanzi!
    Complimenti per questa tua piccola storia che che hai condiviso con noi!

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  32. Andras~
    Grazie for your lovely comments, on both my blogs! Sono felice che ti piacciano.

    Ciao

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  33. www.susanvanallen.comNov 5, 2010, 1:43:00 AM

    What a beautiful story! Thank you so much for sharing Titta's amazing life with us AND the delicious recipe!

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  34. Wonderful piece, I reposted it :)
    ps, I used your pasta fresca recipe last night and it went MUCH better than the pizza di scarola senz'acqua!

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  35. What a wonderful post! And the photos - such great real smiles. Thanks for sharing this.

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  36. Ciao!! Very interesting post. Sounds like you had great memories with your Nonna.

    I see that you are listed on another site as an affliate/sponsor. Do you need to advertise? I would be very happy to advertise for you. I'm trying to find people/companies that need to advertise. I can't seem to find many. I only found one before. So since I saw that you were, I thought I would ask.

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  37. Eleonora cara, che dolce il tuo racconto e, come già è stato detto, porta alla mente i dolci ricordi dei nostri nonni. Grazie, grazie infinite.

    Dear Eleonora your granny's story and your way to tell us about her is so sweet. It goes to remind us our grandparents... Thank you, thank you so much.

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  38. Susan~
    I am honored to have you visiting my kitchen, grazie! It's always a pleasure for me to share heartwarming stories (and recipes)!

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    Danielle~
    Whew, I was afraid you were never going to make any more of my recipes ever again after the scarola debacle!
    Happy you enjoyed.

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    Jim~
    Thank *you* for coming along and meeting by beacon-nonna!

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    Alexandra~
    I have given the exclusive to FoodBuzz at the moment... but when I decide to widen my pool, I'll let you know. Thanks for the offer.

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    Fabrizio~
    Grazie infinite ~ Thank you kindly!


    Ciao

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  39. Glad I poppped round, albeit belatedly. I enjoyed the story of your grandmother - she was a wonderful character and obviously an inspiration to that gorgeous and talented grand daughter whom I love visiting when I can. Love and hugs ~ Eddie

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  40. Eddie~
    It's always a pleasure to see you around my little kitchen... welcome back! Hugs to you too

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  41. I miss the era of hanging out with grandma. She would have loved this recipe. I still have my grandma's sherry trifle recipe and the trifle bowls we used to prepare it in. She'd never been to Italy but she used to use almond biscuits as a special feature.

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  42. Alice~
    I miss her too. And I miss never having met my paternal grandmother... Magical figures.

    We are blessed with the memories of them. Memories that linger and are inadvertantly triggered by random flavors and aromas, like when I open a certain drawer in my mother's bathroom, and a whiff of lily talc and black currant Allenbury candies throws me back at my nonna's side at age 7...

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  43. Wonderul, touching tribute. And some great images there too.

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  44. David~
    Ciao dear friend, thank you for your kind visit and warm words. It's so nice to see you back!

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Ciao
Eleonora

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