I never intended for this to be a food blog. The world already had enough of those, and many truly amazing ones at that. But when I think of family, culture, and traditions, it’s impossible not to come back to food. Even when it starts off not being about food, when you peel back the layers to figure out what really made something special, it starts and ends with just that. It’s usually not the food itself, but the people behind it. The special way a mother or grandmother made a dish and then taught her daughters and granddaughters. The effort we put into learning, perfecting, passing on, and starting our own versions of a tradition. When you think of the time we spend around tables, chopping, kneading, pureeing, talking and laughing with the people who know us best (for better or worse), it’s easy to see how entire cultures can form in kitchens.
Pane, Cipuda, and Cheese is what got me thinking about all of this. Because I want to tell you about it—it’s delicious—but it’s not really about the food. It’s everything this dish (if you can even call it that) evokes. These three simple items Pane (bread) Cipuda (onion) and Cheese, for me, represent:
- Farm life in Sicily at times when there wasn’t much to eat, especially when you’re the help;
- Long hot days laying tar on Brooklyn streets, when my grandfather would bring this for lunch (minus the cipuda, perhaps, on especially hot days);
- Bored summer afternoons as a kid, when I was too picky to eat anything but tasty raw onions and cheese with a good hunk of Semolina bread;
- A reminder that our family cannot get their languages straight. Older generations call this Pane e Tumatsu (bread and cheese), but I guess they tried Americanizing it for us kids and threw in the Cheese reference. The cipuda part is straight-up Sicilian. Pane is Italian. We managed to squeeze in three languages in a simple three-word snack. This is perfectly normal.
Someone must have told me many stories about pane, cipuda, and cheese, because when I eat it I’m always picturing someone in another life with their bread, salty cheese with peppercorn, and onion slice. I see young road workers, leaning on a car’s bumper during their break, sweating and biting into a loaf. Little farm girls resting under the shade of an awning with their lunch. And now I even see my younger self, sitting at our kitchen table after a tantrum, devouring an entire raw onion in one sitting. It’s one of the only things that would shut me up. I picture each of us eating alone on a quiet day, when we don’t have the time, resources, or desire for anything else.
The only way to eat this is in hunk form. That is, a hunk each of crusty bread, salty cheese, and onion. There’s no slicing to make a sandwich or piling little pieces to make a crostini. Just take a bite of one, then another, then the last, and chew all together. My mom would suggest adding grapes and/or sardines to the mix, which I’d very much agree with.
This isn’t one of those meals families have slaved to perfect and pass on, but it’s woven into us all the same. Even when we’re not together around the table, we’re connected in our smelly, salty, and doughy ways.