But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him
and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire
in a hollow fennel stalk.
So much boils down to so little:
these fronds, glaucous green as the seas
behind your great grandmother’s eyes,
their blooms spent in the ebbing winter,
will simmer with time and salted water
to almost nothing. She stirs the pot
in a rhythm of blood and foreign tongues,
breathing the steam of her ancestors’ kitchens
that rises each March with Lenten vows –
the pungent smell of the slowly diminishing
greens, an essence of anise, and the memory
of picking finnochi for her nonna’s Milanese.
Eighty years branch across her hands,
green stems grown from a chambered bulb
whose roots hold the soil of generations.
Far from their native Sicilian hills,
scattered in the grass of your aunts’ and cousins’
yards, these hollow stalks still sprout
in fertile ground. She lowers the fire
hours later and empties the boiling stock
to strain all that is left of her
finnerchy, the fragrant “grass” in the family
recipe for St. Joseph’s Day gravy.
But still, a deep bitterness will linger,
subtle as the hint of iron in church wine:
an earthy sting of licorice a lifetime
couldn’t boil away. But she knows this flavor,
how to cover its starkness with touches of sugar
measured, like her rosaries, by muscle memory,
until she knows she’s put in enough.
Then, when everything begins to change
colors – the bright red of the tomatoes
mellowing with onions to a claret brown
like rust or old blood – she will pour in her last
ingredients, the con sarde and pignoli,
and leave it all to cook on a low flame.
The gravy will thicken slowly as a dialect,
reducing in murmurs and muffled breaths
of steam, flavors blending beneath the surface
in a radiant heat that makes tongues
and mouths water in the heady aroma.
She sits, and the stove gleams like an altar
flickering under all she has prepared: candles
for San Giuseppe, stock pots for the pasta,
and a skillet where breadcrumbs becomes mudrica –
the Saint’s sawdust – a transubstantiation
in sugar and oil on the fire she brings down
to keep it all from burning. This litany of seasonings
pervades the house like a reverence, and an incense
rises from the kitchen, redolent of cigarettes
and coffee, the brine of sardines, her perfume,
and the gravy that brings the family together
like a birth or a death, and fills your chest
with the sweet and forlorn scent of fennel.