My Mamaw’s cotoletta con pasta alla vodka tastes and feels like home, despite the fact that I’ve only ever made it once myself –far from where I grew up and even further from the small rural town called Versailles where she makes it for my family twice a year. Its mere mention instantly transports me to my Mamaw’s tiny, crowded, kitchen, and reminds me of my small and peculiar family huddled around a long, dilapidated counter, Italian music blaring in the background and the air smelling of lemons, garlic, and my Mamaw’s herbs.
I can instantly hear my uncle calling me “Giuseppe” despite the fact that he doesn’t know a lick of Italian, ordering
me to move aside so that he may get his long-awaited fill, or my aunt keeping me updated on her studies of European “paganism” and her recent explorations into archeology. Paintings from some of my family’s more artistically inclined are scattered about the walls, my Mamaw decorating most of her house with works from family members. I know that the occasion is either Christmas or Thanksgiving, my Mamaw never being privy to any of the more commercialized aspects of these holidays and wanting to make their memories our own.
More than anything else, cotoletta con pasta alla vodka reminds me of my Mamaw herself, whose warm and vibrant personality matches the bright and flowing clothes she wears, and whose refusal to wear shoes probably says more about her than it should.
You see, my Mamaw is what you would call a “witch,” and considers herself, if anything, a Wiccan, a stregone, a pagan living in contemporary times. The magic she would bring to my life and spread throughout the family would eventually define me, but so much went into creating the woman she is today.
My Mamaw was born in southern Indiana into a large and incredibly traditionalist family of Sicilian immigrants called the la Roccas, whose Catholicism and desire to mold into American life defined their conservative worldview much to my Mamaw’s dismay. She would do everything she could to please the family she was born into, and eventually married my late grandpa at a very young age at her parents’ insistence. She would have my mother and my uncle during this time, but was left feeling empty on account of the lack of agency her upbringing provided her.
My Mamaw often told me that “answers will always come to those who truly search for them,”
and I suppose she was referencing this moment in her life, as she would have a bit of a revelation upon realizing that she didn’t really have much of a part in making the life she had seemingly condemned herself to.
“Waking up” in the early 1970s, my Mamaw would divorce my grandpa, trying to remain cordial with him in the spirit of raising children together. She began to travel the country during this time, developing herself alongside a group of friends that can only be described as hippies, and meeting my step-grandpa along the way, who she would have my aunt with. As she distanced herself from her family she could not forget the impact, both positive and negative, that they had on her life.
She held onto the parts of her identity that made her feel at home, and I suppose this is where her interest in cooking Italian dishes and in Italy generally speaking came from.
She always told me about how she wasn’tinterested in these things until after she had some time to reflect on her life. I have always loved that the dish is actually more of a syncretic combination of many different cultures sharing their foods, cotoletta (schnitzel) being a German dish brought into Italy and America by immigrants. Schnitzel is very popular here in Indiana where it is called tenderloin, and is most commonly served as pork instead of chicken. I think the ambiguous origins of the dish in some ways reflects
the nature of my family being a syncretic amalgamation of many stories leading to our current togetherness.
My Mamaw sought out to make her Italian roots her own through cooking, and in doing so created unique traditions with the family she would create, however simple the main event may be.
Between raising my mother and spending quite a bit of time with me growing up, my relationship with my Mamaw was central in forming the individual I am today. Her steady stream of books by people like Alan Watts and Noam Chomsky and her unorthodox and radical beliefs kept me engaged with the fact that there was much more to the world than the cookie-cutter suburbia I was raised in. My Mamaw’s talk of a living world that was much stranger than anyone could ever suppose always captivated me, especially in how she always talked about how there was so much just waiting to be discovered. As I continue to work my way through the world finding my own place in its processes, I can’t help but reflect on how my own story is completely dependent on hers, both of our lives being a part of something far greater than ourselves.
Of all the many lessons she has taught me, the most important has been that home is much more than a specific place or time, and is what is beneath all of the noise, and is what is deep inside us all.
This is what I hope is channeled through this cotoletta con pasta alla vodka, despite you not sharing the memories I associate with
it. I hope its warmth and richness makes you think of home, and what a wonderful thing it is to have the opportunity to build one as we see fit with what we’ve been given.
Recipe for cotoletta (chicken schnitzel):
Ingredients: chicken filets, flour, olive oil, 2 beaten eggs, 180 grams breadcrumbs, 2 tspgrounded sweet paprika, salt, pepper, lemon slice
1. Beat the chicken until thin, the thinner the better! It works best if the chicken is butterflied before beaten.
2. Lay out three stations to dip the chicken in: one with flour mixed with sweet paprika, another with the
beaten eggs, and a final one with the breadcrumbs mixed with sweet paprika, salt, and pepper.
3. Prepare a frying station, heat a thin layer of olive oil in a frying pan on medium heat.
4. Dip both sides of the chicken slices in the flour, the beaten eggs, and the breadcrumbs, and then add to the
5. Fry each side of the chicken slices for three to five minutes or until golden brown!
6. Enjoy! Ingredients and spices can be added to the mix!
Recipe for vodka pasta:
Ingredients: 1 tbsp olive oil, ¼ cup heavy cream, 16 oz (1 can) tomato sauce, 1 tbsp tomato
paste, ¼ - ½ finely chopped medium onion, 2 tbsp finely chopped garlic, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper,
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, 3 bay leaves, ¼ cup vodka, ¼ cup (dry) white wine
1. Make pasta to your liking :).
2. Heat a saucepan over medium heat and add oil.
3. Add onion, garlic, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, and salt. Stir until the onions are soft.
4. Stir in tomato paste, cook until the paste is thick and mixed in with onions.
5. Add dry white wine, cook until evaporated.
6. Add tomato sauce, mix until all ingredients are combined and bubbling. Reduce heat and
simmer for 10-15 after the sauce is mixed and bubbly.
7. Remove bay leaves from saucepan, discard them.
8. Add cream and vodka, combine well. Vodka should be slightly evaporated.
9. Add basil and additional ingredients to your liking and enjoy, things like paprika,
additional pepper, parmesan cheese, etc. pair well with this!