Grandma Vivardo

Nerina, my muse (or “How an Italian Cookie Tradition Crossed an Ocean and a Century”)

It’s my belief that the simple act of baking can connect people across vast swaths of time and distance. There is no greater example of that than my mother’s mother, Grandma Nerina Vivardo; the personification of my link to my Italian heritage. At the age of 18, she was wed (via an arranged marriage) to a man she’d known for only two weeks, in the town of Acerra, a few miles northeast of Naples, Italy. A few years later, in 1924, she made her way to Chicago to be reunited with her husband, who had gone on ahead of her to start a life and career working for the Illinois Central Railroad.

Grandma and grandpa

A Woman of Some Fortitude

Nerina’s new life in America wasn’t an easy one: widowed at an early age, she was left to raise nine children during the Depression. To make ends meet, she worked at a clothing factory, assembling men's and women’s coats, and earned additional income sewing garters and baseballs. And yet, she somehow found the time to work on wonders in the kitchen. Whether it was her homemade bread, famous pizza, or her popular Sunday doughnuts, her culinary gifts were legendary. I particularly remember one Christmastime tradition involving hundreds of homemade raviolis strewn across her bed, awaiting a hot water bath. Sadly, her original recipes were never written down, as she neither wrote nor read English.

Italian fig cookies

A Cookie Legacy

I have tried to keep Grandma Nerina’s creations alive by making them a regular part of my cookie rotation. Her delicious Italian fig cookie—or “cuccidati”—has become my signature cookie. Like Grandma Vivardo, I make it by touch and feel. Orange-scented, fig-filled, and covered with powdered sugar and icing, it has become a staple and a favorite for Christmas gift boxes. If you’d like to give it a try, check back on the blog for the recipe, or pre-order my upcoming book, “A Gift of Cookies.” I’m sure Grandma Vivardo would approve.