About Gemma

Thank you for visiting Ciao, Gemma!

The name is a tribute to my mother, Gemma Lombardi, a first generation Italian American who did not allow hardship to discourage her generous heart and curious mind. My name is Cynthia Gaffney and my mother inspired me to discover the most gratifying occupation of my life, telling stories about the intimate connection between who we are and what we eat.

Umberto & Adela (Cassini) Lombardi
I am a baby boomer but my childhood could well have taken place a hundred years before I was born. Growing up in Meaderville, an Italian immigrant neighborhood of Butte, Montana, I was raised among people who only bought things they couldn’t grow, build, or bake themselves.

We began preparing food for the Winter holidays in early October. Everyone, at every age, contributed to building the banquets, from raising farm animals to closing ravioli with a fork.

Heads Would Roll

My immediate family stood a bit apart from most others in Meaderville because my Italian mother married an Irishman. This was not acceptable among Italians, especially for a woman.

The Italians liked to see themselves as ambitious and resourceful. They tended to look down on the Irish who usually immigrated to escape famine and persecution.

The only time we raised ducks
In truth, they had more in common with each other than most of them understood. Every emigrant nationality was swimming hard to stay afloat in the melting pot of America, doing what they knew best.

For the Irish in Butte, it was mining ore, the attraction that drew so many there in the first place. For the Italians, it was raising and preparing the food that fueled those immigrants in countless boarding houses and free meal taverns. Ethnic slurs were a convenient shield against the painful reality of absolute and probably permanent dislocation.

John Patrick Gaffney
1929 Butte Central
Despite his inexperience with it, my father adopted the Italian attention to food with an open mind. We kept a large garden that struggled against Butte's Rocky Mountain altitude and granite soil. Potatoes were always the best bet for survival. Harvesting them was arduous work but my father enjoyed the labor simply as an athletic pursuit. We stored small hills of spuds through the Winter next to a coal chute in our cellar.

There was one ritual, though, that he always abandoned well before completion. Like all of us, my father had his faults but cruelty of any kind was not one of them. Slaughtering animals was a task he would never have chosen on his own.

Our Shed ~ Waste Rock Dump Behind
Everyone in Meaderville raised a variety of small farm animals. We kept chickens in a large coop about twenty feet from the back door of our house. In the Fall, my parents would set aside a weekend for the kill. By Sunday night all but the best laying hens and largest rooster were laid to rest in our basement freezer.

Until that weekend, my father treated the flock more like pets than livestock. When he hauled the ax and chopping block out of the shed, my younger sister and I laughed nervously as the hens ran to him like living bobble-head dolls expecting their usual blessing of grain from his hand.

Instead, racing against his emotions, he would grab each of them by the legs, flopping the body flat across the block. With a swift hack, the head of the ax parted the head from its body and left the eyes gazing at us in frozen shock.

Dad & his mother
Mary (Leeming) Gaffney
My mother then soaked the body in a bucket of hot water and rushed to pluck pin feathers from the warm carcass. My younger sister, Jackie, and I carried the heads from the chopping block to a garbage can. Jackie would sometimes convert one of the heads into a puppet by squeezing its sides, moving the beak while she supplied a monologue.

Xmas 1960 ~ Jackie with Chatty Cathy
Every year there would be at least one demonstration of the phrase, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Our reaction was always startled amusement turning quickly to an anxious silence until the body exhausted its nerves.

There is something about a headless carcass, moving on its own, that suggests possession.  Sounding like an Irish poet, my father would proclaim the sight, “A bird of ill omen!", as he walked away from the block and ax, signaling my mother to recruit her relatives to finish the job.

Mangia!

Fruitcakes were first in line for kitchen production, allowing them to age for months on daily doses of brandy, whiskey, and rum. Without a doubt, they never dried out.  Following the fruitcakes came delicate butter cookies that have a nostalgic variation in nearly every culture. Impossible to make too many, their baking aroma would grace the house many times before the holidays were ended.

Creating ravioli took the longest, most involved preparation. So with access to a freezer, my mother and her sister Bianca (with some helpful assistance from my sister and me) made enough to last through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and sometimes even Easter.

Gemma Lombardi
1932 Butte High School
The week long effort began with roasting pork and chickens blanketed by tomato paste that absorbed the caramelized juices, flavoring important pots of sugo, the Italian red sauce destined to be ladled over steaming ravs.

Next came a long day of grinding meat with a cast iron hand crank anchored to a thick oak table.  As an adult, I bought one these grinders in a thrift store and was awestruck by the physical stamina it took to use it.

Blending the mix of meats with eggs, spinach and spices began the filling phase of production.  We often paused at this point to sample the filling in the form of a purpette, a flour dusted meat pancake browned in olive oil and butter.  On my first trip to Italy, I was served one of these familiar purpette, advertised as an American hamburger. But I knew the truth!

The Finale, rolling tablecloth size sheets of pasta and assembling hundreds of ravioli, also took place over at least two days.  My sister and I had our biggest role to play at this stage, handling the critical (yes,critical!) task of crimping closed each ravioli around the edges with a fork. When these edges held as the raviolis cooked in a boiling stockpot, my sister and I knew that our work was well done and we were congratulated for it.

Being the delicacy that everyone anticipated, the ravioli arrival at the table marked the official beginning of the feast. They were scooped from their roiling bath with slotted spoons, carefully arranged on large heirloom serving platters, then covered in rich red sugo and topped with fresh Parmesan enhanced by a touch of Nutmeg. These laden platters were positioned conveniently at each end of our long dining room table. Then, "Mangia," my mother would say. "Let's eat!"

There were no culinary egos at the table. Eating this food was an act of gratitude, savored like a sacrament that, for me, had more spiritual meaning than any derived from a religious service.

So it is fitting that later in my life, while searching for a way to combine my interests and beliefs in a worthwhile occupation, I discovered a gift in these early rituals that feeds both the body and the soul, perhaps the only kind of nourishment that can ever be completely satisfying.

Grazie, Gemma!