Ernestine Digest (née Gabbi) was a tall 5’10” blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman born in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, to Italian immigrant parents, shortly after the big earthquake in April of 1906.
One of my earliest and certainly my most unusual memory of my maternal grandmother was the two of us running out of the back door of her house in Fairfax with me literally hanging onto her apron strings, racing to the front of her house. When we reached the front of the house, she lifted the shotgun in her hand and shot at a tree across the street. Then, together we ran back around to reenter the house through the back door. As I recall, this was repeated about three times while I asked my Noni what she was doing.
I do not remember her reply or what happened after the shootings; and I don’t attach any trauma to this memory, only confusion. Years later, long after both my Noni and Nono had passed away, I shared this memory with my mother and asked her if she could shed some light on it for me. She knew right away what her mother was up to that day as apparently my Noni had a history of such “criminal” activity. What was she doing? Shooting at a flock of robins in the tree across the street.
Robins apparently cook up much like a bird my great grandmother enjoyed eating in Italy. She passed the love of this dish onto my Noni, who had no qualms with procuring this delicacy herself. An experienced huntress, my Noni knew that it was illegal to shoot a gun within the city limits and had had the sheriff at her door more than once for this very reason. I do not recall ever eating the robins but imagine that the dish must have been a sentimental one that reminded her of her mother.
The dish I most associate with memories of my Noni is her spaghetti sauce, which included dried porcini mushrooms that she foraged herself in the hills of west Marin. Apparently she was ahead of her time. I would like to share her recipe with our readers in hopes of sharing the kind of comfort and love it always brings me.
3 large yellow onions, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 head of garlic, chopped
2 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. butter
1lb. ground beef
1lb. ground pork
1lb. ground veal
1 handful of dried Italian porcini mushrooms
1 cup red wine
8-14 oz. canned, good-quality tomato sauce
3 beef bouillon cubes
1 handful of chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 handful chopped fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano
Salt, freshly ground pepper and red pepper flakes to taste
Place mushrooms in a heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water and allow cooling. Meanwhile, in a large stock-pot, sauté onions, celery and carrots in olive oil and butter until soft. Add garlic sauté one minute. Add beef, veal and pork and sauté until cooked through breaking up clumps. Add mushrooms, their soaking liquid, herbs, wine and bouillon cubes. Stir to combine.
Add tomato sauce and 2 tbs. of butter. Bring to a boil, stir, turn down the heat and simmer on low for two hours, stirring occasionally. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste. The ingredients are enough to make a large batch. Cool then freeze for future use.