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facts & arguments

Sometimes lasagna is simply lasagna. Sometimes it's so much more, Eufemia Fantetti writes

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My father calls me every evening and asks, "Have you eaten?"

Sometimes I humour him with a cheeky reply. "Thank God you reminded me. I don't think I've touched a morsel all day."

He buys triple the produce he needs and pressures me to take the extras home. After a meal where I've already stuffed my face with two, possibly three servings of green beans, garlic potatoes and chicken, he suggests a slice of Swiss cheese. Or a piece of cantaloupe. Or a plate of roasted chestnuts. I tense up wondering why I never have a big enough appetite to suffice, to make him stop the endless offerings.

"Dad, do you honestly think it's possible I'm still hungry?"

He sighs. "How should I know?" I can almost see the thought bubble over his head: "Here we go again."

I take deep breaths and remind myself my father frequently went hungry during his childhood – he turned two only a few weeks after Mussolini aligned with Nazi Germany. His formative years were built on scarcity, poverty and survival. At six, he narrowly avoided slaughter by desperate German soldiers in retreat.

After the war, he was lucky to eat pasta fagioli (pasta with kidney beans), rapini (a bitter, leafier Italian broccoli) and on a few special occasions, rabbit or chicken.

Growing up, I gorged on rippled chips, Cheezies, licorice, Fudgsicles, Creamsicles and sour keys as frequently as I was allowed. On my birthday, we feasted on torta –a three-layer Italian sponge cake flavoured with rum syrup that also contained a layer of vanilla custard and chocolate custard and was covered in buttercream.

His diet was basic and mine was luxurious.

My father didn't starve but experienced intense lack of needed protein with barely any eggs and scarcely enough meat. He was rejected from Italy's mandatory army duty because he was underweight; a young man who was six-feet tall and 120 pounds was considered too skinny, too scrawny to serve.

At 22, dad learned a trade so he would never be out of work and would always be able to feed his family. He was trained as a butcher in Switzerland and then worked in Toronto for 46 years.

As a child, I was implored daily to eat more than I could and turning down food was considered wasteful, even when I wasn't hungry. I was weighed weekly from the time I was seven until I was 13, when I refused to participate in the ritual. My father presented the scale with flourish: a fun activity and opportunity to calm his anxiety that I wasn't getting enough nutrition for a growing kid.

Often, I hardly had room for my father's carefully prepared prosciutto. I was laid-back about the spiced Italian sausages. I would shrug my shoulders, indifferent to the barbecued filet mignon wrapped in bacon.

He took it as a personal insult when I flirted with vegetarianism in my early 20s and rebuffed his mouth-watering fare: bacon, lamb, veal and pork chops. I was casting aspersions on his ability to parent, of course.

We quarrelled: He insisted I knew nothing about suffering because I'd had a roof over my head and food on the table. He took my complaints about my less-than-idyllic childhood hard.

Who could blame him? He was trying to raise a mouthy kid and cope with a mentally ill wife at the same time. Their union was a terrible mismatch of temperament and the kitchen table became a battlefield. Our dinners were an anxious mess held either in uncomfortable silence or detonated by hostile insults.

In some families, food was love. The preparation of a meal was a labour of tenderness and appreciation, as well as an opportunity to pass on cooking skills from generation to generation. In our house, the situation was complicated by my mother's losing battle with her mental health. She scorched plenty of dishes; my father would head into the garage (even in sub-zero temperatures), light up the barbecue and sizzle steak for us to gnaw.

As a teenager, I lost my appetite for sit-down meals at a regular time and was allowed to eat on my own or in front of the television, as long as I promised to clear the contents of my plate. My stomach worked as a barometer measuring the atmospheric pressure of unhappiness in the house and I muffled hunger or binged on junk food accordingly.

Proof, I argued, that some elemental emotional sustenance went unnourished. My dad countered the essentials were taken care of, the parts that fortified strength and built muscle. I had the basics I needed to survive. The debate always came down to survival, to comparing a childhood lived in abundance with one lived under austerity.

We still dance around the issue of foodstuff. He insists I lug more red leaf lettuce and McIntosh apples across town. I honour his age-old hunger every time I quietly accept the groceries.

Last week for dinner, he prepared five salmon fillets and boiled two enormous bowls of beans and rapini for the two of us. I groaned at the portions.

"I don't think you made enough," I joked. This is blasphemous for an Italian to hear.

My father paused and scanned my face. He reached for the platter of fish and smirked, "I can always make more."

Eufemia Fantetti lives in Toronto.