Joan Leotta is a poet, performer and writer of both fiction and non-fiction books. As a long-time resident of Washington D.C. suburbs, she authored various historical books including a history of Massachusetts (Scholastic) and a guide to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia (Norton). After moving to North Carolina, she developed a new fiction series titled “Legacy of Honor”. The short story “Who is Bringing the Ravioli?” by this author is a delightful cozy mystery.
Ravioli for Thanksgiving. If you mentally added a question mark at the end of that string of words, you did not grow up Italian-American. (Or at least not as ethnic-centric as my family.) Oh, we serve the entire American staple spread—turkey, stuffing, corn, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. It’s that plus our own delectable additions— a plate of antipasto delicacies, ravioli, artichokes on the side, and Italian cookies and pastries on trays alongside that pumpkin pie. (Hey, if the pilgrims had been Italian….)
This year, our family matriarch, Nonna (Grandma to you), died while on a January after-the-holidays cruise to the Western Caribbean. After the initial shock of a telegram announcing she fell overboard, my mother, aunts, uncles and we cousins gathered at a Memorial Service and then again at the reading of her will. That reading provided a set of secondary tremors. Nonna’s funds were much larger than expected and her bequests to family, much smaller. Most of her hitherto unknown fortune (Nonna evidently was quite the little investment savant.) went to Kitty Kare Korner, a private cat shelter run by new friend, the woman who had gone on the cruise with her. The house went to my Mom, who already lived with Nonna, with the proviso that when Mom no longer needed to live there, (if a new husband or if Death himself escorted her away), it would also go to Kitty Kare.
Each of the other relatives received one personal item. My aunts received jewelry. My cousins got books or jewelry or a piece of furniture. I received a box labeled, “Recipes”. A year ago, Nonna promised me that there would be a gift coming for my birthday in late January to help me pay off my college loans. But she died suddenly in early January, before making the gift. So, all I received was the box of recipes, single keepsake like all the other cousins. No matter. My relationship with Nonna was a bit different from that of the other cousins. Her home was my shelter. When my father died, my mother and I moved in with her. She was a second Mom as well as a Nonna to me. I sat with Nonna while she created her daily masterpieces, she listened to my daily litany of school joys and despairs. When I graduated from college and moved to my own place, Nonna promised to keep my room, “just in case” I wanted to spend a night or even move back. After Nonna died, I did move back to keep my Mom company and save money on rent so I could make a bigger inroad on paying off the loans. I was pleased to be made the keeper of Nonna’s culinary legacy and promised my aunts and cousins I would share the knowledge.
We were all very surprised over the Kitty Kare bequest mostly because Nonna had only befriended Nina Marie Cullen, owner, founder , ringmaster of Kitty Kare, the summer preceding last Thanksgiving. Nina Marie had quickly taken over almost all of Nonna’s free time and the driving to take her to doctor’s appointments, grocery, hairdresser etc. Mom, at first, was actually bit relieved about the driving—at first. Then Nonna adopted Frankie, the cat. Apparently, just weeks after adopting Frankie, Nonna remade her will in favor of Kitty Kare.
Frankie sent Mom’s allergies into sneezing wheezing action from day one. Fortunately, as long as Mom kept her bedroom door shut the allergy remained minor and Mom was able to continue to live with Nonna. So as soon as Nonna died, Mom sent Frankie back to Kitty Kare. It was not the little cat’s fault, but Mom’s overall health improved after he departed.
Nonna had invited Nina Marie to share our family Thanksgiving celebration last year. So, this year, at our first holiday planning meeting, partly because Nonna had wanted her to be part of the family, and mostly because she was thankful Nina Marie had taken back the cat, my Mom said we should invite her again to share our Thanksgiving. Mom’s siblings and all of my cousins—and me objected loudly. Mom, though, as oldest daughter, had the final vote. Nina Marie, or Catwoman, as we cousins called her, was invited.
“Tell Catwoman not to bother to bring anything,” my cousin Betta, advised at our final October family pow-wow over the Thanksgiving dinner plan. A short discussion of last year’s vile-tasting cran-apple pie ensued. Turns out , all five of us who had taken a taste of that pie had gotten ill that night. Fortunately, no one had finished an entire the piece. We were all skilled at employing the “hide-it-under-a-napkin-and-get-up-to-help-clear-the-table strategy.”
This was the first time we realized all of us had suffered stomach issues from the pie. Nonna was sick longer than I was, but we both fully recovered by Christmas (sadly or not so sadly, Nina Marie had turned down Christmas with us). No one was surprised that Nina Marie’s crazy creation had made us ill. As I recall, her pie even looked awful.
“I won’t insult her that way,” my sainted Mother replied to those who wanted to bar food offerings from Nina Marie. Easy for Mom to say, she always only ate cannoli for dessert.
At this same pow-wow, my cousins and I decided we were going to prepare the feast, at Nonna and Mom’s house, to give the older generation a break. Gina was put in charge of desserts—pumpkin pie, cannoli, and cookies.. Maria would make potatoes and prepare the antipasto platter. Gianfranco was going to grill our bird outside and his wife was going to make Nonna’s sausage dressing. Betta said she would apply herself to the other veggies and Nonna’s special cranberry sauce. That left the ravioli to me. I promised I would send each of them a copy of Nonna’s recipe for their special item.
As I went upstairs to my room, Betta called out, “We all want the ravioli recipe too,”
You might think that a ravioli recipe would not be such a big deal. Pasta, ricotta, herbs—how what secrets could there be? However, Nonna made plate-sized ravioli and there was a definite trick to making them that big and helping them stay together during cooking. In the intervening months between Nonna’s death and the day of our meeting, I had not opened the box. It was under my bed. I peeked into the box when the lawyer handed it to me, but did not sort through it. the sight of recipes, in her own precious handwriting was too much me then. Too much emotion. I still clearly remembered watching her prepare the items.
So, now I opened the recipe box for the first time. The box held an untidy collection of recipe cards, magazine clippings, and notes on various sizes of paper. Fortunately, the pieces with Thanksgiving and Christmas recipes were near the top—these were the last ones Nonna had used. I quickly located the pie recipe. Then I found her famous sausage stuffing/dressing. A little more digging and the cranberry sauce card was in my hand. I chuckled . It was the recipe from the Ocean Spray bag of fresh cranberries. Nonna had pasted it to a card and made a little note on the back. “Don’t let them know how easy this one is.” I couldn’t find the drawings for her famous antipasto platter or the ravioli recipe.
I took the cards I had found have back downstairs. My cousins and I laughed over the cranberry recipe.”That was Nonna!” Betta chuckled.
Later that evening, after they all went home, I took to search the box again for the ravioli recipe and the diagram of the antipasto platter that Nonna made every holiday. I began to worry that Nonna did not use a recipe to recreate either. Especially I worried about the ravioli. After all, this was not an American recipe she had adapted. Her hands knew, from years of experience, how to roll and cut the dough. She did not really need a recipe for this specialty, her signature dish she had been recreating for more than fifty years. But, I reasoned, there must be hints for the filing and how to cook those dough and ricotta behemoths without them breaking apart. She must have known she would need to leave a clue for us, her children and grandchildren. Well, at least that was my hope. I rummaged carefully though the mostly adapted American recipes on cards and papers until at last I discovered to a small brown leather book, the size of an address book at the bottom of the box, paper-clipped to a stack of recipes. (Which is how it escaped my notice at first.)
On the first inside page, she had written “Ricette” (recipes) in a neat schoolgirl script. On the next page I found “stuffed peppers”—not a full recipe, just little hints like, “make sure the beef is fresh”, “use bits of sautéed red pepper in the ground meat.” Personal hints from her years of work that made her version of this staple stand out from the ordinary.
I smiled as I turned the pages. “Ravioli, ravioli, I am on your trail!” I muttered to myself.
At last, in the middle of the book, the sacred giant ravioli appeared along with a drawing that showed her special crimping style for getting the dough to join up. And there were her scribbled notes on cooking—her secrets to keep the delicate giant ravioli from braking up in the turbulent boiling water.
I nodded in agreement with her notes as I read, recalling how they dovetailed with the steps I had observed when I watched her make them. Now, seeing the directions in her own handwriting, I felt confident I could repeat the feat. So, giant ravioli would remain on the family menu. I felt proud to have been designated as the keeper of Nonna’s culinary traditions. I decided I would copy all the recipes and hints into a booklet for my cousins. Hmmm. Maybe not the ravioli. Perhaps, I would be the keeper of that secret and will it to one of them someday.
Riding a wave of nostalgia, I turned more pages. The design for her gorgeous antipasto platter appeared—I resolved to send that to my cousins right away. Another page or so and well, the booklet changed. It became a diary of sorts. Not daily notes—more of a recording of major events in her life. Her thoughts on widowhood came first dated right after Grandpa died. The next entry recounted how glad she was when Mom and I moved in with her. There was a note on how happy she was that I liked sitting with her in the kitchen. A few entries on other family members followed and then no entries until the appearance of Catwoman.
Nonna wrote in glowing terms about her new friend Nina Maria and then about the adoption of Frankie, the cat, her first pet. She dutifully copied into the book, Nina Marie’s advice on caring for Frankie the cat. Nonna had also made a few notes on how to keep Mom’s cat allergy at bay. Then she gushed about how much she appreciated Nina Marie inviting her on the cruise. I stopped reading.
Nonna as a person separate from the family? Wow. Hard for me to imagine, but at the same time, I was glad Nina Marie had brought her some happiness. I put the book aside in the top drawer of my nightstand, suddenly feeling guilty that I had read so many private diary thoughts. I closed the box of recipes and shoved it back under my bed.
Nina Marie arrived early on Thanksgiving, before anyone except Gianfranco who was in the back yard wrestling with the turkey at the grill. Nina Maria was dressed in funereal black and in possession of two pies and a cat carrier.
We quickly reminded her that my mother was allergic and that Frankie would have to stay in his carrier in another room. She huffed and puffed a bit but let me put Frankie (in his carrier) in the far corner of the living room. He did not seem to mind being away from the heat and bustle of the dining room and kitchen. I whispered to him, “I know it’s not your fault, Frankie. But Mom really can’t be around you. She should have left you with your friends at Kitty Kare. Plus, little fellow, you have gray-green eyes like Nina Marie’s which makes you seem a bit creepy.”
I walked back into the dining room just in time to see Nina Marie, who was dressed all in black, lay down her two pies on the dessert table. I watched her shove my cousin’s pie to the back of the table and give her pumpkin pie pride of place next to that same vile cran-apple creation from the previous year. My cousin had brought her pie and the other pastries over the day before since she was picking up an out-of-town married cousin, Ariana, who was flying in with husband and five-year old in tow.
Nina Marie stepped into the kitchen where I was finishing up the crimping on the ravioli.
“Really, so many carbs on your table. I don’t know why you serve ravioli.” Nina Marie was a thin wirey woman who looked like she had never tasted a second helping. I, and the rest of my cousins, were padded with years of recreational munching and long evenings over the dinner table.
Fortunately, the entire rest of the crew, including Ariana and her husband and son (both named Pepe) chose that moment to arrive. In a minute we were our usual joking laughing conglomerations of loudmouths all ignoring the superior glares of Nina Marie who glared at us as if our laughter and fond memories were insults to Nonna, as if only her black garb and morbid demeanor indicated missing our loved one. Polite is one thing, but this woman was on my nerves. (For all of us I think.) Her exaggerated sighs and silence at our holiday table threatened to dampen spirits, but my cousins carried on our usual loud conversation which we all knew would probably include a friendly argument or two before the day ended. Nina Marie obviously thought silence was a proper memorial to our Nonna. We chose the loud, loving stories and laughter approach.
We quieted down after we prayed and served the antipasto. Then I plunked down a giant ravioli on each person’s plate.
All of the cousins and even my aunts and uncles complemented me on the ravioli: “Just like Nonna’s! You can make them every year,” Mom pronounced. Betta reminded me that even if I was designated to be the holiday ravioli maker, she did want to know the secret of how to get them out of the boiling water in one piece and have a copy of the recipe for her own file. I just smiled.
After we cleared the table, while the coffee was perking and people were catching up on football scores in the living room ( all except Mom, who stayed in the kitchen to avoid the cat), I tapped Betta on the shoulder and in spite of myself took her up to show her the ravioli secrets in Grandma’s own hand. Little Pepe was enchanted with Frankie the cat, playing with the little creature and threatening to unlock the cage.
Betta and I slipped upstairs to my room. The recipe book was right where I had left it, in my nightstand drawer. I pulled it out, but as we went to sit on the bed, I noticed that the dust ruffle on my bed was pushed up and a corner of the recipe box was sticking out. I set the book down, pulled out the box, and lifted the lid.
The recipes had been pushed about, not left in the same loving order in which I had laid them the night of our last planning meeting.
“Betta, someone has been in here looking for something.”
Betta chuckled. “I guess that ravioli recipe is more valuable than we thought.”
“But who would know to look for it under my bed?”
“Well, who knew you kept the box under the bed?”
“Actually, Nonna kept it here after I moved out—convenient, out of the way, saved her own under-bed space for shoes— so anyone who may have gone up to fetch it for her would know. After I moved back in, I just left it there. And, I think anyone who was at the reading of the will knew because the location was read aloud at the reading of the will, to help me find it. Like the note her favorite garnet ring, the one she gave your Mom, was taped behind the framed family photo in the living room.
Betta frowned. “That means Nina Marie knows too.”
“But why would she want the ravioli directions or any other recipe? She’s a horrible cook. And why wouldn’t anyone else just ask me, like you did? Rationally, I know that with all the chaos of getting the meal on the table, anyone could have slipped up here. But I cannot imagine who would.”
Before we could speculate further, an anguished cry of alarm pierced our ears from downstairs. I pushed the book under my pillow and Betta and I ran downstairs. “Help!”
Little Pepe was screaming and crying. He was standing in front of the cat carrier, door open, looking down on a very still, maybe even dead, Frankie the cat. A piece of pumpkin pie lay in front of the cat, half eaten.
“Who gave that cat pie?” I asked. Then I turned around. Nina Marie was pale and shaking. She had her cell phone out and was punching in a number. I guessed she had a vet on speed dial.
Little Pepe started to wail louder. “I just wanted kitty to have some Thanksgiving Pie. I love pie so I took a piece for him. I felt sorry for him having to stay in a cage.”
Ariana and Big Pepe swept the little boy up into their arms murmuring words of consolation and admonitions not to feed an animal anything without asking the owner first. They took him off to wash his hands and away from the sight of the poor little animal. Nina Marie scooped up the cat and ran to her car with him.
After a few minutes, the rest of us went back into the dining room. Everyone felt bad about the cat. I brought out the coffee and reminded everyone that it was time for dessert. Now that Nina Marie was gone, I moved her pies, the cran-apple and the pumpkin pie with a hand-shaped piece out of it, to the kitchen to return clean out and return the empty plates to her in a few days. After last year, no one wanted to eat her food. I promised little Pepe we would call in a few hours to find out how Frankie was doing.
The rest of the evening was quiet. After everyone had gone home, Mom and I cleaned up the area around Frankie’s carrier. We scooped up the leftover bit of pie. I felt guilty about not caring more about Frankie’s fate. In spite of my promise, I could not find a number for a vet in Nonna’s list of emergency numbers by the phone. Then I remembered the cat care notes.
“Mom, maybe Nonna wrote a vet’s number in her recipe book. She sort of made it into a diary and had cat care notes in it too. If I find it, I’ll call and see if that is where she took Frankie and ask how the little cat is doing. Then I can call Pepe and tell him too.”
“Good idea,” Mom agreed. “I was just thinking about both little fella. After all, it’s not the cat’s fault I’m allergic. Or that he was brought here today. And little Pepe is so upset.”
I ran upstairs and pulled the book out from under my pillow. I flipped through looking for those suggestions on cat care. Aha! A phone number. I stood up to get my cell phone and the book fell off of my lap. I picked it up. The book had opened to a different page when it fell. I was about to try to turn back to the vet number when the words on the new page penetrated my tryptophan wearied brain—”New Will and Testament.” There, in the back of the book, written on the day after New Year, was a new will in Grandma’s own hand. I called my mother upstairs and we read it together.
It seems that Nonna had gone to visit her friend Nina Marie to see how she was doing since she had told Nonna she was ill over Christmas, which was why she had said she could not join us.
Nonna described finding books on poisons and several sick cats at Kitty Kare. Her “new will” notes described how she felt uncomfortable with her previous decision to leave her fortune to Kitty Kare and now wanted to leave most everything to her family instead, with a small bequest to the cat home for future care of Frankie, since she knew my Mom could not care for him. In her usual practical manner, Nonna noted that she would go on the paid-for cruise, but when she came back she would make an appointment with her lawyer to formalize her intentions, and begin to separate from Nina Marie. There was a note to Mom to please see to it that if Frankie did outlive her to investigate Kitty Kare and further authorizing Mom to find a different home for Frankie if she (Mom) did not like the conditions at Kitty Kare. The last entry in the book read, “I don’t think I can be friends with Nina Marie any more. I do not think she is an honest person or that she even really likes cats.”
“Mom, she was suspicious of Nina Marie!”
I flipped back to the page with the vet phone number and called. Sure enough Frankie was there and was recovering. I called our cousins and reassured the still-upset little one. The next day, I called Nonna’s lawyer. “Did she mention anything to you about wanting to revise her will? We found a new will in her own handwriting in a book—dated just before she went on that cruise.”
The lawyer asked us to bring it in on the following Monday. We did. He told us that in our state, an orthographic (hand written) will was legal, even un-witnessed. Kitty Kare would have to return ownership of Nonna’s investments. He told us not to worry; he would handle everything. We left him with the book (I photocopied all of the recipes and the will, first).
On the way home from the lawyer’s office, I said to Mom, “Mom, you don’t think that Nina Marie did something to Nonna, do you? On that cruise?”
“You have an overactive imagination.”
When we got home, we saw Nina Marie’s car in our driveway. We pulled up by the sidewalk. As we walked to the front door, she got out and ran toward us. “You cat haters! You almost killed my Frankie! Now give me back my cat carrier and the pies.”
Mom did not answer. She unlocked the door and Nina Marie pushed past us and ran into the living room where the carrier remained, door still open. She grabbed it and dashed into the kitchen where she began to run water through it. Why was she washing it in our kitchen sink? What was the rush?
Suddenly, I cried out, “Mom, Call the police!” I ran over and pulled the cat carrier out of Nina’s hands. Her gray-green eyes were blazing yellow with a mix of hatred and was that fear?
She grabbed for the carrier but I held tight and used it to push her away from me. She stumbled backwards, hit her head on the stove and fell. “I’m going to sue you! I’m going to bring assault charges against you and theft, trying to steal my cat carrier!”
I don’t know what came over me. I shouted back. “This is the carrier my Nonna bought for Frankie. It belongs to the house, so it’s my Mom’s!” Right or wrong, I was not giving up that plastic and wire cage thing. I did not know why Nina Marie wanted it, but because it was so important to her, given what we had learned about her in Nonna’s notebook and what I already suspected, she was NOT getting it back.
Mom had 911 and the cops arrived quickly. They escorted Nina Marie out of the house without her cat carrier, but in possession of her empty plates. After she was gone, Mom and I wondered aloud to each other about why Nina Marie needed to wash out the carrier before she even left Mom’s house. Whatever had been in the carrier was now washed away. The penchant for cleaning reminded me that we had neglected to vacuum the living room after Thanksgiving. The two of us never went in there. We watched television together in the small upstairs sitting room we had made from Nonna’s old bedroom. I pulled out the Bissell and walked back in. There, where the carrier had been was a bit of still gooey pie and some cat vomit. Using my best TV-inspired CSI technique, I took a photo of the disgusting stuff and then scraped some of it into a plastic bag. I called up Gianfranco who was a pharmacist and asked him if he knew anyone who could analyze it for us. He suggested his chemist friend who also moonlighted for the local police when their tasting facilities were overwhelmed.
The analysis showed strychnine in the pie and in the vomit. Frankie was indeed lucky, and so were we. If little Pepe had not fed the pie to the cat, most of us would have politely eaten a piece of one or the other of Nina Marie’s pies and likely would have gotten very ill or worse. My theory was that Nina Marie hoped that by bringing Frankie, my Mom’s allergies would be stirred up and her immune system suppressed just enough to make her dose of the poison a fatal one. She hoped Death would remove my Mom as barrier to the house .becoming Kitty Kare property Of course, Nina Marie did not realize my Mom would have never even eaten the pie. She sticks to cannoli at each and every family occasion.
I still suspected that Nina Marie knew about Nonna’s orthographic will, had been the one looking for it, and had pushed Nonna overboard, but there was no proof. Our lawyer petitioned the court about the new will and we did recover most of the money.
Nina Marie had splurged some on a renovation for Kitty Kare with about fifty thousand, before we could take recover any money. Mom was now safely sole owner of the house, free to leave it to whomever she wished. Custody of Frankie was still in discussion when we got word that Nina Marie had died! We learned she was the victim of an accident. As she stepped onto the stairs to her cement-floored basement, Frankie the cat had run in front of her and tripped her. She had fallen to that unforgiving floor, hit her head, and died. We decided Frankie should go to little Pepe who swore never to feed him people food again and who was overjoyed by the idea of having such a wonderful pet. When we went to recover Frankie from Kitty Kare Korner, Animal Rescue folks were there shaking their heads over finding several sick cats in the basement and books on poison. Evidently, Nina Marie had used some of her cats to test the effects of various poisons, arsenic, strychnine and rodenticides. I picked up Frankie and looked at him more closely than I had ever done before, right into his eyes. It seems, we had been wrong before. Frankie’s eyes were not at all gray-green like Nina Marie’s. Actually, this cat’s eyes were hazel brown, more like Nonna’s.