My mother’s obviously Italian family has been making Pizza Rustica (in English, Rustic Pie) every Holy Week for as far back as I can remember.
Pizza Rustica: a pie made up of every Italian meat imaginable, from Prosciutto and cooked sausage to sopressata and pepperoni. Add mozzarella, pecorino romano and ricotta cheeses – with no set measurements (if it seems there is not enough cheese in the bowl, add more, obviously). Crack in a few eggs for consistency. Mix all together and pour into frozen piecrusts, cover the pies with the defrosted dough – and you have Pizza Rustica. Not bad for a family that eats healthily on days that are not Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Easter or Thanksgiving. We do try to make it on Good Friday – this way, we can insure that we will not eat the meat before it even makes it into the pie.
The recipe has changed through the years – the original calls for hard-boiled eggs, but we leave them out because my aunt Patti will not touch eggs with a 10-foot pole. Sometimes we eliminate the pepperoni to accommodate my aunt Vivian. And, of course, we cannot possibly remember the exact combinations of cheese that are put into our massive mixture. My special touches are the piecrust decorations – I take pieces of the piecrust and use them to decorate the top of the pie. I have attempted to create a dough crucifix surrounded by lilies – unfortunately, it just never turns how I envision it.
The tradition surrounding Pizza Rustica includes gathering at my grandmother’s house to make it. Depending on availability, my cousin, Gabby used to make it down days before Easter to assist. I can remember a year where my cousin, Gina, slept over after we made Pizza Rustica – we woke up on Holy Saturday and raided my grandmother’s pantry. My grandmother has had a live-in housekeeper who came to work for us shortly before my grandfather died – Christina has become family, and while she only speaks her native Spanish, she has the best stirring arm out of all of us.
There was one year where my cousin, Joe, had knee surgery on Good Friday – we made Pizza Rustica on Holy Thursday and on Good Friday, my mother and I drove to the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan where we waited with my aunt and uncle for Joe to recover – with Pizza Rustica in coolers. Once Joe came to and realized what was waiting for him, let us say the anesthesia wore off rather quickly.
While the tradition always had variables, it ultimately stayed the same from year to year – a bit similar our Holy Week ritual traditions. The roots stay the same, but the surrounding aspects need to change to accommodate the needs of all involved. Mass and Service schedules can change, the number of available altar servers always is different from year to year, and in the choir, we stick to a few different pieces of music for Holy Week but try and not have many repeats. One of my former college professors – a Franciscan Sister called Sister Diane – had a wonderful phrase to sum up Catholic ritual and tradition: Continuity and Change.
This year, we will be making Pizza Rustica on Holy Thursday, which is the first variable. The second is that this year will be the last year that we make Pizza Rustica in my grandmother’s current house – due to her advanced age, we recently sold her town house in favor of an apartment with a handicap-accessible ramp and elevator in the building. As a general rule, change and I do not mix well – I still remember the year that our parish switched from a full-size cross with one line, to small crosses with multiple lines for the Veneration. As I grow further into my twenties and as I see my grandmother’s well-being deteriorating, I hope that Christ can lead me to accept change with greater ease than I have in the past. I want to believe that at this time next year, we will all be sitting around the kitchen counter in my grandmother’s newly renovated apartment – my mother, my grandmother, Christina, myself and maybe a cousin or two – getting ready to cook sausages and not measure any cheese. At the same time, I know it will be difficult for my grandmother to try and participate this year, let alone next year.
I remember the years upon years of her active participation with remarkable fondness – a photo exists of me as an awkward teenager, with my mother and grandmother on either side of me, with the cheesy spoon hanging out of my mouth. My grandmother looks healthy and vibrant, and happy to be with the people she loves. While I know that aging is God’s will, I miss the days before she walked with a cane and could drive to our house. And though I know that the grandmother in that photograph is part of a time gone by, the good news is that Pizza Rustica -- and other Holy Week traditions– will continue to be passed down for generations. Pizza Rustica will never be part of a time gone by; it will just have elements of continuity and change.
Perhaps it is fitting that we will be making Pizza Rustica on Holy Thursday this year, as opposed to our usual Good Friday – we will have to remember to speak up when my grandmother cannot hear what ingredients we are adding to the mixture. We will have to remind her to take her pills while also remembering what time we put the pie in the oven. We will have to reassure her that even though she will no longer have her house, we will always be a part of her home. Even though we are doing the cooking, her love is still in every piece of the pie. Metaphorically, we will have to wash her feet – but what better day to be spreading caritas by helping her to feel as though she is still part of this important tradition?
There is, however, one thing that I know for sure: my grandmother would never want us to stop making Pizza Rustica on account of her inability to physically participate in its creation. The truth is that her spirit will always participate – she would never want us to use low-cal sausage, or measure out the cheese.