Elena Iacono has turned her nonna’s recipes into a collection of homemade Italian dishes for a cookbook, with proceeds going to support Food Banks Canada. In the first four weeks since the book — My Nonna Ma’s Kitchen — was released, it had already raised more than $34,000 for food banks. Iacono prepares one of her nonna’s dishes. Photo by Sal D’Angelo

Nonna’s example and recipes aid hungry

By 
  • October 30, 2020

A new cookbook inspired by the memories of a grandmother’s love, courage and faith is helping to feed hungry Canadians one dish at a time.

Elena Iacono lost her Italian nonna (grandmother) in April of this year and was unable to hold a funeral due to COVID-19 restrictions. She found recreating her nonna’s recipes to be a cathartic way for her to process her grief. Those recipes turned into My Nonna Ma’s Kitchen: A collection of homemade Italian recipes, which in less than four weeks has raised more than $34,000 for Food Banks Canada.

“I cried and it was so therapeutic,” said Iacono, recalling what it was like to recreate the dishes from memory.

“I was using her pasta machine and her ravioli knife, and it just helped me realize that those memories were so special. Not everyone gets to grow up with their grandparents and it just gave me this chance to really honour her.”

Iacono’s nonna, Maria Dicembre Canci, was born in April 1934 in Vasto, Abruzzo, Italy, and emigrated to Canada by herself at age 21 in search of a better life. As she journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean, in her heart she carried her Catholic faith and the cooking traditions of her little Italian town, which Iacono has captured in her cookbook.

The eldest daughter of 10 siblings, Maria lived next door to a boy, just three years older than her, Giovanni Canci, who would one day become her husband. As children growing up during the Second World War, they witnessed immeasurable suffering and Maria lost three young sisters due to famine.

“My parents lived in the countryside and whatever little there was of food, the Nazis took it all,” said Iacono’s mother Marisa, choking back tears. “They grew up together basically. My mother immigrated to Canada in the dead of winter in February 1956 and my father followed in November.”

The couple, who were married by proxy before Giovanni arrived, settled in Ottawa where they raised their two children, Marisa and her younger brother Nick. There the family spent lots of time cultivating the garden in their backyard where they grew all kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs used in Maria’s recipes.

In the spirit of her grandmother, who because of her Italian upbringing and experiences during the war possessed a passion for feeding others, Iacono chose to donate 100-per-cent of the proceeds from the book to help those in need at this critical time. In partnership with Food Banks Canada, with its network of 650 food banks across the nation, money raised from the book will be able to provide over 100,000 meals.

“She always instilled in us those Catholic values,” said Iacono. “As a kid I remember she had this saying in Italian, she would always tell me, ‘una buona Cristiana,’ that translates to ‘be a good Christian.’ It means if you’re privileged enough to have a good life, you better help other people and do it with your whole heart. This book is literally her words in action.”

When Marisa’s father passed away in 2013, they were able to have a full Catholic service for him and it broke her heart not to be able to do the same for her mother this past April. She was completely surprised by her daughters’ book and says being able to witness the wonderful love Iacono had for her nonna has helped her to process her own grief.

“I hope to have a memorial for her so we can properly mourn her and have a full service,” said Marisa. “I don’t know when but it’s to be determined. She always said (pursue) God’s will in everything we do, and we will be graced with His blessings. I’m sure she’s happy with everything we’ve done for her.”

The family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love they have received from their community and from complete strangers. As the world continues to grapple with a pandemic Iacono hopes the book will continue to feed others with the love of God and the spirit of overcoming that defined her grandmother’s life.

“People are suffering through this pandemic and I just can’t take it anymore, I don’t think anybody can,” said Iacono, who resides with her husband in Oakville where she works as part of the TELUS well-being and mental health team. “I just wanted to do a bit of good. This was about maintaining my grandmother’s legacy in this country. She loved so much and loved the idea of cooking for a family. Now let’s take that love and help others in need, get access to nutritious wholesome meals.”

For a copy of the cookbook and to support the initiative, visit elenaiacono.com.

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