Most of what I know about life, love and food I learned from my Italian grandmother, who was born on Dec. 4, 1918, and died on Nov. 24, 2015, at the age of 97.

Angela J. Principe worked for 35 years at the same factory building that was later transformed into an assisted-living facility where she lived in old age, but it is in her kitchen on Maple Lane in Bristol, Rhode Island, that I will always remember her.

In Gram’s kitchen, I learned valuable lessons never taught to me in college or law school and skills you don’t learn on the job as attorney, lawmaker or writer.

My mother’s parents didn’t have much money, but holidays at their very small two-bedroom home burst with people and were rich with sustenance. Seven of us stayed overnight, and four or five more relatives dropped by every day for several days, but never was a restaurant meal or hotel a consideration, even though my father could have afforded it. Feeding us all day and then making up clean beds for us at night must have been incredibly hard work, but my grandmother seemed to do it with joy. She laughed, pinched my cheeks and showered me with praise while I watched her cut, chop, stir and mix.

It was a labor of love, and what I learned from my grandmother is that food is about family, and family is everything.

On the Fourth of July at my grandmother’s house we feasted on clambakes, picked crabs and ate corn on the cob outside on picnic tables after watching the parade and before eating ice cream cones and twirling sparklers outside. Christmas meant homemade ravioli or gnocchi with meatballs, braciole, salads, tangerines, mixed nuts, Italian cookies, ricotta cake, ribbon candy and more. Spaghetti aioli was cooked in a large skillet, al dente, of course, with grated parmesan cheese and served late in the evening after the Thanksgiving turkey was put away.

What I learned is that food is tradition and traditions help identify and express us.

Together my grandparents lovingly tended a huge vegetable garden without pesticides or chemicals, and my grandmother made use of everything my grandfather brought home: rabbits, quahogs, eels, wild mushrooms, berries, even dandelions. They didn’t ever need to go back to the land because they never left it. Wine was in big jugs, soup in large pots and whole fish rested in the kitchen sink. What I learned was that food is about values. We are what we eat.

My grandmother often said: “Having red sauce in the refrigerator is like having money in the bank.” The possibilities of both are limitless, the smell a comfort.

“Don’t be afraid to cook,” she would say. If you start with a puddle of olive oil, lots of fresh garlic and crushed red pepper, you can’t go wrong.

What I learned is that food is security and cooking is an adventure.

“Everything in moderation” is what she said to me about food, and that adage is what I say to my kids about everything. Gram taught me that olive oil is not fattening and cheese is best served with every meal. The ideal time for black coffee? Whenever it’s freshly brewed and available.

When most of America was running away from “carbs” and replacing fat with chemicals, hearty bread with provolone were my friends, and pasta a staple thanks to what she taught me. Chicken nestled cozily under blankets of sauce and melted mozzarella feeds the soul and the stomach, Gram said. Have sympathy for people who eat dinner out of a frozen box.

What I learned is that real food is good, just like real people.

Nobody was ever forced to eat anything they didn’t want to in my grandmother’s kitchen, and nobody left hungry. You don’t like sauce on your pasta? How about butter and grated cheese? “Don’t judge people,” she’d say to us. “Don’t hold a grudge,” she said and I try not to. What I learned is that food can be about forgiveness.

My grandmother never had a formal education and died without money or property to give away, but what I got are sound principles and values that help me chart a healthy life.

Sad? Go outside and get some exercise and fresh air. Not feeling well? Make homemade chicken soup and eat it.

Stay away from doctors. Don’t take pills. Wash your hands. Listen to music. Look sharp. Call your mother. Praise God.

A highlight of my grandmother’s working life was meeting then-Sen. Ted Kennedy and Cesar Chavez when she traveled to AFL-CIO meetings as executive secretary of the rubber workers’ union. She worked hard to improve the health and pension benefits of her coworkers at the factory.

Some might say my grandmother was a liberal and some might say she was conservative. All I know is that some of my happiest times as a child were spent on the immaculate linoleum floor under the counter in my grandmother’s kitchen while she steadily toiled for hours preparing dish after dish of warmth, tenderness and compassion.

What I learned is that food is love and love is food. And for that I am deeply grateful.

Cynthia Dill is a civil rights lawyer and former state senator. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: dillesquire

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