Monday, April 2, 2012

Connie Lee Ronk Panebianco

If the creation of good food is love, Connie Panebianco shared love often and with an enjoyment in the process as well as the result. Connie is Katie’s mom. She stayed with us in Nashville for a year after being diagnosed with breast cancer. During her radiation and chemotherapy treatments she cooked wonderful dishes nearly every night. At first it was disconcerting- shouldn’t we be the ones cooking for her? But we quickly came to realize that cooking was therapy for Connie. She spent her time in the chemo clinic writing up a list of what she was going to buy, and then swung by Harris Teeter to pick up ingredients on the way home. Cancer brought on an understandable fear and dread. Cooking was her way of keeping her sanity.

The remarkable thing was that throughout it all she never lost her incredible ability to put excellent food on the table- inventive, perfectly seasoned dishes every night. That was perhaps the weirdest part of all. During that entire year of cooking, there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. Not an off night, not a menu failure, not one. Now granted, she was primarily cooking comfort food and certainly not testing her training or abilities. Still, that’s a remarkable stretch for any cook. The real blessing was that throughout most of the treatments she kept her appetite, although she would find that certain foods tasted better than others, and during the worst of it she couldn’t eat much at all.

Connie grew up in a family that embraced the love of food. Her parents, Bobbie and Glenn traveled the world, later in life, visiting Michelin rated restaurants. However, it was when the family connected, usually at Bobbie and Glenn’s house, where the ladies, Bobbie, Connie and Katie, would gather in the kitchen and bond with cooking. Bobbie had her favorites, which she executed perfectly every time. It was Connie who usually tried to push the menu in new directions.

Connie took that lifelong love of cooking and went professional later in life, after raising two kids, working many different jobs and enjoying another passion, horse jumping and showing. She went to school at the French Culinary Institute in New York, with financial help from Bobbie and Glenn, to turn raw talent into focused skill. By her own admission, as an older student, and someone with only modest experience in the restaurant world, the program kicked her butt and yet she persevered and graduated. She went on to start the chef career ladder with restaurants in Connecticut, before buying her own place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Prospect Café was one of those cozy little breakfast and lunch diners. It had been around for years, but Connie brought the place new life and earned not only the respect of regulars, but her own loyal fans as well. There were more stops in kitchens big and small, before she finally wound up at the Balducci’s gourmet food store in Westport, Connecticut. I can’t tell you how well we ate when she came to visit us in Nashville. She would load the car up with stuff bought with her Balducci’s discount, and usually a stop at an Italian market or two besides. Those East Coast care packages meant a lot in the days before authentic Italian ingredients finally came to Nashville.

You probably know where this is headed. Connie battled cancer the first time, including surgery. She had about five good years before it reappeared. She continued to battle until just a couple of weeks ago. Last week, she died at a Hospice unit in Waterbury, Connecticut with Katie and her brother Mike at her side. She was a good woman, a talented chef and a true food lover. Connie will be greatly missed.

Luckily for me, Katie inherited that gift in the kitchen, so the legacy of good food will continue in our house.

Our friends have asked about a memorial for her. Katie thought that a gift to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation program in Kentucky would be best. They find homes for retired race horses…the ones that didn’t bring in the big bucks and are often discarded without care. Connie loved horses and we’ll think of her every time our big beasts run across the front pasture.


Anonymous said...

Katie and Eric,
It’s so hard losing our Mom isn’t it? It does leave a huge void in your life.
I was sorry to learn of Connie’s passing. I so enjoyed meeting her and especially tasting her delicious cooking.
Katie, so nice you inherited your Mom’s talent in the kitchen and her love of animals.
I’m lucky to have you both as neighbors to experience both of your Mom’s loves.
Eric, you wrote a wonderful tribute to Connie.
My deepest sympathy to you both.

ceeelcee said...

Thanks for sharing this story, E & K. And for sharing all your stories.

I'm sure your many fans, including me, will be thinking of you.

Anonymous said...

"Di accettare le nostre più sentite condoglianze"

mike and valerie

Eric and Katie said...

Thanks folks...we're looking forward to getting back to food blogging soon.

Lannae said...

What a nice blog post about Connie. My best thoughts go out to you.

Lesley said...

I'm so very sorry to hear about your loss. Thank you for sharing this story, though.