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There’s an eel in my bathtub

4 May

Okay, so this isn’t my bathtub. But it is a mess of eels, so let’s just start there.

Specifically, this is a pot filled with Aunt Anna’s stewed eel, the kind she often (though, sadly, not always) prepares for Christmas Eve dinner. There are tomatoes and onions and lots and lots of whole olives in Anna’s stewed eel, but the best part about it is that only a few of us at the table will eat any of it. That means more eel for, well, me.

My mother cooked eel a lot when I was a boy. The men in the neighborhood who used to go fishing in Jamaica Bay often returned home with lots of live eels in their buckets. Mom being a pretty well-known user of the species the men often offered their eels to her as gifts.

Be patient. The bathtub thing is coming up soon, I promise.

Anyway, my mother worked all day. Either she was behind the counter or in the kitchen of our fountain service store, or hunched over a Singer doing piecework for the ladies’ garment factory blocks away. Evenings were the time for coping with her live eels, not afternoons when they would always be left for her.

These were not tiny eels, by the way; often they were in the three-feet-in-length range if memory serves. Mom being the sensitive type leaving the poor live eels crammed into little five-gallon buckets all day long didn’t sit too well, and so, in the eels went to a bathtub filled with plenty of fresh water for them to swim around in.

Get the picture?

It is important to mention that this bathtub mom so generously offered as an eel pond, for entire afternoons on end, was the only bathtub in the only bathroom of the apartment that she shared with her husband and three young sons.

I do not know when my brothers were first introduced to our mother’s eel husbandry, but me? Clear as day, this memory of mine.

It was a very hot Saturday afternoon one summer and I had just gotten home from playing league baseball up in Highland Park. The walk home was around a mile, which was brutal wearing an entire baseball uniform, and so stripping down and jumping into a cool shower was all that my ten-year-old brain could wrap itself around.

Nobody was home when I arrived and so I immediately made a beeline for the bathroom. Uncle Joe had recently completed a fancy upgrade to our bathtub, two sliding glass doors to replace a simple shower rod. The glass was frosted, which I now assume was to allow for privacy (five people, one small bathroom, remember?).

I slid open the frosted-glass door and there they were: four or five very large and very alive black eels. Swimming around in the place I was supposed to be cooling and cleaning off in the dead of summer. I didn’t know what exactly they were at the time, of course; I was too busy slamming the glass door shut so that they couldn’t leap out from their pond and go all Creature Feature on me.

A cool, cleansing post-baseball shower was not in the cards for me that day, at least not until mom got home and attended to her guests.

As it happens, I missed out on many more post-ballgame showers throughout my childhood. Mom’s eels-in-the-bathtub holding strategy worked pretty well, I guess, because she never saw reason to change it.

Years later I married a woman who enjoys eating eel, especially Aunt Anna’s, as much as I do.

She did make me promise to never allow a single live eel to swim in our home. Ever.

And, so far, I have obliged.

The Easter parade

17 Apr

Judging by the size of us I’ll take a stab and peg this snap at 1959, or maybe it was ’60. Location: Almost assuredly Liberty Avenue, somewhere between Shepherd and Essex, in the East New York section of Brooklyn.

Judging by the threads that our mothers have put us into it could be only one specific day, that being Easter Sunday of course, a sunny and beautiful one it appears, though that is the only kind of Easter Sunday that I can recall there ever being. No other day could we have been dressed in this way.

This group represents fewer than half of those of us in this partcular generation of our family. The rest are somewhere close by, I assure you, as all of us lived together on the same street and in the same buildings.

Underneath the Easter bonnets are the two Ursulas, each carrying the name of our grandmother, though with the added “Big” and “Little” designations tacked on so as to not be mistaken for one another. In the interest of not embarassing one boy in particular, I’ll leave the rest of our pack unidentified (though I must admit to feeling envious of Cousin Bobo’s spiffy porkpie and pocket square).

This photo came to me by utter coincidence (I swear) only moments ago. It being Easter Sunday I’ve decided to post it here, despite having insufficient time to discuss it with you all further.

Apologies for that.

And Happy Easter everybody.

You can go home again

16 Dec

This is the way that Christmas Eves are supposed to wind up. After a few hours of eating and drinking and laughing and gift exchanging the gang, 11 of us regulars in all, parks itself on and/or near the closest upholstered furniture for the annual family photo.

A very good time is had by all.

This is absolutely not the way that Christmas Eves are supposed to wind up. As you can plainly see there are fewer bodies in this 2020 family portrait. Two fewer, actually.

That’s because a series of COVID-related issues prevented my wife Joan and me from attending. We were not the only citizens of the world who discovered ourselves in this deeply unfortunate predicament, just the only ones in our family.

The image above was texted to me moments after it was captured. The banner marks Cousin Josephine’s December 24 birthday, a significant one that I am also very sorry to have missed. The frames that people are holding house select (and individually meaningful) family photographs, ones that I had shipped to the usual Christmas Eve gathering place, Aunt Anna’s and Aunt Rita’s apartment in Queens.

It just totally sucked not being there.

Fortunately this year should mark a return to normal. In just a few days’ time Joan and I will pack up the car and head to where we belong on Christmas Eve. (If you are in need of food visuals of the traditional meal you can find them in this post from years back.)

It will be very, very good to be back home.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Look who’s not talking

1 Nov

My grandparents did not speak English well. They had emigrated to America in the early 1900s, fleeing extreme poverty in their home in Southern Italy. The place where they settled, a little-known section of Brooklyn known as East New York, was also impoverished, but much less so. There they lived and worked alongside other Italian immigrants just like themselves, and so the community relied heavily on its native tongue.

Decades later, when my two brothers, dozen or so cousins and I were growing up together in our grandparents’ modest side-by-side apartment buildings the official language in our home was English. Italian was spoken only when “the grownups” spoke amongst themselves, and only intermittently. 

In our family, it seemed, the adults’ shared secrets were closely guarded by a language that they could all speak freely but their children could not.

It wasn’t until I was in my late-twenties that it occurred to me to get angry about all this. There I was on a much-anticipated first trip to Italy and the only language skill that I had was an English-Italian dictionary stuffed in the back pocket of my blue jeans.

I was ashamed of my Italian-American self then. I am still.

Of all the things I have worked to teach myself in life, the language of my ancestors, a lovely and wonderfully expressive one at that, has gone largely ignored.

For years I blamed my family elders for not sharing with my generation the gift of their bilingualism. And for what? I come from a line of good and honest people. What kinds of secrets could they have had? Not many bad ones, I’m pretty certain, and so what was the point of keeping this entirely romantic language all to themselves?

No, the real reason why my brothers and cousins and I were not raised to be bilingual is a much sadder one, at least it is to me. Our parents and grandparents thought it best for our generation—for our future prospects in the country we lived in, that is—that we not be Italians like they were but Americans. 

Fully assimilated Americans. 

Through. And through. And through.

Days ago I was on a plane traveling from Milan’s Malpensa Airport to New York’s JFK International, only a few miles from the place my grandparents had settled and lived out the rest of their lives. My wife Joan and I had just spent three weeks traveling in Italy, a place we have been to many times before and which we both love quite a lot. When we are in Italy it is I who does most of the communicating with the locals, but not without great preparation and practice and, yes, anxiety. Often these Italian-language encounters are less than fully successful, rarely are they completely satisfying. Never are they natural and comfortable and intimate.

I am a monolingual American all right.

Of course I alone am to blame for this, not my grandparents nor any of their children. Learning another language requires study and commitment, and the sad truth is that studious and disciplined I am not. Never have been.

I cannot tell you how deeply I regret this character flaw.

When I was a younger man it was easy to trick myself into believing that I could right myself one day.

It isn’t so easy anymore.

The last eggplant parm

28 Apr

Looks promising enough, am I right?

Actually, I am wrong.

This is what I was aiming for. It is Aunt Anna’s light-as-air eggplant parmigiana, and it is perfect. Always.

“I don’t know how she does it” is a comment that I have heard uttered often and by many through the years. A close Associate of mine, one who abhors any and all parmigiana, no matter how finely prepared, craves my aunt’s eggplant.

For the past few Christmases Anna has been kind enough to freeze a tray of her eggplant parm, a gift meant to be transported from her apartment in Queens to my home here in Maine. I have grown accustomed to receiving this gift and was sorely disappointed when this past Christmas, due to the pandemic, I could not attend our family’s holiday meal.

Recently I tried to imitate my aunt’s eggplant in my own kitchen. You see, a lovely 98-year-old woman named Virginia, my wife’s mother in fact, had been ailing. After a while she lost almost all interest in food.

Her daughter had spent an entire weekend preparing things that might stimulate an appetite. There were short ribs and lamb shanks, pilafs and frittatas, chowders and creamed spinach, her favorite, and more. My principal job was to lend moral support and then pack single-serving meals into easy-to-handle containers for freezing and microwaving.

As is often the case, however, I was also tasked with introducing a bit of levity into an otherwise unfortunate time. And cooking up a batch of Anna’s eggplant parm felt like it might do the trick.

Ginny had been introduced to my aunt’s eggplant one Christmas, and in the most laughable way. The complete story can be found here but the short version is this: My mother-in-law’s planned holiday meal hadn’t been terribly well planned at all. When it became evident that our Christmas Day dinner was nowhere to be had, it was Anna’s eggplant, still frozen in the trunk of my car, that saved the day.

Ginny laughed and laughed at how preposterous it was to retrieve a holiday dinner out of the trunk of a car, and not a Christmas Day went by after that where she didn’t reminisce about the eggplant that had saved an earlier one.

Days after we’d stocked her freezer with food, I received a text from Ginny. (Yes, at 98, the woman was undaunted by technology.)

“The eggplant was delicious. You give your aunt some competition. Just finished a serving and my mouth is still watering. Good job!”

I had tasted my eggplant before gifting it to my mother-in-law and I assure you that my dear aunt has absolutely nothing to worry about. Trust me on this.

Still, Ginny had eaten the stuff, and that was all that really mattered.

“Nice of you to say,” I texted back. “But next year you’ll get the REAL thing from Anna, I hope.”

A few weeks later my wife’s mother passed, in the very town where she and her husband Dave had courted as young M.I.T. students. Soon her daughter and I will scatter Ginny’s ashes nearby, in the same spot as Dave’s.

I am planning to ask Anna if she wouldn’t mind providing us with a farewell meal.

All I want for Christmas Eve

22 Dec

A silent night isn’t exactly my idea of a swell Christmas Eve.

I’d much rather be spending it with this (shall we say, colorful) crew.

COVID makes that impossible this year. Which breaks my heart hugely. And pisses me off about as much.

Christmas Eve morning I am supposed to be waking up at my brother Joe’s place in Queens, as I have every Christmas Eve morning since moving to Maine a quarter century ago. After a hearty breakfast (Joe’s awesome pancakes if I am very lucky) we would be getting into his car and driving over to Cypress Hills Cemetery, on the Brooklyn-Queens border. Inside the cemetery gate is a small wood and metal trailer where the man selling Christmas wreaths to mourners like us keeps himself warm. We always buy a wreath from this man but I do not believe he has once recognized us as the regulars that we are.

After storing the wreath in the trunk of Joe’s car it would be time to place our bets on how many minutes it will take for my brother to find his way to our parents’ gravesite. Cyress Hills is a sprawling, difficult-to-navigate cemetery and it is not uncommon to become hopelessly lost inside it. My wife Joan (did I mention that she would be with us?) is the official timer, she in the front passenger seat next to my brother, I in the rear.

Lately Joe has been winning our find-the-family-grave wager with great frequency. I suspect he may be practicing by visiting mom and dad when I am not around. Which could, depending on your view, be considered cheating.

By around noontime, after additional graveside visitations with other beloved family members nearby, we would be getting back to Joe’s neighborhood and doing last-minute Christmas shopping. By this I mean mostly last-minute gag-gift shopping for our godchildren Joanna and Alec, often at the “As Seen on T.V.” display at the CVS. Once we have all laughed our way through this ridiculous ritual it would be time for Joe and Joan’s annual tug-of-war on the subject of lunch, my wife being very much pro, my brother strongly not so.

“I’m saving myself for later,” he tells her, year after year after year after year.

“Later” is, of course, the traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, which takes place always at Aunt Anna and Aunt Rita’s apartment in Queens, beginning at around four or five o’clock and lasting late into the evening.

It is a night that I look forward to all year long. And silent it is not.

Nor should it be.

Dammit.

Shoes make the man

10 Dec

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I am not the bravest of men. But sometimes there are moments.

It was Christmas Day, getting close to dinnertime. I was around 16 at the time. I’d been visiting with some of my aunts and uncles and was now walking back to our apartment when I noticed a familiar sight: a neighborhood guy named Rudy trying to get a passerby to get down onto the icy cold sidewalk and tie his shoelaces for him.

Rudy was a cripple. That’s what people like him were called back then. He’d had polio as a boy. His spine was noticeably curved and the fingers on both of his hands bent inward and towards his wrists. Among other things this meant that the man was unable to tie his own shoes. 

That task fell to those of us around Rudy. If you were a neighborhood boy or girl, man or woman, butcher, barber, teacher, plumber, whatever, and took seriously the concept of community, then tying Rudy’s shoelaces was your job, your responsibility. No less important a responsibility than helping an elderly neighbor walk across Atlantic Avenue or keeping somebody’s child from running out in front of a city bus. 

I had gotten down on my knees and helped Rudy plenty of times. At first, when I was little, it seemed funny, even a little creepy. But as I got older I didn’t mind it so much.

Reflecting on it now, I learned an awful lot about compassion and humility by kneeling down in front of that poor man. Maybe some others did too.

Rudy was around my parents’ age. He lived with his sister Frances and brother Johnny in the brick row house where they had grown up together as children. He was as much a fixture in our tightly knit Brooklyn neighborhood as anybody. Rudy was always hanging around where you could run into him, either on the stoop outside of his house, a street corner where other men gathered, or on the sidewalks where he constantly—and very slowly and deliberately—walked alone each and every day.

“Rudy Tie My Shoes” is what people called him.

This was not to be cruel to the man, mind you. A guy who lived across the street from me had a face that was framed by almost perfect right angles. We called him “Frankie Squarehead” because, well, why would you not? His name was Frank and his dome was square. Nicknames like this were just the way of the time, that’s all. They weren’t meant to insult or to hurt anybody.

Anyhow, back to Christmas. I was a short block away from where Rudy was standing when I noticed what was actually going on. He had been walking in the light snow and happened upon a group of four guys around my age. Once I could determine who the others were I slowed my pace in order to read the situation more clearly.

It was Crazy Philip and three of his friends. Which did not bode well at all for poor Rudy. 

Philip was trouble from the day he moved into the neighborhood, around a year or so earlier. He had quickly formed his own street gang and got great pleasure out of intimidating people. I saw him beat the crap out of plenty of guys for no reason whatsoever, occasionally doing the kind of damage that required a visit to the doctor or to the ER. The two of us had come close to blows on more than a few occasions.

To be honest, I was afraid of the guy. He was pure anger and rage, without a shred of good judgment. Not so long after this day that I’m telling you about Philip got killed in a knife fight, bled out right there on our sidewalk. Few were sorry to see him go.

When I saw him and his boys circling around Rudy I knew that I had two choices: Find another way home or take my chances and hope for a Christmas miracle.

Felipe, que tal?” I yelled loudly while approaching the scene. Unlike me and everybody else within a five-block radius, Philip’s people were from Puerto Rico not Italy. “Feliz Navidad. You seen Anthony today?” Anthony had been my best friend as a young boy; he still was my friend, only we had grown apart ever since he and Philip started hanging out. They were equals in the gang they were a part of, the only two equals as far as I could determine. I had always believed that, if not for Anthony’s known history and friendship with me, and his influence over Philip, his new friend and I would have come to violence long ago.

“We’re busy here, man,” Philip said staring at Rudy in a way that I had seen and feared many times before. “Tony’s at home. You want him, you know where he lives.”

Anthony had only recently come to be called Tony, just not by me.

The snow picked up and Rudy wasn’t wearing a hat, a scarf or a pair of gloves. He was his usual slow self, not speaking, but the man appeared to somewhat grasp the delicacy of his situation. 

“What you lookin at?” one of Philip’s friends said pushing Rudy’s face with an open palm as the others laughed. 

“Hey retard, your shoe’s untied,” said another. “C’mon, let’s see you tie it.”

This was not looking good at all. The only chance I had would be to act quickly and decisively.

Felipe,” I said loudly and in a way meant to strongly draw his attention away from Rudy and toward me. “Respect. Sabe? I’m just gonna bend down now and help this man out with his shoes. I don’t want any trouble here.”

Asking Philip’s permission to do anything, let alone assist a helpless man like Rudy, was enough to make me want to hurt somebody. Badly. But it was the only possible way out of this. Philip’s boys would do whatever he told them to do. If he decided to let Rudy go on his way then Rudy would go on his way. If not then there was no telling how far they would go, how badly they would hurt the poor guy. Or me.

Philip stared me down in a way that suggested I had miscalculated my ability to diffuse the situation. But when enough seconds passed without him saying anyhing, I moved through the pack until I got to Rudy. I could see how frightened he had become but also noticed a bit of relief in his face. Mine was at least a familiar and friendly presence and Rudy knew it.

“Who he to you, man?” said one of Philip’s boys as I kneeled and brushed the snow and slush off of Rudy’s black leather shoes. “Maybe you should mind your business.”

Rudy’s left shoe trembled as I tied it, possibly from the cold but perhaps not. 

“Okay, now the right one,” I said as much to the others as to Rudy. 

Philip had yet to speak and his boys had turned quiet. I imagined getting kicked in the head and pummeled to the ground.

“There you go, good as new,” I said standing to face the man I had assisted like this since I was a child. “Merry Christmas, Rudy.”

All that was left to do now was to turn around and to face Philip. 

“We’re done here, right Felipe?” I said summoning more courage than I’d thought I had. “The man can be on his way?”

Philip’s frizzy dark hair was topped with white snow, his black and red leather gang jacket wet around the shoulders and down his chest. The guy had the blackest, scariest, most intimidating eyes I had ever seen. Being stared down by them made me feel small. 

“One day we’re gonna get it into it, Tony or no Tony,” Philip said, turning his stare first to Rudy and then to his boys. “Vamos, chicos.” 

Rudy stood motionless as Philip and his boys strutted away. After they turned the corner and were out of sight I gently grabbed Rudy’s misshapen elbow. I can’t speak for him but I myself only felt a little less scared than I had moments earlier.

“I’m gonna walk you home now, Rudy,” I said. “That all right?” 

He didn’t smile or nod or say anything at all, but he did let me keep hold of his arm for the couple-block walk to his house. Before climbing the steps of his stoop Rudy motioned for me to tie his shoelaces again. They didn’t need tying this time and so I took this to mean that the man needed a little more friendly human contact before the two of us parted ways. 

Which was okay by me.

I needed the same thing.

My best manicotti recipe

25 Apr

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This all began, as so many good things do, with a call to Aunt Anna in Queens. It was Easter Sunday morning and she was in her kitchen preparing dinner. I was at home here in Maine.

“What are you cooking anyway?” I asked after we’d been chatting for quite some time. “You never mentioned.”

“Right now, my meatballs,” Anna said a bit distractedly. “The manicotti I made yesterday. I’m just taking them out of the refrigerator now.”

And for days and days these were the only words that I could hear. It had been a while since I’d made manicotti. It was time.

A quick text to my friends Laura and Bob netted a nice tin of fresh ricotta from the excellent Lioni Latticini in New Jersey—and I was off and running. Thanks to my aunt.

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Thin crepes are the key to good manicotti, the thinner the better. That means the crepe mix has to be super light and so mixing it in a blender is best. (I’ve included the full list of ingredients at the end.) A super hot omelette pan doused in butter is the way to cook the crepes. I keep melted butter on the stovetop and apply it with a bristle brush before pouring out the mix for each crepe.

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To make thin crepes you must barely cover the pan’s surface with the mixture. We’re not talking pancakes here, we’re talking just-thicker-than-paper type stuff. After the mix is set and drying flip it over with a spatula. If your pan is properly heated this won’t take long at all. (I pour the mix straight from the blender into the pan, by the way. That way I can add more milk to the mix as things thicken up, which they will.)

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Here’s what the cooked side should look like. After flipping the crepe it only takes maybe 30 seconds to finish the other side.

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This is about how thick you want your crepes to be. That’s a blue spatula I’m holding behind one of the crepes; you can see the color coming through, right? Nice and thin!

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These crepes can be piled on top of each other without sticking. And if you aren’t making the manicotti right away the crepes can be refrigerated for a couple days. I refrigerated these overnight, wrapped in a roll using wax paper.

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This is a pretty traditional filling, made with fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella and such (again, the full list of ingredients is below).

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A simple fold from one side and then the other does the trick.

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Lay a light dose of tomato sauce in a baking pan, then line the manicotti up, like so.

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Add more sauce on top, cover in aluminum foil and throw into the oven, preheated to 375 degrees F. Remove the foil after 30 minutes and continue baking for another 15 minutes or so.

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These manicotti are super light and very delicate—a real favorite around here, in fact.

The only thing that could have made them better this time would be to share them with the woman who put the idea into my head in the first place. Hopefully it won’t be too very long before we’re able to see each other again.

Manicotti Recipe

Makes at least two dozen manicotti, likely more than that

For the crepe

2 cups all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

2 1/2 cups milk to start (more as needed)

Pinch of salt

Mix ingredients together in a blender until fully incorporated. It should be the consistency of cream, NOT pancake batter. Add milk and blend more along the way if the mix thickens, which it will.

For the filling

2 lbs ricotta, preferably fresh

1 lb fresh mozzarella

1 egg

1/3 cup grated cheese (I use a blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino)

Pinch of nutmeg (though a couple pinches is better)

Salt and pepper to taste

Empty ricotta into a large bowl. Grate the mozzarella into the same bowl. Add all the other ingredients and mix thoroughly. If very stiff add a little milk to soften a bit.

You gotta look sharp

9 Apr

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Easter Sunday in 1960s East New York, Brooklyn, was a day when little Roman-Catholic boys like me (r.) were made to look like men.

This was not our doing but our mothers’.

One by one these well-meaning women would drag their sons to the discount shopping district on Pitkin Avenue, a short walk from the apartment buildings where we lived. There the local shopkeepers would fit us boys into new sports coats and trousers, dress shirts and neckties, sometimes even shiny new leather shoes.

This annual ritual was very important to our church-going mothers; I know it was to mine.

I have never grasped how the grownups in our neighborhood could justify such an elaborate expense for so fleeting a moment. Once Easter had come and gone so went the fancy new duds, tossed into a dark closet or shoved under a boxspring, rarely if ever to be worn or seen again. The hard-earned monies spent to acquire the clothing simply vanished into thin (though, I should hope, this being a religious holiday, blessed) air.

The most confounding items in our Easter wardrobe, at least to me, were the hats, those fedoras and pork pies, trilbies and homburgs that our mothers would place upon our soft little noggins with purpose and, yes, pride.

These were guaranteed one-time-use-only deals, these hats. What eight year old decides to throw on a fedora when not coerced by an encouraging, God-fearing parent?

[Before going further I should mention here that by hat I mean, well, hat. Baseball caps certainly are not hats; that’s why they’re called caps and not hats. Newsboy and other types of caps, far more stylish and wholly more respectable than the baseball variety, also are not hats. I’m glad we cleared that up, aren’t you?]

Hat wearing takes a voluntary turn only after a boy becomes a man. And even then it’s a crapshoot. I haven’t been a churchgoer since I was old enough to make my own decision, and so Easter headgear hasn’t been in play for decades.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I voluntarily started to wear a hat, the first being a brown felt fedora from the famed Borsalino of Italy. The hat was a gift from my swell wife Joan, and is still very much in use today. She says that in it I appear more distinguished than is actually so.

My hat collection has grown quite substantially since then, moreso than makes good sense in the place where I live. Maine is more rugged and countrified, more casual than prime hat-wearing cities like New York; a fine felt fedora can often be out of place, if not downright ill advised. Hell, there are some places and events up here that I’d sooner wear a dress.

My father did not have a hat collection. He wore an old fedora on Easter Sunday and for other special occasions, but strictly out of utility and obligation, not by style choice. He was a man who might have benefited from regular hat wearing, as he was just shy of a cue ball on the balding scale. Some fine felt might have looked rather swell on him, and could certainly have helped to keep his bald head warm in winter.

I do not need a hat to keep my head warm, not even here in the wilds of Maine. I have my mother’s hair. Lots and lots and lots of it.

I also inherited from her a desire to, on occasion at least, and with the aid of a very fine hat, look sharp. And so this Easter Sunday, as every other, I will tip one of my finest fedoras to her memory.

The wrath of mom

2 Apr

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My mother was not a hateful woman. Very far from it. If you don’t believe me then go ahead and ask, well, anybody who ever knew her.

She was a sweetheart, my mom. Honest, hard-working, wide open-hearted, generous to an absolutely beautiful fault. I can’t say that I have ever personally known an individual who was more beloved, and by so many.

The idea that a simple peasant dish might push a woman like mom to the very darkest side of rage would seem incomprehensible.

And yet it did.

The dish that you see above is known as zuppa di suffritto. My mother used to make suffritto all the time when I was a boy. It was her favorite, in fact. Mine too. Paired not with pasta but a hearty, crusty bread nothing could be more satisfying. At least not to my mom or to me.

I did not prepare the suffritto pictured here and for one very simple reason: It would be against the law for me to do so in the United States of America.

See, I couldn’t legally get my hands on the main ingredient to make a proper suffritto, that being (sorry, people, I know this will be hard on many of you) an animal’s lungs. Other things that go into a traditional suffritto (kidneys, heart, spleen, your basic offal) can be gotten. But not the lungs.

Which brings us back to my mother. And to her rage.

The year was 1971. I was fourteen. Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali in a unanimous, thrilling 15-round decision at the Garden. Jim Morrison was found dead in a bathtub in Paris. A California jury came back with a much-deserved guilty verdict for The Manson Family. Cigarette ads were banned from T.V. and radio. The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. Not one but two Apollo moon missions were launched and completed. And 42 people died in the Attica prison riots in upstate New York, just outside the city where my grandfather’s brother settled after becoming a U.S. citizen.

It was also the year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the use of “livestock lungs… as human food.”

In the City of New York news of this ban funneled through the Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Bess Myerson, who had been appointed to the job a couple of years earlier by Mayor John Lindsay. Though this was her first political job Myerson was well-known, not only in New York but around the country as well. She’d been a regular panelist on the T.V. game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” and often filled in as co-host of the “Today Show.” Born in the Bronx, Myerson is also the first and only Jewish woman ever to hold the crown of Miss America.

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If not for her position at Consumer Affairs, Myerson would have no connection to USDA’s ban on animal lungs, none whatsoever. It was a federal mandate, not a local one. The announcement, in New York anyway, logically came out of the office that she headed.

But to my mother no such distinction existed. It was Myerson who was quoted in the brief announcement of the ban in the Daily News. And so it was she who deserved my mother’s wrath. For preventing her from making suffritto ever again.

“That bitch!” mom screeched, slapping an open palm on the newspaper resting flat on the kitchen table, spilling her morning coffee. “I hope she dies.”

It was the first and only time that I can recall my mother saying such a thing.

Many years later Myerson held another position in New York City government, that of Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, under Mayor Ed Koch. But she was forced to resign over a scandal that led to her being indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, and obstruction of justice. Before the trial even began she was arrested and pleaded guilty to shoplifting in Pennsylvania. Myerson was acquitted of federal crimes but “The Bess Mess,” as the sordid tale became widely known, finished her politically and ruined a once enviable reputation.

I had moved out on my own by then but followed the affair closely and, I’ll admit, with no small amount of glee.

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I am my mother’s son, after all.

And I still miss her suffritto.