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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.

Uncle Chick

11 Feb

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I had many fathers growing up. Four, to be sure.

There was, albeit briefly, the man whose name that I carry. Then, and in some ways even more importantly, there were my mother’s brothers. Throughout my formative years three of these men lived steps away from my mother and brothers and me.

Honorable, hard-working and very decent men all, none were aligned with the warm & fuzzy school of male role modeling.

Least of all Uncle Chick.

Chick made his living delivering home heating oil and servicing the furnaces that burned it, demanding work considering that his street route literally spanned the whole of Brooklyn. His actual birth name is John, though nobody ever called him that.

As a very young boy I was certain that Uncle Chick didn’t much care for me. If he cared for me at all. Of all the uncles in my closely knit universe Chick seemed the hardest-edged and, frankly, the least interested in being a role model to the likes of me. Besides, he and his wife Frances had four of my cousins to raise.

A few hours after my father died Chick came up beside me. There were tears in both of our eyes.

“C’mon,” he said putting an arm around me, for the first time ever I am pretty certain. “Let’s go for a ride.”

And that is the moment when I realized how wrong I had been about my very dear uncle.

Chick passed away yesterday afternoon. We haven’t lived next door to each other in a lot of years now and so I was unable to visit with him in his final hours.

The last time Chick and I spent any quality time together was a couple summers ago, in the backyard of his home in Long Island. He proudly showed me the hundreds of tomatoes ripening in his garden, and a fig tree with more fruit on it than seemed plausible. Though no longer able to operate his small powerboat it nonetheless sat berthed at a dock where he could put eyes on it whenever he pleased.

For a couple hours that day it was only the two of us, just like on the ride we had taken in his black and white DeSoto so many years ago. Approaching 90 at the time Chick seemed much quicker to emotion than I was accustomed to witnessing. He surprised and delighted me by freely reminiscing about his elder brother Joe, the revered patriarch of our entire family.

When he finished telling a particularly heartwrenching story about his brother, one that I had never heard before and have not repeated, both of us were in tears.

Again.

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Rest easy, uncle.

And thanks for the ride.

The eggplant that saved Christmas

19 Dec

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Christmas Eve is spent with my extended family in New York, but Christmas Day is for my wife Joan’s outside of Boston. Only three of us are in attendance, and so we’re talking about a much, much quieter affair.

Two Christmases ago my mother-in-law Gin shocked us by announcing that Christmas dinner would be supplied not by her but by a nearby Chinese restaurant known as Su Chang’s. I was informed of this well before the Christmas-morning drive from New York to Massachusetts, allowing ample time to brood over so enormous a break in holiday protocol.

Never had I eaten a Christmas dinner that wasn’t prepared by someone I loved and who loved me. Ms. Chang, if such a person exists, could not possibly be included in this group.

At around 4 pm Gin asked me to call over to the restaurant and place our order. The line, however, was busy. Very busy.

One hundred seventy redials on multiple phones and several other attempts at reaching the restaurant later it became apparent that Ms. Chang would not be providing our Christmas dinner after all. 

“I don’t think this is gonna work,” I announced finally, aware that Gin’s infrequently used kitchen housed none of the provisions required to prepare a meal, let alone one suited to a holiday.

The three of us just sat there in silence.

After a few uncomfortable moments I went to the kitchen and had a look around. There was milk, butter, a few other odds and ends in the fridge; the cupboards were pretty much bare. Alone in a small clay bowl next to a pristine toaster oven were three garlic cloves.

That’s when it hit me.

“I can make an aglio e olio,” I announced. “There’s plenty of pasta out in the car.”

There was indeed. No visit to New York at Christmastime (or most any other time, for that matter) does not include a food run to D. Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn, and so the trunk of our car was overflowing with staples of all types. These included (but by no means were limited to) dried pastas, some lovely anchovies, and several tins of fine olive oils, all that was necessary to make an aglio e olio.

Not exactly a Christmas feast, I know.

“Well, actually,” I heard my wife say, to my ear rather tentatively. “Hm, I wonder…”

I poked my head out from the kitchen.

“You wonder what?”

She smiled.

“We’ve got Anna’s Christmas gifts in the freezer, remember?”

And out of nowhere a peaceful calm came to me. Someone that I love very dearly, and who loves me, would be providing this holiday’s meal after all.

Christmas had been saved!

Inside Gin’s freezer, you see, were the Christmas presents Aunt Anna had given to us only the night before. One was a whole stuffed chicken that she had stewed in tomato sauce, the other a tray of her fantabulous eggplant parm.

“I’m tired of running around trying to buy you two presents,” Anna sighed, fetching the unwrapped gifts from her freezer. “So I decided to give you what i know you really like.”

Both the chicken and the eggplant were frozen when Anna gave them to us, and our intention was to keep them that way until we were ready to devour them. Gin’s freezer was merely a place to store the gifts before returning home to Maine the following day.

However, and as they say, desperate times…

“I’ll run out to the car and get what I need for the pasta,” I said putting on my hat and coat. “You guys can decide what else you want to eat.”

My money was on them choosing the stuffed chicken but when I returned the bird was still cooped up in the Frigidaire. Anna’s eggplant parm was in the microwave defrosting.

I have never known my aunt’s eggplant to garner tepid reviews and this time was no different. Gin liked it quite a lot; she even kept the leftovers. Dammit!

Still, she was far more amused by the eggplant’s mere presence in her freezer—and on her dinner table.

“We’re eating Christmas dinner from the trunk of a car,” she laughed. And laughed. And then laughed some more.

After we’d finished eating I called Anna to tell her what had happened and to thank her for saving our holiday. As is so often the case our conversation was brief but very much to the point.

“You’re not supposed to eat Chinese on Christmas anyway,” she scolded me. “What’s wrong with you? Sei pazzo?

“I love you too, Anna,” I told my aunt before the line went dead and she was gone.

Merry Christmas everybody!

The measure of a man

11 Dec

Note: The following is a feel good Holiday story (well, kind of—okay, not really) that has nothing whatever to do with food.

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My friend Joe has been trying to size me up for more than 30 years.

Often unsuccessfully.

Joe first formed an (incorrect) opinion of my character before we had ever met, or even heard of each other.

My new wife and I had just returned home from a hastily planned elopement only to be met by an endless string of urgent messages on my answering machine. All the calls originated from a magazine that I worked with at the time, but the man on the tape was a stranger to me.

His first message was plain enough. The man introduced himself as a new editor on staff. His name was Joe and, he said, I should call him at my earliest convenience regarding a freelance assignment that was already on my docket for a later date.

By the eleventh and final message his demeanor had substantially darkened.

“If I don’t hear back from you by end of business TODAY then don’t bother calling me back at all,” the man huffed. “You can also forget about ever working here again.”

I noted that the threat had been made a full two days earlier. The angry new editor’s hard deadline had long since passed.

When we finally did catch up, three days after “end of business TODAY,” neither the man nor I showed the slightest interest in civility.

“You’ve got some nerve calling me back now,” he growled as I introduced myself.

The man had remained as pissed off with me as I had gradually come to be with him.

“Maybe you should get your facts straight before going off on somebody,” I charged back. “I was on vacation. Getting married, in fact. I told everybody at the magazine that I’d be gone and when I’d be back in my office. Multiple times. So do me a favor and break somebody else’s balls, not mine.”

Several additional volleys, and no small number of colorful expletives later, Joe and I settled down and accepted that we had each been victim to a miscommunication that was neither of our doing. Still, there was no taking back the viciousness with which a couple of hard-headed Brooklyn street guys had attacked one another.

We have been very good friends ever since.

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That’s Joe right there, in the bathrobe that he wears with far greater frequency and zeal than is reasonable for a man not confined to a hospital or a nursing home. The photo was taken during a recent (and annual) Holiday visit to the home Joe shares with his wife Joel in the Hudson Valley.

He is in the process of trying to size me up. Yet again.

This time my friend is using an actual tool to get the measure of me. It is called a Brannock Device, and Joe has wanted to use it on me for some time. His motives are anything but pure, however. All my friend really wants to do is to prove me wrong.

For decades I have worn a size 13 shoe. There’s no reason why anybody but me should care about this. Joe, apparently, cares. Deeply.

“You’re not a thirteen, you should be wearing a twelve,” he lectured me at some length and some time ago, studying my shoes from a distance of many yards, mind you. “I’ll measure you next time you’re at the house and you’ll see that I’m right.”

Joe likes to be right. Even when he isn’t.

I should probably mention that my friend grew up working in his father’s shoe store in Brooklyn. The Brannock Device that he is using on my feet (above) is the very same tool that his father used on his customers, decades ago now. It happens to also be a treasured family heirloom that helps to define the man that Joe has become.

Which is the only reason why I finally allowed him the pleasure of using it on me this time.

What can I say? I tend to get pretty soft around the Holidays—and not just in the waistline.

As it turns out we were both right about me this time.

Just as Joe had predicted his father’s measuring device did indeed slot me closer to the size 12 range that to 13. But, Joe informed me, a EEE width is the reason that a size larger provides greater comfort. And so, he allowed, I have indeed been wise when choosing the larger-sized shoes lo these many years.

To celebrate our rarely achieved consensus I decided to take my friend out to the nearest bar and buy him a couple of drinks for the Holidays.

But he was still in his bathrobe and so we just stayed in.

Fig cookies revisited

8 Dec

These cookies got me in a lot of trouble last year. For a while it was touch and go whether Cousin Josephine would ever speak to me again.

We had just finished our Christmas Eve dinner and the desserts were coming out, the most crucial, as always, being Jo’s outstanding cookies and biscotti. As my cousin began to uncover one particular tray of baked goods I noticed her eyeing me with purpose and more than a little wariness.

“We’ve NEVER put frosting on our fig cookies,” she announced to me and to no one else.

My cousin was referring to a recipe for fig cookies (aka cuccidati) that I had earlier posted right here on this blog. In it I accused Jo, her mother Anna, our Aunt Laura, and even My Sainted Mother of topping the traditional Christmas cookies with sweet white frosting and colorful rainbow non pareils, not a simple dusting of confectioners sugar, as I prefer and as my recipe suggested.

“Honestly,” Jo added with a look of disappointment that still cuts me a year later, “I don’t know where you get your ideas sometimes.”

This is not how Christmas Eve is supposed to end.

Josephine is more a sister to me than a cousin, and I love her very much. The idea that I would accuse her and all the other bakers in our family of sweet white frosticide on so important a Christmas tradition is not an excusable offense. Not where I come from it isn’t.

I won’t defend myself here. Despite a clear, though evidently flawed memory to the contrary, if Josephine says that she has never used frosting on her Christmas fig cookies then she has never used frosting on her Christmas fig cookies.

I cannot be more sorry for suggesting otherwise.

And wish to dedicate this recipe to my beloved cousin.

For starters, this recipe will make around 5 dozen cookies. Mix together 4 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add two sticks of cold unsalted butter (cut into small cubes) and work the butter into the flour mixture using your hands.

After a couple minutes the flour and butter will kind of clump together, like so.

Add 2 extra large eggs (beaten), 1/2 cup milk, and 2 tablespoons Anisette. Mix together thoroughly by hand until a dough forms.

The dough will be on the moist side, which is okay, that’s what you want. Wrap it in plastic and chill in the fridge for a good couple hours or more before making the cookies. (I actually kept the dough chilling overnight and made the cookies the following day.)

For the filling we’ve got one ring of dried figs (pinch off the hard ends), 1/4 pound pitted dates, 1/2 cup raisins, 1 cup pecans, 2/3 cup walnuts, 1/2 cup candied orange peel, 1/2 cup honey, 1/3 cup whiskey (I went with Jack Daniel’s), 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Put them all together in a food processor and mix into a paste.

Like so.

Cut the dough ball into quarters (put the dough you aren’t working with back in the fridge until ready to use, so it keeps cold). On a well-floured surface roll out one of the pieces of dough until it’s roughly 4 inches wide by maybe 18 or 20 inches long. The rolled dough should be around 1/8-inch thick, give or take. Take a quarter of the filling and roll it along the center of the dough.

Brush the dough with an egg wash and then roll it from one side to the other.

Make sure to pinch along the seam when you’re done rolling.

Making sure that the seam is on the bottom, brush more egg wash along the entire roll.

With a pastry cutter or sharp knife cut the roll into pieces that are around an inch and a half wide. At this point all that’s left to do is put them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The cookies should bake in a 350 degree F oven for around 20 minutes, give or take. At the halfway mark rotate the baking sheet so the cookies cook evenly. Allow to cool thoroughly.

Then you can sprinkle some confectioners sugar on top before serving. Or not.

Just don’t be pouring no thick white frosting on top of them.

Right, Jo?

Wishing and hoping

8 Nov

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If you are a follower of this blog’s Facebook page then it comes as no surprise that I have just returned home from a two-plus-week journey to Japan.

And I’ve got the (already posted) food pics to prove it.

What you don’t know is that a rather serious ailment came close to ruining things. Not mine, but my companion’s, who in this case happens to be the woman that I am married to. Every day of the trip required a Herculean effort on her part to keep going. I know for a fact that a lesser malady would have sidelined me.

The truly unfortunate thing is that traveling to Japan was her dream adventure, not mine. She had literally been planning this trip ever since she was a girl. To see her fall ill at such a moment wasn’t merely heart wrenching, it was crushing.

Not long before leaving for home we took a short stroll through the grounds of a Buddhist temple nearby our hotel in Kyoto. Housed in an open-air pavilion was a large gold-colored ball known as a “wishing precious stone.” You’re invited to write a wish on one of the many round cards provided and hang it on a kind of trellis along with all the other wishes. But first you’re to put a hand on the giant ball and circle around it three times, keeping contact with the ball’s surface at all times.

Trust me when I say this: I am not the kind of man who pays any attention to this kind of thing. And yet, there I found myself scribbling down a wish that she would be well again and walking around a big gold ball three times—in broad daylight and for all to see.

As I circled the ball I told myself not to be greedy. If there actually was something to this wishing thing, my bet was that it couldn’t be an immediate fix kind of arrangement. And so I found myself thinking that I’d settle for a more reasonable, gradual recovery, say 24 hours for every time I walked around the ball.

That was around three days ago. This morning I learned that a great deal of the ailment has passed.

I’m only hoping that the precious stone understands that when I asked for my wife to be well again, I meant for it to be permanent.

On penance & pork ribs

12 Oct

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Recently I got to spend a couple of hours with a very dear childhood friend, one that I have seen only three times in forty years. Before boarding a flight from Maine back to their home in Memphis my friend and his wife stopped by for lunch at our house just outside of Portland.

I served a traditional Sunday meal, including my meatballs.

The Memphis pork ribs you see here are from Charlie Vergos Rendezvous in Memphis. They are a gift from my friend John and his lovely wife Gina, overnighted shortly after our visit together, and I enjoyed them quite a lot. Another rack is in the freezer, but probably won’t be for very long.

From the time we were infants until the day he moved away to college John and I lived half a block from each other in Brooklyn. We went to the same elementary school, played on the same baseball and basketball teams, hung with the same friends, even dated some of the same girls. My father’s sister and her family lived in an apartment just below John and his. John is also distantly related to my Aunt Rita, though I do not recall precisely in what way.

It was good to see my friend again. I only wish there had been time to apologize to him.

I have been meaning to for a very long time. And just never have found the opportunity—or the nerve.

The incident occurred somewhere between third and fifth grades. John and I were sitting next to each other in class, as often we did, when the teacher, a nun most probably, began an exercise unrelated to the standard curriculum. She would ask us general questions about all kinds of topics that children might be aware of and all we had to do was call out an answer. Things like “What’s your favorite team, Mets or Yankees?” or “Who’s the best character on TV?” It was simple stuff, really. No books, no note taking, no homework to fret over.

It was all very harmless.

Mostly.

But then the teacher committed what I now believe to have been a terrible error in judgment. In a neighborhood built and still occupied by hard-working immigrants with little education and a deep reliance on manual labor skills, she asked something along the lines of “What’s the dirtiest, worst job that you would never want to do?”

This in a classroom filled with the children and grandchildren of men who laid sewer pipe and poured concrete and rolled asphalt and put down train track to feed their families.

When I blurted out—innocently, I assure you—the words “garbage man” John’s sharp elbow crashed into my rib cage with such force that I could barely catch my breath for a while. When I asked my friend what made him do such a thing he remained silent.

I can still see the anger—but, more likely, hurt—in his face.

Some time later I learned that John’s father Tulio, a strong and decent man, made his living as a New York City sanitation worker.

I don’t know exactly when or how this knowledge came to me. I only know that John and I have never discussed the incident. Not once.

All these years later I’m still haunted by the cruelty that I showed to my friend.

It was only when my wife and I were enjoying John’s generous gift of Memphis pork ribs that our teacher’s role first entered my mind. What was she thinking, I wonder. Most if not all of the kids in her classroom lived in modest apartments headed by men who held “dirty” jobs. Not one of my friends’ fathers wore a white collar to work. And so John could not have been the only child who heard his father’s profession called out by one of their friends that day.

I just hope that the others had better friends than John had, friends who apologized for their stupidity a lot sooner than I have.