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?

They call me Mr. Meatloaf

10 Nov

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I know, I know. Nobody needs me to tell them how to make a meatloaf.

When did that ever stop me from running my mouth off?

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I usually start out with potatoes, carrots and whole garlic cloves in a roasting pan with olive oil. This goes into the oven at 350 degrees F.

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While the vegetables are roasting I throw together the meatloaf mix. This is around a pound of ground veal. That’s what I always use. No beef, no pork, just veal.

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An egg, some milk, a little bit of breadcrumb, some Parmigiano-Reggiano, and freshly ground black pepper.

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Mix it all up by hand and then form it into a loaf, like so.

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After the vegetables have roasted for around 40 minutes or so place the meat right on top and return to the oven.

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And in around 30 minutes you should be all set.

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What was I gonna do, not share?

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.

The cheese matters

19 Oct

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I didn’t need to buy this hunk of cheese.

But I wanted to.

Real bad.

All this nonsense about slapping a 25 percent tariff on Italian cheeses just burns my ass. 

Don’t worry, I promise not to get all political on you here. I simply want to say that, for this one very brief moment yesterday, before those Trump tariffs were to go into effect, I stuck it to the man by proudly purchasing five pounds of 24-month Parmigiano-Reggiano. 

Small victories, I know, but still…

The cheese block was sourced by my friends (and swell restaurateurs) Laura and Bob, and for the very nice un-Trumpian-screw-your-longtime European allies (not to mention your own citizens) price of $11 a pound. 

Going forward the cheese, along with a number of other products that are made by our friends in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, will unnecessarily cost a good deal more. 

All because a small man with little knowledge and no respect for others decided that it must.

Seriously. Isn’t it about time this guy went back to doing what he’s good at. Like bankrupting casinos or running phony charities and colleges, or maybe just acting like a smart businessperson on TV?

Oops. Think I just broke my promise.

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.

The house we lived in

3 Oct

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This is my parents’ wedding day, back in the fall of 1955. The elderly man in the black tuxedo escorting my mother to a hired car is her father, Giovanni Giamundo. His wife Ursula, my grandmother, did not live to see her eldest daughter marry.

The solid green awning just to my grandfather’s right obscures the family’s candy store/fountain service at 753 Liberty Avenue, in the neighborhood of Brooklyn known (oddly, I always have thought) as East New York. An adjacent building, at 751 Liberty, was also my grandfather’s. At the time it housed a fish market on the ground level, but the space later became a cluttered office for my Uncle Joe’s small general contracting business.

There were three “railroad” apartments in each of my grandfather’s two buildings, or six altogether.

Each of them was occupied by one of his grown children, as well as their young and growing families.

And so when I speak of my family’s closeness, as often I do here, well, I ain’t kidding around.

I will understand if you cannot in any way relate to the clan-like architecture of my upbringing. Few people could. The woman I am married to, an only child to educated, affluent professionals, has long been wary of my history. How, she wonders, can so many blood kin live under the same roof, gather in the same backyard, attend the same church and school, eat at the same table without, sooner or later, wanting to slaughter one another?

You may be wondering the same thing.

Remarkably, I never have.

And naive is not a word that often is used to describe me, so far as I am aware.

But for a few brief periods my position has been pretty much unwavering: I am a very lucky man to have been reared not by one but by six loving mothers (my own, plus Aunts Anna, Laura, Rita, Frances and Marie) and a bunch of devoted fathers (dad, along with Uncles Joe, Dominic, Chick and Casey). I may have shared an apartment (and bedroom) with my brothers Joe and Mike, but there were many other siblings around to rely upon. In no particular order these included Big John, Josephine, Vito, Bobo, Joseph, Big Ursula and Little Ursula, James, John and Rocco.

The house that we lived in was a full one.

My mother and brother Joe were the last to leave Liberty Avenue. The fountain service had long ago been shuttered, so had Uncle Joe’s old office. It was a sad but long overdue goodbye to a special place in all of our lives.

After mom died my brothers and I had the funeral procession drive around the old neighborhood and make a brief but very deliberate stop in front of 751-753 Liberty.

It was the only moment in the entire day’s events when nobody, not one soul in a very large group of mourners, had a single word to say.