I grew up in an Italian-American family. We thought we were just like everyone else. Until I was a young adult, I was totally unaware of how unlike everyone else we really were. Food was of course essential to our well-being, but it went well beyond sustenance. It was our lifeblood, our entertainment, our social network and our passion.
Everyone cooked. Mom, Dad, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles...everyone. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t picture perfect but it was wholly satisfying. I grew up in a northern New Jersey city famous for its Italian immigrants. Many of my relatives lived within walking distance and this meant that a home cooked meal was literally just around the corner. Even though all were related, each had a wonderful uniqueness about their dishes never leaving me to contemplate food boredom or other cuisines.
Four distinct memories often flood back into my consciousness. Each involved food and many relatives. It was hectic and loud but was overwhelmingly delicious.
I can remember nights eating four dinners. I would start at an Aunt’s, move onto a Great Aunt’s, then to my Grandparents and finally home where my Mother didn’t believe for a second that I was only eating her cooking. She fed me anyway!
During my early childhood, Sundays were spent sitting around the table at my paternal Grandparent’s home. I would sit there; listening to rapid fire Italian while munching on anisette toast. I would also sneak a bit of anisette--but just a tiny bit as I was no more than four or five years old. Tragically, my paternal Grandfather passed away suddenly when I was five and my Italian lessons and anisette tasting were greatly curtailed.
Every Sunday my brothers and I would wake up to the smell of meatballs, sausage, braciole and bacon frying. Eggs and bacon were made to order by our very own short-order cook, Mom. She spent the entire day cooking. I spent the entire day eating macaroni and gravy, meats, bread, wine, salad, and a cake or pie to round out the meal. Now I’m certain we missed a few Sundays here and there, especially in summer, but to miss two consecutive Sundays would be sacrilege. I’ve continued this tradition with my now college age daughters. Although modern life doesn’t allow for a weekly ritual, I’ve been able to transfer these traditions to them as they have watched me cook this meal many, many times.
The last and most frustrating memory involves the perfection of the simple dish of peppers and eggs. I often slept next door at my maternal Grandparents. There I had my own bedroom and I could eat without anyone telling me to eat less! Gramps was a truck driver and he would be up before dawn frying the peppers just so in olive oil and marrying them at just the right moment with scrambled eggs. I have been trying my entire life, to no avail, to replicate this favorite dish of my childhood.
Now lest you think that food is the story, it’s really just the stage. The real story was the family connections, the discussions, the laughter, the arguments and the development of lifelong friendships with my cousins. The table and the food that threatened to collapse it was only a backdrop to the real purpose, to tell the family stories that unbeknownst to us children would continue to be told through the subsequent generations. There are very few tangible reminders of life as it was. Social media and iPhones were a half century in the future but the mind preserves just as well if not better than today’s technology. Family connected through food can never be broken apart!
|(Gram's 90th Birthday, 11/00. left to right -- brothers Tom, Mike and Phil with Gram.)|
From 2005 through 2011 my wife, daughters and I lived in Texas and Budapest Hungary. When we were deciding where in the U.S. we would return, a wise 16 year old made our decision very easy. She wanted to eat Sunday dinner with Grandma. I needed no other input; New Jersey it was and I knew at that moment that their children were going to be as fortunate as I was. Our family tradition had been preserved.
The author, 52, was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey and is a from a large Italian-American family of professional and home cooks. A Certified Public Accountant and management consultant by profession, he is by aspiration a world traveler, home cook, bicyclist, singer and lover of life. He loves all things Springsteen, counts Italy and Hungary as his favorite places outside of the good ole U.S.A. and would spend everyday at the Jersey Shore if possible. He is married and the father of two daughters getting ready to go to college.
Written for Mission Read 2013