Me eating spaghetti with Patty Ianicelli’s (my father’s cousin) boys. Rye, New York, around 1960.
Here’s the prologue from ‘The Making of an Italian Cook’, a work in progress. Hope you like it. The book is progressing well, a little shaky in parts, but I’ll iron that out in time.
The Making of an Italian Cook
Just like my aunt Eleanor and my grandmother, I now wake up in the morning thinking about what I want to cook. They lived food. Every winter our family would leave cold Greenvale, Long Island, and shack up in Hollywood, Florida, for a month or more (school? what’s school?), with Nanny, Pop, aunts and uncles, and a ton of cousins. Very cozy, considering there were only three bedrooms. Each morning my sister, Liti, and I would hear Nanny and my aunt discuss dinner around the breakfast table while they sectioned grapefruits.
“Mom, should we do the stuffed artichokes? What about the meatballs with string beans? Haven’t pulled that one out for a while.”
“How about sausage and peppers?”
“Pop always goes for the veal and peppers.”
“I prefer sausage and peppers.”
“Who cares what you prefer?”
“Nobody, I take it.”
This kind of talk embarrassed me, even scared me. Is that what I’ll become? One of those kitchen-to-bedroom Italian ladies, whisking plates from under your nose, replacing them with new plates, and then disappearing to change into bathrobe and slippers? Now I can’t believe this preoccupation with food is an urge I’m grateful for. It’s a place to be in this world. A relationship filled alternatively with elation and irritation, and hard work. Basically a long marriage.
Florida was a strange land to spend winters in, away from all my Long Island friends, and we got dragged down there every winter until I was, I believe, 17, and my sister Liti 14, when we then flatly refused. No problem. Arrangements were quickly made to leave us alone in the Long Island ranch house with a continuously farting housekeeper named Rose. Rose didn’t show up much, so this worked out fine.
One thing I can say for sure about my Florida winters—they brought me very close to the Puglian food Dick, my father, had grown up eating, since they shoved us into a small house with a lot of Southern Italians. Usually fifteen to twenty of our relatives showed up at some point during the long winter, sometimes all at the same time. Dinners down there were always massive and very high pitched. Everyone seemed perpetually angry. “Goddammit Gert, you made too much salad.” “What are we feeding an army?” Almost. “Since when do braciole and artichokes go on the same plate?” “Will someone please bring me a goddamned salad plate?” “This wine is oxidized. Where the hell is the Fresca?” It was oppressive, but the food was great. Great, but heavy, especially for Florida, but no alterations were made to accommodate the subtropical weather. Nanny really loved to cook, and it was her show, so if she wanted braciole in red sauce on a 90 degree night, that was what we ate. It was pathetic when she got older and nobody trusted her anymore in the kitchen, they thought she’d skid on one of those pointless woven circular jute mats they threw all over the floor in there (unless the point was to make her fall). Take the mats up, why don’t you? Finally they did, but she was still banished from the kitchen. A little swelling of her ankles, a couple of left-on burners and other forgetfulnesses, and a longtime trust was dissolved. After that, Nanny’s stare often seemed vacant. Anybody home? Maybe not.
Gert, my father’s mom, keeper of the Hollywood table, with a rare, almost cheerful half smile.
Florida dinners, always at least fifteen at table, usually more, wore me down and made me feel there was something hovering over my head or around my head like an invisible vise (sometimes, I suppose, it was just a sunburn). Dining out was what I waited for, what everyone needed when cousins, aunts, uncles, Nanny, Pop, and my mother, Mo, had reached the point of implosion, the thin little house closing in, either way too hot or way to cold. No heat. No air conditioning. A thousand plates to clean. We’d from time to time bust loose.
Polynesian restaurants, the fantasy islands of my childhood, were where we’d escape to. So Florida, so 1960s. There was the giant place on the beach where Coconut Jerry hacked open coconuts and chubby half-naked women shook their thighs in grass skirts. My grandfather Nick was always escorted directly to the biggest wicker-backed chair and covered with leis, which he’d pull off in disgust. The drinks, prepared at one of their many torchlit Tiki bars, were served in hollowed-out pineapples, garnished, of course, with mini umbrellas or little plastic monkeys. We’d be served flaming skewers of the stickiest food I’ve ever eaten, flaming pork wrapped in ribbon candy, shrimp dipped in colored sugar, charcoal beef topped with burnt coconut. The only Italian thing that sweet that came to mind was the torrone my father always brought home around Christmas, but that was meant as a dessert.
Florida Polynesian was certainly unlike the solid and delicious Southern Italian dishes Nanny set out, and in retrospect it was a fairly sickening cuisine, but anything that came to the table on fire was pure joy, and this terrible food opened me to understanding eating as a form of glamour. Here was a place where food was served by people wearing bra tops, high heels, and strings of hibiscus. Food as celebration I already knew very well, from elaborate Christmas and Easter dinners. That was all pure Italian, but making food gorgeous and dramatic for no good reason was something I latched onto quickly. Food could be so many things. It could be exciting, oppressive, disgusting and hilarious. Food, I understood from a fairly young age, was a big deal.