Archive | August, 2012

Marrying into an Italian family: baptism by sauce

31 Aug

Jars of sauce, ready to boil.

I married a first-generation Italian boy. In my youth–usually enamored by the loud, showy, unreliable, ebullient jackass-type–I found solace in his quiet reserve. His complete and unabashed loyalty. His work ethic. His handsomeness. His amazing family.

Although I am half Italian, I am not Italian Italian like my husband’s family. My in-laws came here in 1968, shortly before my husband was born. They did not know the language. They did not know any other “Americans.” They did not have anything but what they could carry over. But they had each other. Many people from the same part of Italy settled in a particular part of Pittsburgh called Bloomfield. I was lucky enough to start out my married life in this neighborhood, and many of my husband’s relatives still live here. I felt like I had become a member of a magical and cloistered society. Where Italian was still spoken around the table, prosciutto (made by my father-in-law) was hanging from garage rafters, where homemade wine was placed on the table for every meal, and every supper had a pasta course, then a meat and vegetable, followed by a salad–and of course an espresso to finish it all off.

Unidentified relatives of mine from Calabria.

My mother is Italian and I grew up learning how to cook from her and her mother, my Grandma Rizzo–also a first generation Italian born in 1918. I learned how to bake bread for Easter, always rolling out two small dough strips before covering the bread to rise, using the strips to make a cross over the dough to bless it and, according to my gram, help it to raise. My grandma would make bread each year on the feast day of Saint Anthony and get it blessed at the church in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. Sometimes when I was looking in one of her buffet drawers for something, I would find little stale frizenes (a crunchy anise-flavored type of bread, typically eaten buttered and then dipped in coffee) from previous years, tucked neatly away into socks. Kept safe since they were blessed, not to be eaten.

Saint Anthony

An interesting thing happens in many immigrant families. Oftentimes, the people from the origin country culturally progress and give up “the old ways,” but those that emigrate to another country hold onto the traditions of their home. So, even though the customs and lifestyle of the mother country have changed, the immigrants hold on to the ways that they left. It is what ties them to home. It is how they remember.

On my in-law’s most recent trip to Italy, my mother-in-law lamented that many of her friends and family still living there had given up on many of the labor-intensive traditions. The fine lace work to embellish tablecloths, the pasta from scratch–even the canning of fresh tomato sauce. I am so blessed that my husband’s family, my family, has held on to the old ways.

So every year in August, we travel to a local farm to pick tomatoes. This year we brought home 11 bushels.

It’s a family job and everyone pitches in. What makes things particularly effective, is that we process everything outside. My father-in-law has acquired steel drums and large burners that run from propane tanks. Pots and utensils travel between homes when it’s a family’s particular day to do their canning (sisters-in-law, parents, etc.). The tomatoes are usually left to ripen for a few days before processing. Calls are exchanged between family to discuss the ripeness. The final decision is always made by my husband’s parents on what day we should finally jar everything.

The process, although time- and labor-intensive, is quite simple. The tomatoes are washed, cored, squeezed (of water and seeds), boiled, machine processed, canned, and boiled.

Tatone, Paulie, and Uncle Ronnie processing the tomatoes.

We don’t add anything but some fresh basil to the top of the jars before canning. We flavor the sauce when we use it.

Making the final sauce is pretty subjective, and is all about what you like. Your sauce will end up being great if you just try your best and add what you like. Personally, I shred up a carrot and onion and fry in olive oil. Then brown some lamb and add the tomatoes to that. I flavor with salt, basil, oregeno, and parsley, but like to go very easy on the garlic.

Believe me when I tell you, there is nothing like the taste of sauce on the day the tomatoes are crushed. Nothing. Of course, after a day of canning, a big dinner is prepared where you taste the fruits of your labor.

Happiness is when you finally sit down after canning and cooking all day, look over to your youngest son, and watch him doing this:

Anthony enjoying his pasta.

All life is suffering

30 Aug

One morning I woke up to find one of my kids heading out of the house with a fishing net. He briefly noted that he was going outside to catch butterflies. I thought this was really sweet–and then this exchange happened:

Me: “Oh cool, you’re catching butterflies.”

Paul: “Yeah, we’re gonna kill them later with bb guns.”

Raising boys is __________.

They don’t dial 911. Home protected by Red Ryder BB Guns.

Parenting: Pet fish by the pound

28 Aug

“Good morning, Gil. I said, good morning, Gil.”

Ahh, summer carnival season. It’s almost over, but if you’re lucky enough, you have one keepsake or two from that special night you spent with your family. Close your eyes and you can almost smell it. That warm June night where you dropped $85 on nine (9) rides (of dubious construction and unknown operator sobriety), one (1) funnel cake, five (5) chances on the balloon dart game (Beyonce poster, yes!), two (2) orders of cheese fries, a few spins of the wheel at the chuck-a-luck table, and five (5) chances to get a ping pong ball into a vase for a goldfish.

Carnival goldfish. It’s exciting to win “stuff” at a carnival, but winning a LIVING thing is just the apex of prize winning. You win a soul. I mean, a soul that will probably only live between 6 and 18 hours, that doesn’t feel empathy, that you can’t pet, and that cost the carnival ~$.015–but a soul nonetheless. If the good people who run these carnivals really thought about it, they would sell little “goldfish starter kits” for $20 right next to the game. (Small tank, canister of food, bag of rocks. Boom.) But, alas, the carnival cooperatives haven’t decided to do this quite yet. You cross your fingers that your goldfish makes it home alive (or not, perhaps) and then you scrounge around in your garage at 11:00 PM trying to find your old tank. Or worse, you grab the big ricotta cheese container you’ve been saving with the rest of your Tupperware (clean, preferably), fill it with water and tell yourself, “just for tonight.”

Carnival goldfish inevitably enable us to teach our kids about the circle of life. In a way, the carnival people might be providing one of the greatest services to us parents. We get the opportunity to discuss life and death with our kids. Understand care and feeding. Feel love for something that relies on you. Create burial practices, understand loss. Conversely, this “prize” allows parents to lie and deceive our children by any means possible (another great skill to hone to deflect discussing one of life’s difficult issues) to replace the dead fish with a similar looking one before the kid finds “the floater.”

When my kids won a goldfish this year at the fair, ONE goldfish, they decided to spend $100 of their birthday money on a 10 gallon tank setup the next day (complete with kitschy “No Fishing” sign, faux plants, “deep sea” backsplash, rocks, and the all important filter.) I have to admit, it was kind of cool to have a nice tank after all these years. I thought this new guy had a fighting chance.

If you can keep the fish–or a series of lookalikes–great. You’ve succeeded. However, if you’re like most people, even with a fancy schmancy new fish tank, the fish die and you are left with an empty tank. You can perform an unceremonious flush of the deceased, or have an all out funeral (with eulogy and burial.) I’ve had both and everything in between.

At a certain point, the death of your fish is no longer a sad event for everyone, it’s just annoying. Trip after trip to the pet store to pick up the next round of goldfish becomes onerous. There had to be an easier way.

The last time we went fishing, we caught a lot of bluegill and sunfish. A lot. I usually just let the kids catch them and then release them back into the lake. But I just kept thinking of that empty tank. That sad empty tank. Fast forward two hours to our 10 gallon tank full of 4 inch pan fish. I had just been to LL Bean store and they seemed to be *thriving* in their tanks at the retail location. Well, I never thought I’d say this out loud, but the next day I muttered, “I really hope that bluegill doesn’t get stuck in the toilet.”

So, what I’ve decided to do now, is to go down to the local bait shop and buy minnows. Yes, minnows. They are pretty hearty, they are active in the tank, and the best part, they are sold…by the pound. I’ve resorted to buying my pets based on weight. It’s come to this.

Thank God I didn’t have to buy my beagle this way.

“Gunner. ‘Big boned’ like his mom.”

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