This isn’t exactly a Christmas or New Year’s tale, but it has all the feeling and warmth of a family holiday dinner, so I choose to share it with you now.
I was once the absolute definitive example of a New York-Italian child. I grew up just outside the Big Apple with an extended family that rivaled the population of Rhode Island. My dark frizzy hair could blot out the sun and that was just what was on my head. As I lacked a Long Island (or Long Islant) accent and a plastic cover on my mother’s couch, I was just shy of a Guidette. If you’re thinking of MTV’s Jersey Shore be aware: those people are a representation of Jerseyites, not Italian Americans. As a youth, I spent an inordinate amount of time with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and Nonni and Popi. Due to the whole Catholic thing, there were a lot of family members to hang with; hundreds, maybe even millions. It was kind of like an Olive Garden commercial, only significantly less campy and far more tan.
My grandparents were from hardy stock; they came here separately from their small towns in Italy to a world they struggled to understand for the rest of their lives. My grandmother came from a teenie tiny village in which a woman who wandered the streets and spoke with the dead was revered and laundry day was a neighborhood affair in the local river. When Nonni came here, to Massachusetts specifically, she was put to work as a waitress in a family restaurant. She didn’t speak English, she liked people about as much as I do, and had left everyone she knew behind. Eventually my grandfather, who had come to America to find his fortune in New York, the unexciting stereotype, found my grandmother (I can only assume in personal ads in a 1930’s version of Craigslist) and put in a bid to marry her. When I asked Nonni about romance when I was a nosy teenager she looked at me in this “stupid American” sort of way and grunted a “Yeah”…or it could have been “nah”. I could never really decipher her grunts. When I asked my mother or aunts and uncles about it, they thought for a moment and then nodded slowly:
“Sure, there must have been some kind of romance. Pop would drive all the way from New York to Mass to see her in a time when cars maxed out at, like, forty miles per hour.”
“Really?”, I beamed. “He’d drive all the way to see her? How often?”
“Like… twice,” Pop replied. I don’t think he was kidding.
Nonni and Pop bought this big old, drab farmhouse, as intimidating and large as an old Victorian with none of the flare, built in 1905. Sure, a passerby might say it was painted white, but I’m sure my grandparents never even considered the color. It was as if the house could have been a vibrant rainbow of light and excitement from the color spectrum, but as soon as my super focused, hardworking grandparents moved in, the house suddenly had no time for the nonsense of color. The upstairs consisted of three bedrooms, one bathroom, a sitting room, small kitchen, and an undersized dining/living area for a family of seven. It was set up like a glorified shotgun or railcar apartment: long and narrow, with all its rooms off an even narrower hallway. The house was separated into two apartments by previous owners in the 1930’s, one upstairs and one downstairs. The downstairs apartment had been restructured and updated so many times that it was unrecognizable from its upstairs counterpart. To add excitement to the downstairs apartment, I will also add that a lady died in it. But I was also conceived in it, so, based on the properties of Algebra, any ghosts get cancelled out. When I was old enough to rent that space, I would have friends over and bring them traipsing through my grandparents home upstairs because the difference was like stepping back in time. My grandfather preferred it that way, right up until his passing at 97 years old this past summer. He died almost a year to the day my grandmother died. And he planned it that way.
Photo credit Joey Tarzia
By the time I was old enough to have memory Pop had gotten rid of the pool in the backyard and had turned the chlorine sodden ground into a garden. This was in Stamford, Connecticut, mind you. The suburb-turned-city just outside of New York City. He was as apt to find squirrels in his garden as beer cans and lord knows what other kind of trash. It wasn’t a farm; it was a lot not a half mile from the center of a very bustling and cramped metropolis. The house was on Cold Spring Road, which, by the time I was born, was four lanes wide with a median divider and a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, but you’d think it was Mach ten. There was a big old garage in back of the house that looked like it would collapse at any moment and dry salami hanging from its ceiling pretty much all the time. Lots of spiders, rusted tools, jars with nails and twine, and a big, blue Cadillac.
My grandfather’s success was due to the fact that he owned a liquor store. The Package Store. Kind of like calling the local market the Milk and Fruit House. One day my grandmother was working, leaning on the bar with her arms folded. In walked a man who took out a knife and stuck it straight through the meaty part of her forearm, right down to the wooden counter. And then obbed the joint. That was before I was born. I guess that’s learning the hard way that your family shop has become part of the bad neighborhood.
The issues that really killed me about my grandparents moving to America were the little things, the traditions they viewed as necessities that they didn’t drop, but were no longer really needed. For example, my grandfather would eat anything he caught, which was all fine and good for the wilds and majestic beauty of Italy, but that didn’t change when he moved to Stamford. It didn’t matter if it was a gopher with two tails and a nervous twitch from heroin withdrawal: if Pop found it in the garden it was dinner. As kids we had all seen him kill animals. And the killing wasn’t ever in a cruel or lustful manner… though I distinctly remember him holding a vendetta toward the same rabbit was eating his garden, because he didn’t see it as eating for survival, but just to piss him off. It was with a morbid, but entirely childlike curiosity that I watched him step on the back of a lettuce-eating groundhog and drive a shovel into the back of its neck. More humane I suppose then the drowning pool (a 50 gallon drum he kept at the garden gate) and less buckshot then a gun. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing my grandfather with a gun, as he seemed more of a finder-feeder then hunter. He acted this way because that’s what he was taught, it’s what it father did, and his own grandfather. He wasn’t wasteful, he wasn’t cruel, and he loved providing for his family more than he loved the sun.
When the family swelled and grandchildren (my cousins) started popping out left and right, Nonni insisted on having Sunday dinner at their place. It was Nonni, Pop, their five kids and their children’s children, so this cramped dining area for seven miraculously became a table for twenty. Catholics, man. My family was the original Anthony Bordain or Andrew Zimmern, trying exotic foods as character building exercises and larks. Most people have words of wisdom in their heads from their childhood. I merely have the all too constant comment “Eat that. It’ll put hair on your chest.” Delightful.
Every Sunday the same meal: really good homemade bread, home made meat sauce over pasta, ending with salad, fruit, and poker. And the meat was always beef or pork. Always. I was the youngest child of the youngest child and quite possibly the most annoying. Be that as it may, my older cousins and brother were not above using my youthful cuteness as scapegoat extraordinaire. If it’s one thing you learn even before puberty, it’s that youth is fleeting, and younger means cuter and more valuable. That’s why manipulation is one of the first things, almost instinctively, that children seem to catch on to.
Photo credit Joey Tarzia
One Sunday we were all there, huddled around the table, food in bowls and baskets and any other vessel that could be found, mismatched silverware chucked on the table along with glasses, jugs of wine and plates, more limbs and voices then there seemed people on the earth. Somewhere in the house a Yankees game was on, the noise and clamor of twenty people and children akin only to the Whos down in Whoville on Christmas day. Dinner was called and you never had so many people find seats so fast. Spaghetti and sauce got doled out, bread slices were grabbed and we dug in with gusto, the same meal we’d all had a hundred times and never tired of!…except this time something was different.
Something was wrong.
My cousins’ gulping and chewing began to slow as they stared into their plates and bowls, their eyes relaying all our thoughts in unison: Ewwwww. I got nudged by my older brother who is sitting next to our older cousin Cristina, sitting next to older Cathy and even older still Paul.
“You have to tell Mom this is gross.”
They were all looking at me. I gulped, not from food intake, but from fear. To talk ill of Nonni’s food was to be banished or, worse, yelled at. I looked at my mother chewing; I couldn’t tell if she knew. Had she realized something isn’t right? Was she continuing eating only because the sudden dip in food meant her own mother had lost it and she was coming to terms with the demise of the family? Had Nonni gotten so senile that she’s dropped boogers and fingernails into our food? What was happening?!?
“Mom, I don’t like dinner.”
“Katie, you do this all the time. Eat it.”
To be fair, I did not, do this all the time.
“Mom, it tastes funny.”
“Katie, it tastes exactly like it always does! Look, your cousins are eating it!”
I turned to see them beaming at my mother and nodding as if to say ‘Yeah, we have no idea what she’s talking about, and we would never throw her to the wolves.’
My grandmother never sat during these meals. She was forever bringing us water and more food and filling empty plates, the usual Nonni stuff. It was at this time that she brought in the giant sauce pot. I mean, huge. Le Crueset had nothing on this thing. She stood with it, teetering on the corner of the tabletop next to my grandfather, who was sitting in his usual Italian dinner jacket, at the head of the table.
“Do ya wanit now?” Nonni asked Pop.
“No, no! I have enough. Just leave it there!” Pop answered, food bulging from inside his cheek, as he motioned a fist full of bread toward a small empty bowl in front of him.
“Okay,” Nonni replied. She then proceeded to draw a ladle from the pot containing the biggest meatball I had ever seen.
Only it wasn’t a meatball. Though it was an entirely new sight to me, I knew instantly what it was:
There, hairless and cocked slightly in the spoon, staring eyeless right down the table, its lips peeled back and teeth gleaming through drips and globs of tomato and basil, was the head of a rabbit, its face meat and brain cooked ever so slowly out into our pasta sauce.
Plunk! Into Pop’s bowl. Much like being in a car accident, I only remember forks hitting porcelain plates then silence, a dull hum, everything in slow motion and everyone forgetting that exhibiting shock at dinner is breaking table manners.
My smart ass cousin Joey broke the silence with a nervous chuckle.
“Pop, what is that, raccoon?”
“No,” groaned Pop. “The raccoon’s ova there,” he said this still chewing, not joking, fist apathetically waved, roughly pointed to the bowl of meatballs.
This second wave of shock and nausea was shattered only by my mother, who leaned over and gasped “You’re excused!” At least I think that’s what she said. My memory is determined to tell me she turned to us children and screamed “RUN!”, but I simply don’t think that can be true.
But I do remember quite clearly the Hershey bars we were given for dinner in lieu of Nonni’s cooking that night.
And to this day I just don’t really like Hershey bars.