It is said that men marry their mothers. If that were the case, I would be content with meat loaf covered in catsup, overcooked pork chops and, on Fridays, bowing to the dictates of our church, canned salmon somehow transformed into burgers, as if we wouldn’t notice. My mother was many wonderful things, I should stress, and I don’t wish to appear ungrateful for her devotion and labors, which were considerable if for no other reason that five of her six offspring were boys, each of whom wet the bed far longer than whatever is considered the norm in this regard. She bore children for ten years, so a rough estimate indicates she spend fifteen to seventeen years changing diapers and bedding daily.
So she can certainly be forgiven her lack of culinary expertise based upon the limited number of hours in a day. My father traveled for many years, covering a dozen states in the Great Midwest. He often departed on Sunday night and returned Thursday night or Friday, leaving Mom with, well, everything, except a budget which would allow such luxuries as a cook or a visit to a restaurant now and again. But I don’t recall ever being hungry. There was always food. It was almost always prepared by Mom. There was the occasional T.V. Dinner, with its breaded something under heavy foil coverings, and baked apples which would melt flesh if not allowed to cool sufficiently. But such convience food was not for us, if for no other reason that there wasn’t enough room in the freezer to hold more than a single dinner of seven or eight packages.
What we had was an endless parade of overcooked roasts (beef, chicken or ham) always accompanied by potatoes (baked or mashed) and vegetables out of a can (peas, corn, green beans). These were followed the next night with casseroles made from the leftovers. You tossed them into a pan with macaroni, then added American cheese and a can or two of Campbells Cream of Mushroom soup. Nutritionally speaking, the best thing on the table was milk, which flowed out of glass half-gallon bottles delivered before dawn twice a week. The meals did advance family cohesion. We always ate dinner together. And no one left the table without finishing everything on it, or at least making it appear as if they had, a practice for which the family dog was forever grateful and overweight.
But the roasts, while prepared with love and the best of intentions, were always overcooked, particularly pork and poultry products. Food safety was not taken for granted in 1956, when I was born. If the recipe in the red-checkered Betty Crocker Cookbook said to cook a pork chop at 375 degrees for forty minutes, well, it was cooked at 400 degrees for an hour. Can’t be too careful, particularly if you are a mother who nearly lost a son to polio, not an unusual occurance back then. (Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine was not available in 1955, too late for one of my brothers, who still displays minor paralysis on one side of his face after surviving the disease as an infant.)
Dinner with Dad was more fun, at least. Who doesn’t love pancakes? My father’s favorite concoction was called a boloney special. Oscar Meyer provided the lunch meat for the family on those rare occaisions when Skippy and Smuckers took the day off. Marshmallow Fluff would be invented later. If someone complained that they had already had a boloney sandwich for lunch, Dad would insist that he was preparing something entirely different. He would fry the slice of pink paste in a pan and toast the bread before slathering it in Heilimann’s Mayonaise, and serving it with a sweet picklestick on the side. It’s not a boloney sandwich, Dad would say, it’s a boloney special!
You may have noticed my spelling of the word, baloney, which is commonly used to depict or describe something not quit true. A fib. Balderdash, hooey and hokum. The true spelling of the meat, of course, is “bologna,” and is derived from a region in Italy, Bologne. I am reluctant to connect the region to whatever it was that Mr. Meyer served up, and still does, according to his website, to the tune of more than one million boloney sandwiches every day. For as any decendant of the Bologne region knows, seasoned meats like salami are an intoxicating delight and quite unlike what ever passes for baloney in America. If you want to experience real bologna, try its Italian mother, mortadella, on a piece of Italian bread, which I always assumed was stale, since I had grown up on Holsum and Wonder and the like, which are in fact about 93 percent air and seven percent bread and if you don’t believe me, take a loaf out of a bag and squeeze it and you will easily get it down to about the size of a tennis ball, which can be devoured in a gulp or two. Or you can take my word for it and buy good bread.
It was just this sort of meat which attracted me to my wife. We met at a wedding of one of her cousins, who happened to be an old grade school chum of mine. She and I danced the night away and when I called the following week for a date, I suggested we simply meet at a park near her folks’ house, it being a splendid fall afternoon. I thought it was a bit early in the relationship for me to be meeting anyone’s parents, for I enjoyed my bachelorhood and took it quite seriously. I wondered as I approacher her what sort of greeting would be appropriate. Hello and a handshake seemed far too cold, since we did manage a bit of backseat bachanallia after the wedding. Still, a full-fledged kiss seemed presumptive. I decided a modest hug would be appropriate, so I placed my hands on her arms and bent in for a passing kiss on the cheek.
It was there that I was struck by the immistakable smell of garlic, a key ingredient in any seasoned meat. Garlic does not leave one’s breath with a mere swig of mouthwash. Upon consumption it enters the bloodstream and exits the pores on the skin, creating an invisible aromatic cloud. One can either love a garlic lover or not. It would make more sense for a man to marry a blonde and then complain she is not a brunette than it would to marry someone raised on Genoa Salami and then insist she stop eating the stuff because you can’t stand the smell. For hair color, I am told, can be altered, but no man worth marrying would ask his love to sacrifice the joys of sweet capicola and proscuitto ham.
My first experience with these meats came in first grade, at lunchtime. I attended a parochial school populated mostly by Irish kids (McCarty, McCaffery and MacInerney) and Italian kids (Biondi, Boilini and Bernardi), with a few Germans thrown in for good measure. We un-Italians scoffed at our Mediterranian friends and the meats on hard rolls which they ate for lunch. We share no culinary history, as the Italians actually have a culinary history and the Irish do not. But our parents did share a frugality which dictated that kids brought their lunches to school.
It would be decades before I discovered real food when my college degree got me a job as a waiter. I was stunned to see chefs serving pork chops after only several minutes in a broiler, served still spitting juices from their pink centers. I saw real steaks (not “chopped steak” which is hamburger, nor “salisbury steak,” which is hamburger which has started to spoil and is thus drowned in gravy), but real steaks, running red with blood and seasoned only with salt and pepper.
I dove into the task of educating myself about food and its skillful preparation and quickly discovered that the meats I had scoffed at in first grade were highly desirable but prohibitively expensive, double or triple the price of roast beef or ham. How then had these families of modest means provided them to their kids for school lunches? The answer, I would learn later, was culture. An exemplary Italian meal can be prepared for nearly nothing, if one is willing to put in the time and effort. Don’t ask me what the Irish were doing with their time that was more valuable than eating great food without spending any money. Writing poetry perhaps, about how hungry they were.
The Irish spent centuries fighting wars with the British, and usually losing. It was their misfortune that they weren’t conquered by the French, from whom they might have learned a thing or two about cooking, rather than by those boring Brits, whose pallates were every bit as unsophisticated as their own. Then, in the 1890’s, a famine caused those who could to flee and those who couldn’t to starve. My great grandparents were among the former, and when they arrived in America, they didn’t want to be Irish. They wanted to be American. What lay ahead was better than what they had left behind. The idea was to make money. Money bought food, and though most of that food came out of boxes and cans, it was better than what they were used to.
The Italians had of course suffered invasion. But something odd occurred when they did. Usually, the invaders become the dominant culture, with the conquered folks attempting to blend in. But the reverse has occurred in Italy, several times. The conquerers become Italian. Historians have debated the reasons for this, but obviously, it is the food. Like me, the Huns said a silent prayer that their mothers never discover their newfound love of olive oil and fresh tomato, with a leaf or two of basil tossed on top. Then they set out to marry an Italian girl, and the conquest, in reverse, was complete.
After a few more walks in the park with Adele, I finally accepted an invitation to meet the folks. There on the table was a chunk of brick cheese bigger than an actual brick. Next to it sat a loaf of Italian bread and a hunk of dried salami. A pot of soup sat over a low flame on the stove, its steam carrying the scent of chopped vegetables and chicken throughout the house. Downstairs were a dozen or more five-gallon glass bottles filled with wine in varying stages of fermentation, glass tubes spiraling out of rubber stoppers. Hanging from the cross beams in the unfinished ceiling were salamis, mortadellas, capicolas, green peppers, artichokes, onions, and of course, garlic, thousands of dolllars worth of treasure in the basement of a man who mowed lawns for a living. But when Mike wasn’t mowing lawns, he made wine. And he traded the wine for the meats, which were made in someone else’s basement. Everyone in that house ate like a king, and this is the culture of the Northern Italians. Everyone makes something. While Mike and his friends went to Chicago’s Maxwell Street to haggle over the price of grapes, the women would gather to make tortellini. They roll out sheets of pasta as big as the kitchen table. The filling is a blend of cooked pork and veal, mixed with cheese and spinach. The pasta is cut into squares slightly more than an inch. The tiniest dollop of the filling is dotted into the center of each square, which is then folded and crimped by hand by the thousands. The project provided every family in the group with their holiday dinners for the year.
It drove me crazy later, when I would volunteer to serve dinner at Christmas. I had become fairly competent in the kitchen. But when the turkey or crown roast or prime rib or filet mignon came out of the oven cooked to perfection, it inevitably sat on the stove for hours, while the family consumed bowl after bowl after bowl of tortellini soup and plate after plate of sliced salami and cheese and bread. By the time the main course was served, it had cooled to room temperature, its sumptious pink juices now covered with congealed grease. I wised up soon enough. This Irishman was not going to teach them how to eat. I started buying a pre-cooked, spiral-sliced Honey Baked Ham for these events, served cold. They raved. They loved it. They saluted my genius with bottle after bottle of Mike’s best wine, for I also learned that there was no room on their tables for milk.
I wonder now if I need to come clean to my wife about all this. I suppose every woman likes to know that her husband appreciates her meals. But what would she think if she knew that it was food that drew me to her.
Would her heart break? Would the discovery that my attraction to her was triggered not by lust or romance but hunger not merely put a crack in her heart, but send it through a Cuisinart, leaving it sliced, diced, minced, jullianned, pureed and, eventually, I supposed, liquified, dribbling over her diaphram, inching along the intestines, forming a creek over the quadricep and calve muscles before puddling under the plantar facia?
I tell her I love her, and it’s true. She is a lovely and affectionate woman. We have been happily married for 24 years. I praise her appearance every time I speak to her. But the subject comes up from time to time--what was the first thing you noticed?--and I have to check myself before accidentaly blurting out the truth. I usually buy time by filling my mouth with something, not hard to do in my house.