Finding Peace in the Process



The 'Burbs, Illinois,
January 18
Married father of two girls. Was a writer in a previous life. Drove a truck for 20 years. Trudging the road of happy destiny since 1987.


MARCH 21, 2011 2:17PM

Will marry for food

Rate: 44 Flag


     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. 

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food/drink, fiction, family, comedy

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Ha! what a great sum up of the mysteries of cultures and the foods they love ~ Don't be too tempted to tell her that about the attraction, she may take some umbrage to it and ... here, put this in your mouth.

Great post!
So wonderful to have you back here with your vivid and honest writing! I could smell the garlic and the warmth.
Hope life has been good to you in the interim, and please stay awhile.
Jim--You could write the phone book and I'd like it. I'll tell you though--this story is pretty familiar. My Mom is Irish. Like you, this is not a complaint. I'm describing, not criticizing. When we'd have spaghetti, she'd usually not have time to drain the grass in the hamburger. Vegetables were frozen blocks boiled till warm in a sauce pan. And don't get me started on things not to do with cream of mushroom soup. It's a really long list.

My wife is Sicilian. Which is like being Italian on crack. From her father and her DNA in general, she makes meals like DiVinci made paintings.

Say nothing. Just enjoy!
GREASE in the meat---not grass. See what a trauma it was!
SOOOOO good to see you back here!!!
You are a wise man. Loved this.
I get this! Beautifully written as always,'s good to see you. My wife was Mexican, I am Jewish...we loved food, cooked well, and there was definitely a chemical attraction associated with that...xox
I get this! Beautifully written as always,'s good to see you. My wife was Mexican, I am Jewish...we loved food, cooked well, and there was definitely a chemical attraction associated with that...xox
Thanks for a boatload of memories and laughs. I'll say it again -- we're twin sons of different mothers. I was 17 before I had my first real steak -- a T-Bone from Walgreen's I promptly disgorged.

Mom's idea of steak was swiss steak -- a cheap cut of round beaten to death with a saucer and drowned in some sauce that came in a can. They should have asked Mom to participate in the assassination of Rasputin.
I'm so freaking hungry now, and there's nothing good in the house! Sigh...great post though! r
Not to worry. Tell her you merely prove the old adage that "the way to a man's heart . . ." After 24 years of marriage to you I'll bet she gets it. :) Rated
A wonderful stroll through memories which made me recall some of the meals I had. I'll bet your wife knows your secret, but if not I won't tell. Great to see you back.
Adorable post and for a minute I thought you were pandering for a new wife! Yikes! The horror! The carving knives in the kitchen! Duck!

And here's the thing: You and I have the same mother! Every word you wrote of your mom's cooking is my mom to a tee! Also Midwest roots (pure Irish, mine was) and a dad who was a great cook but only on the weekends! Oh, how we longed for his German pot roast!

Loved this!
Jim: It's a miracle the Irish have survived to write about their mid-century diet. You delightful post brought back all the sights & smells of a cuisine that were pretty uniform -- pan-blackened roasts, pork chops like greasy cudgels, both types of potatoes -- boiled or mashed, never deep-fried.

My Buffalo demographics were a lot like yours & roger's -- Irish & Italian, mostly followed closely by Poles & some few germans. When an Italian specialty store opened at the local shopping plaza, us whitebread Irish used to dare one another to go inside and smell the cheeses that hung from the rafters. We couldn't believe people ate such stuff. If it was spicer or more flavorful than a can of Campbell's Cream of Tomato, we didn't get it. Neither did the neighborhood - the shop closed in less than a year, the victim of deep-dish culinary ignorance.

Anyway, it was delightful re-living those days. I'm glad to see you're back & with Lea hope you'll stay awhile.
My mom and your mom had a lot in common, food-wise. Loved the post.
Return of the mac. Similar fare at the home; she was Italian but had to keep it basic. Pass the velveeta.
:) it's good to see you
and yeah, who doesn't like being fed well?
Five boys. I give your mother great credit for not simply tossing a chunk of raw meat on the table. I grew up on Midwestern cooking, too. Anything beyond salt and pepper was a treat, even if it was MSG mixed in the store-bought, pseudo-Chinese food.
Hey there, Jimmy! It's been too long. So, how much ya gonna pay me NOT to send this post to Mrs. Mac?????? lol

I was taught "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach." I guess I should have listened better.

I have grown up with nationalities like you speak of, I had one friend who was Irish and French, her mother spoke fluent hamburger or some other spreadable product, prouably not Spam. Then I had some Polish American friends, a family that roasts together stays together, including pot luck, and meat loaf yes with a stripe of katsup. Then my Italian mother, a pot of sauce a religion, steak nay, ketchup could be outlawed, and bizza would be a treat with a beer about 20 or so years. A woman shouldn't be drinking such things, but Italian as she was we couldn't afford certain Italian luxuries such as Proscuitto, but so what when the Queen served Mortadella on crunchy Italian bread who could resist. Along with a nice wedge of Provolone, now your in love. You get the jist, yes I do allow ketchup in my home, but when people want to put a straw to it, I draw the line. (lol)
jimmy ... superb writing. you certainly arouse all of the senses in this post; i remember so much of my childhood menu in this.
The early part of your post triggered a flashback. I remember that type of food, down to the well-done meats. My mom could cook, when we didn't eat the pre-packaged stuff. But she had to work, and convenience food was a help. I appreciated the discussion of how the Italian immigrants were able to eat so much better than other working class people. Very interesting! Now I'm hungry.
Loved this Jimmy. What a delightful family/love narrative. You and Adele are both lucky...and you know I am as well. Well done, friend.
We were raised by the same mother.I love it that my mom made horrible pot roast and served slimy onions with everything.She still does,and I still roll my eyes at her food.It is her MO.Hey we all have to have some sort of cross to bear:) Wonderful post.
Ahh, truly it must be that the stomach is the window to one's soul. Eloqent and rich writing, Jimmy. I am happy to see you back.
hey, jimmy. you've been a missed guy these many months. so glad to see you back and even gladder to read one of your terrific stories. don't stay away so long next time, ok?
wow! You can really write. This was so interesting. Your wife sounds lovely.
I've been married 5 times, I can attest to the truth of this post. Single isn't bad either, I'm glad I gave up both cooking and baking.
This is just great, great, great!!!! I can't believe it didn't make EP or cover.
What a delightful piece! I love your writing. You can always tell your wife you were attracted by her fragrance, and you wouldn't be lieing.
I'm amazed at my mom's culinary efforts. She taught school and still found time to cook most of the meals. They weren't flashy, but they were invariably tasty and plentiful. Her pies were unbelievable, and she made her own crust from scratch. She probably made 10 pies per year for the family, and 10 cakes. She would make a lot of pies Christmas eve while getting ready to begin preparation for a huge Christmas dinner. On Christmas day, after dinner, she would take about 5 pecan and apple pies and drive all over town delivering them to her good friends (of whom whe had far more than I will ever have).

My mouth is watering as I type!
I think we had the same mother -- great mom, not so much of a cook, cooked meat until it was dry enough to ground into powder. Eggs too; they turned to sawdust in her frypan. We also ate the fried bologna (you have to cut the edge so that it it will lay flat, without curling, in the pan), on white bread with mayo. To this day my dad won't eat wheat bread.

Your description of your wife's family's larder had me contemplating a proposal, so I don't fault your reasoning. Isn't it grand that you got a great wife out of it as well? Lucky you!
Thanks for all the nice comments. Hope to see more of everyone soon.
Tasty prose! How lucky for me that when I dropped by you had something new written. Hope you'll keep it up, and give me another reason to come back.
I was just thinking about you, and came over here to see if you'd written anything "new" . . . and there's this! Hooray! My grandmother always said that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach . . . in this case, perhaps that's true, and not such a bad thing.
Soooo glad I checked your page today and found this! Welcome back and I hope there will be more to follow. Meanwhile, excellent post as always, Jimmy. I remember I wrote once about food here and it became instead an amazingly cathartic piece about remembering my father. They're inextricably linked, aren't they, food and memory and childhood? I hope all is well with you and your family, best regards and rated!
Foodies are so cute. I enjoyed this very much and I admit that I cook kind of like your mom only no baloney of any kind and I like fresh stuff, too.
Your writing pulls me in every single time And guess what? I am Irish, my husband is full blood Italian (Calabrese, Sicilian) and we have six children only for us there were five girls the oldest a son. His parents had five sons and two daughters. We were raised on some kind of meat, potatoes at every dinner and canned peas, corn, or green beans and we were ordered to drink that glass of milk. Any food left on the plate was considered a waste. My husband Steve was raised like your wife. His father Dominic, "Nick" was a screamer so when Steve went to basic training in 1969 he thought to himself, "hey Sarge, is that all ya got." Nick was a long shoreman and he didn't care what anyone thought of him. Our son would mow his lawn out of respect! Nana Raffele gave him money by having him reach under the formica kitchen table where she always sat. Jimmy, you have made my day. I have Steve's grandmother's ravioli cutter which I display in my kitchen near my potholders.
Jimmy, you have struck a common chord with so many.
I have pretty good teeth which I believe I inherited from generations of euro trash that ate bark and loved it, Pop's steaks were quite like the bark of an old oak and too tough for my teeth and gums. Pop thought a meat hammer was for meting my punishment, that and a coat hanger. When he exclaimed that his lima beans were delicious I reminded him that as a bark eater and the son of a bark eater he had no culinary cred. "Pop you wouldnt know dogfood from the dog"
I always felt like I should survive that kitchen so that the world would know of the evils that were perpetrated there.

Mom wore two holes in the kitchen linoleum, one by the sink and the other by the counter where she baked poppy seed cake and made the best walnut fudge. She was so passionate about walnut fudge that she planted walnut trees, and with her arthritic hands cracked the walnuts with Pop's framing hammer and a steel railroad plate. That didnt always go well for Momma's fingers but like a real addict she didnt learn from the hazards of her passion.
Mom and Pop survived the depression and found great joy in humble things like bark. After Pop retired he went to France, said they have very good bread in France. -pigpenpal