Monday, February 1, 2010

Three degrees of separation from Beyonce

My earliest recollections of my Italian family are of my Grandmother. She was my Nana. My father's mother. She was a handsome, thin little woman with a warm smile and, in these memories, silver hair that she kept in a neat short hairstyle. I now realize she wore a wig. She had beautiful skin, and a slight tic that would occasionally cause her to raise her eyebrows, or wink or blink twice or three times in rapid succession. It didn’t happen often - maybe once or twice a day. When she was tired or stressed it did become noticeable, even to a small boy of five or six. When I was much older I overheard her confide in my mother that these episodes embarrassed her when they happened on the train, because she didn’t want men to think she was flirting with them.

Back then she lived in an apartment in the Marcy projects, a public housing project off of Marcy Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. If you have heard of the Marcy projects and you are not from Brooklyn, it is probably because Shawn Corey Carter, the rap artist better known as Jay-Z, grew up there. If you haven't heard of Jay-Z you have almost certainly heard of his wife, Beyonce Knowles.

This was not the Italian Neighborhood my Dad grew up in, but was not far from it. Even back then it was a rough neighborhood, though Bed-Stuy had yet to earn its terrible reputation. My memories of the place are sketchy. There was the playground with a great jungle gym and some concrete tubes that looked like they would be fun to play in, but always smelled of wine and urine because substance-abusing homeless people often slept in them. I also remember laying on my back and looking up at trees in the middle of about 20 or more tall buildings, and that all the other kids there were black, and most of them older, and since I also didn’t live there, I seldom found anyone who would play with me. I am certain that Jay-Z was not one of these kids, since this was two or three years before he was born.

I remember that we had to take the elevator up to Nana’s floor, and the elevator stunk of metal and of pine scented cleaner that did not quite mask something even less-wholesome underneath. But what I remember most clearly is opening the door to Nana’s apartment into light, and warmth, and the wonderful smell of Italian cooking wafting out at me. Nana would meet us at the door in a housecoat she would hug me, the housecoat left her arms bare, and her hands always felt cold, primarily from having just washed them. You see, we typically arrived just as she was either dredging potato croquettes in egg and breadcrumb, or hand-rolling tiny meatballs for her lasagna. I also remember staying over at that apartment one Christmas. My parents took the subway back to Manhattan, and Nana and I went to midnight mass. When we returned home, before going to bed, she lit a candle on a little shrine she had set up with a couple statues of saints. That is really all the memories I have of that apartment. In 1967 or so, when I was about six, she moved out into a smaller less-expensive apartment in a quieter neighborhood.

Potato Croquettes
3 pounds potatoes
6 eggs
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 cup milk
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
freshly ground black pepper

Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes, cook and cool them.
Mash the potatoes in a large bowl. incorporate the cheese and 4 of the eggs into the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper.
Pour flour onto a large plate and the breadcrumbs onto another large plate. Beat the remaining 2 eggs with the milk and pour this mixture into another large plate.
Starting with a ball of potato mixture about the size of an egg, form your croquettes using your hands (it helps to coat your hands in flour). The croquettes should look like fat tubes about 2 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. Dredge the croquette in flour, then the egg mixture, and finally, the breadcrumbs. Continue until all potato mixture is finished.

Carefully place 5 or six croquettes in hot oil and fry until they turn a deep golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all the croquettes are fried. You can serve them right away.

We'll that's enough for this post, we'll revisit my Nana in other neighborhoods she lived in a few posts from now. She was an amazing woman who raised two boys pretty much on her own, working in the textile industry in the 1940s and 50s, but next post we meet more of the family, and find out about the Monster in my Uncle Andy and Aunt Agnes' back yard, how I got a fish confused with part of my anatomy, and why I was afraid of a chicken.What can I say, it's Italian!