Monday, March 1, 2010

Don't let that chicken catch me!

The setting for most of my recollections of my Italian family is my Aunt Agnes and Uncle Andy’s house. I spent every Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years, and Easter there until I was 12 and at least Christmas or Easter there until I was grown.

My Uncle Andy was about five-foot-eight, bald, and looked vaguely like Danny DeVito, with shorter hair and a darker complexion. My Aunt Agnes was tiny. She was my Nana's younger sister, she stood about four foot one, and had thick coke-bottle glasses that made her eyes look HUGE, and she punctuated most of what she said with "oh Madonna.. I am so clumsy..."

I’m torn between telling you the background information surrounding their house or introducing you to it through my childhood impressions. For instance, as a young child I didn’t realize that they owned the apartment building where we would visit them or even that we would visit them in their basement. We entered through a little fenced in garden replete with a white statue of what I used to think was a little curly headed Italian boy, but eventually became aware was a lawn-jockey painted white. We went DOWN the stairs and entered into a big finished room that had big leather club chair in one corner beside the door, a TV in the next closest corner. The room was very long, and there were columns down the middle, lally-columns with a faux marble finish. The floor was covered in one-foot square red and white vinyl tiles. A kitchenette was in the far corner from the chair, and most of the room was taken up by a huge table. In my memory the space is huge, I now know it to be a little over half of the basement of the apartment building, and that the ceilings were low at 7 and a half feet. Although I know for a fact that I have actually been upstairs in my aunt and uncle’s apartment, I have no memory of it whatsoever. During nearly all of our visits we spent the entire time in their basement.

Beyond the Kitchenette area of the great room was a clean but unfinished space that housed a second stove, and industrial wall-mounted manual can opener, and maybe a freezer, a little deeper into this space there was a pool table (normally covered) stairs to the rest of the building, pantry shelves full of cans and jars of tomatoes, and peppers, and olive oil and all sorts of other food. In the middle section there was a furnace that made creepy noises, and at the opposite end of the dark, scary, unfinished area was the one bathroom that I didn't like to use for obvious reasons. opposite this bathroom was a storeroom (that in my teens I learned to love because it housed bottles of Manhattan Special Expresso Soda) and between the bathroom and storeroom was a set of concrete steps up to a Bilco Basement Door which opened into the “back yard” actually a gated and fenced-in paved alleyway and driveway.

My Aunt and Uncle always suggested I play out there, but I never wanted to because it was the home of “THE MONSTER”. Up against the house in the only unpaved patch of soil, stood a ten-foot anguished-looking splayed-limbed entity, cloaked in sinister black plastic plastic bags and silver duct-tape. I am not sure when I first became aware of this silent and menacing guardian of the "back yard" or how many years its identity remained a mystery to me.

You have to understand that to little kids, adult conversation is pretty much the way adults talk in the Charlie Brown specials... "wahwa WAH wah WAH wah WAH..." and at the age when most kids were beginning to understand adultspeak I was realizing that my aunts and uncles spoke it differently. I don't know if I asked them about the black-shrouded thing out back, but if I did, I darn sure wouldn't have understood the answer. To me, my conversations with my aunt sounded like this to me: "Whawa wa SO big! wahWa like some meatballs, wahwahwahwah OH MADDONNA wahwah left the water boiling." And my conversations with my uncle sounded like this: "Wah wah wah wa Rockefellah, did you leave the lights on when you went to the bathroom? Wahwah flush the toilet? wah wah seat wet?" In fact my uncle had a very playful spirit that I couldn't understand back then, and he was a big tease, but because I was afraid of the dark, I hated using his bathroom, and when I did, I had waited too long, and turned all the lights on on the way too the bathroom, on my pee-and-run assault. I typically dribbled on the seat, washed my hands and ran back to the warmth and bustle of the front room without flushing, or turning a single light out behind me, igniting in my Uncle, a keen interest in my bathroom habits.

My inability to understand the heavily accented Itanglish of my Aunt and Uncle led to two amusing incidents in my childhood.

The first incident occurred because of a nickname. It happened when I was about four. My Uncle Andy called me "pesce liscie" which apparently means "smooth fish" but sounded to me like "peeshee leaky" and combined with my uncle's acute concern with my bathroom activities as described above, along with his teasing nature, made me think he was talking about a portion of my anatomy that was leaking, thus I grew to believe that my "pee shooter" was actually called a peeshee, and that is exactly what I called it until I was nearly 10.

The second incident happened one Christmas eve when I was five-and-a-half years old. I overheard my Aunt and Grandmother discussing the menu for the following day. This is something that I was interested in, because my Aunt Agnes made wonderful meatballs, in fact for years no matter what she was preparing, if she knew I would be there she would be sure to prepare meatballs for me. I'll try to describe these meatballs later, because as it turns out, they did not enter the conversation, but a very sinister comment was made by my aunt that caused me to burst into tears. My mother finally calmed me down enough for me to speak. Then, between sobs, I sputtered out words that have followed me from that day to this: "DON'T...LET...THAT...CHICKEN...CATCH...ME!!!" If you don't understand, look at my name and say the words "Chicken Cacciatori" out loud, and you will understand the sense of betrayal a five-year-old felt at the hands of his beloved meat-ball-cooking aunt.

Now for those meatballs, they were firm but soft, they were moist, they were heavenly, and I have never tasted any like them, and my own attempts only approximate my aunt's wonderful creation. Here is my version of the recipe:

1 1/3 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound day old bread Italian bread with a firm crumb
1 cup milk
A bunch of parsley
1 egg
1/4 pound Regiano Parmigiano, freshly grated
Salt and pepper
1 Tblspn of butter
2 or 3 garlic cloves, sliced into as many pieces as meatbals
1/4 pound raisins
1/4 pound pignoli (pine nuts)
1 1/8 pounds blanched, peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup olive oil
A piece of an onion finely minced
Olive oil for frying

Soak the bread in milk for 10 minutes. Remove it, squeeze it dry, and combine it with the meat and the parsley. Work it together with your hands adding the egg, grated cheese, salt and pepper, butter, and mix well. Using your hands, make meatballs that are about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. Insert a raisin. a pine nut, and a slice of garlic in each one. Fry them a few at a time in the oil, removing them when they are golden brown, drain them well, and keep them hot.

While you're frying the meatballs, cook up a quick sauce with the tomatoes, onion, and olive oil. Heat the meatballs though in the sauce for a few minutes and serve.

I did eventually learn the identity of the "monster" in the back yard, apparently it was a winterized fig-tree. As for keeping fig trees and elaborately winterizing them, that's right, it's Italian.