Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli*

Or: How a Gal from Texas Was Introduced to a Brooklyn-Italian Family

My mother, Marjorie, was of Irish/English decent, Her mother was an Atwood, and her Mother's Mother was a Kenedy. She was born in Seattle, Washington in 1941, followed by the troubled and premature birth of her younger sister Judy, and the subsequent birth of her brother Sam. Times were hard, and her father Samuel Center ran into some serious financial troubles, and Judy's early health problems were too much for him. He essentially abandoned my Grandmother Laura but eventually granted her a divorce when she met and fell in love with a young Navy Pilot, the man I knew as my Grandfather, McManus (Buddy) Huffman.

Grandpa Buddy was the best thing that could have happened to that family, he took to those kids like they were his own, regaling them with stories of Texas Rangers and Pioneers which were actually true stories of his family's history. When Marj's youngest sister Diane was born Buddy moved his young family to Bellville Texas, a town where all the old brick buildings were built by his recent ancestors, the Huffmans and the Colletons on land that had all once belonged to his more remote ancestors, the Maxwells. Thus it was that little Marjorie found herself transported to what she must have thought of as the Wild West, and from the close nuclear family of her Mom and siblings to the huge extended family of the Huffmans.

Marj thrived in Bellville. A regular tom-boy, she enjoyed the woods that backed up to her property and ran between the little farms and ranches between Bellville and the nearby town of Buckhorn. She liked hiking and camping, hunting and fishing. The later she could do in the nearby Brazos river. She also enjoyed building sandbag dams across the Piney Creek to form swimming holes that she and her brother Sam and the other kids from the neighborhood would swim in. In the fall she made money picking cotton for Mr. Pavelock. She also stole persimmons from his tree, and shot pomegranate seeds at the nether regions of his prize pigs. Grandpa Bud's sense of humor rubbed off on Mom, and she developed her own love of practical jokes and pranks as well.

Marjorie graduated from Bellville High School in 1959 (she was in the same class as Ernie Koy, Jr former American football running back for the New York Giants). She enlisted in the Women's Army Corp. Upon joining she discovered that on her birth certificate her biological father had inexplicably signed his name as Samuel Earl Dickson instead of Samuel Earl Center. So Margie became Marjorie May Dickson, and being from Texas, gained the nickname "Dixie".
While in basic training in Alabama, she honed her pranking skills, putting shoe-polish on the nose of a sleeping tattle-tale, placing blue dye in the shower-head of a hated instructor (if I hadn't heard this story long before they made the movie "Private Benjamin", I would have thought Mom was embellishing).

By 1960 "Dixie" was stationed in Washington, D.C. where a dapper young corporal, Tony DeVito, caught her eye: a handsome, urbane, Italian photographer with a Brooklyn accent, the man who would soon become my father. As for his part, he took one look at her and it was all over. He described her as having "movie-star looks" and "a southern-accent that could never be called a drawl" because she talked so fast he could barely understand her.
By August they were engaged and Tony took "Dixie" to meet his family in Brooklyn. Most likely they picked up Tony's mother Madeline and his younger brother Nicky at his mother's apartment in the Marcy projects, and took her to his Uncle Andy and Aunt Agnes's house in Fort Hamilton.

Marjorie would have been completely unprepared for the feast that met her. First a soup and salad, then a huge antipasto with salamis, hams, dry Italian sausages, and cheeses and roasted peppers and olives, it probably would have been the first time she ever tasted mozzarella so fresh and moist and al cruda (uncooked). Then there would have been the pasta course, probably spaghetti with meatballs, and braciola**(rolled, stuffed flank steak) and pork –all three meats cooked in the "gravy"(as we call tomato sauce) .

By this point in the meal the volume of the conversation would have raised, loud political discourse in mixed Italian and English with a Brooklyn-Italian accent would have been heard, as foreign to "Dixie" as her fast-talking East-Texas accent was to Tony's Family. The main course would have come out, roast beef with peas and onions, fried mushrooms-and-garlic, and stuffed artichokes. Uncle Andy whom had been teasing "Dixie" quite a bit by this point tried to talk her into eating the hair-like "choke" of the Artichoke. As the evening wore down they would have brought out a fruit bowl, and mixed nuts, and played dominoes or "Po-ke-no" (a combination of Poker and Bingo). Some of the men might have retired to the other room to shoot pool or 9-ball.Tony's cousins would have tried to get Tony and "Dixie" (who must have seemed like a real southern belle to them) to come shoot pool with them.

Then Aunt Agnes would have put on the Percolator (which any self-respecting Italian knows is a sign that it is almost time to leave) and made strong Italian coffee and everyone would have come back to the table for desert. Then the Pastries would have come out: Sfogliatelle (flakey leaves of cakey pastry), pastafrolla-a-esse ("s"-shaped shortbread biscuits), strati arcobaleno (7-layer rainbow cookies), tiramisu( pastry cream between two coffee-soaked lady fingers), babĂ  a rum (rum-soaked yeast pastries), biscotti regina (sesame seed cookies), and the king of all Italian pastries: cannolis!

In Italian the word cannoli means "little tube" the diminutive of "canna" meaning "reed" (or any hollow-stalked river-grass). The pastry is essentially a cookie curled into a tube-shape and filled with a sweetened ricotta-cheese filling, and dusted with powdered sugar. The ones Uncle Andy and Aunt Agnes served had small pieces of citrine (candied orange rind) in the filling, whipped cream was dolloped at the exposed ends of the ricotta filling, and chocolate sprinkles were applied to the whipped cream.

Never had Marjorie tasted such a concoction, it was love at first bite, and she decided right then that she'd made the right choice, laying down her gun and following her heart, she felt her days were like these cannoli shells sweet enough on their own, but she and Tony could fill them with all the best things in life, and when they were overflowing with love there would still be room for chocolate sprinkles. It's a good philosophy for life, and it's Italian.

* "Leave the gun. Take the Cannoli" is a line from the movie "The Godfather" based on the novel by Mario Puzzo

**Braciola can mean different things depending on what region of Italy you are from - for Neapolitans it usually meant flank steak rolled and stuffed with garlic, raisins and pignolli (pine nuts)
This entry is dedicated to my Mom, who passed away seven years ago this month:
Marjorie May DeVito, May 4, 1941 - June 10, 2004

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