Casa Mia

Casa Mia

Friday, June 4, 2010

Memories from the "other side"

Today I have reached the age where I can see the end of life drawing nearer - my life, the life of my friends and some of my family. Not to be morbid but, at 55, the years ahead of me are growing shorter, the ones behind, much longer, and after having received the very sad news yesterday that my second cousin on my father's side, Greg, suffered a massive stroke and died at 59, I am changing direction of this next post, previously scheduled to discuss summer barbecues, to rehashing some memories of the other side of my family in Greg's memory.

Like most families, ours was much closer to my mother's side than my father's. Most holidays and Sunday dinners were spent with Grandma and Grandad, Auntie Jean, Uncle Freddie and Uncle Bobby rather than Poppa, Grandma and Aunt "Cookie," but when we were together, boy was it fun. Even though first cousins Gay and Gary were playmates for Mindy and Stephen, I enjoyed the "Italian-ness" of the day in ways that were unfamiliar to my upbringing and definitely not enjoyable to my mother. Ironically, it was never about the food!  

What I loved best about those "Moliterno Sundays" was my grandfather: a short, chubby, incredibly happy man with a mustache and a strong Italian accent who called me "Poopsie," brought me Hershey bars and dollar bills when he came home from the dress factory where he worked and loved his food and wine. With a name like Felice, how could he be anything but happy? Poppa had diabetes so my grandmother restricted his intake of macaroni and vino on Sundays to the point where they bickered bitterly. I affectionately referred to them as "The Honeymooners." While the women were busy setting out the homemade braciole, stuffed breast of veal or steak pizzaiola, on the table, Poppa sat alone, with his macaroni dish full, napkin tied around his neck, glass of homemade red wine ready to be drunk as soon as the family joined. And as he watched my grandmother leave the room to fetch another dish, he poured his glass of wine into his dish of macaroni, stirring it around to remove all traces, poured himself another glass which he chugged down and poured yet another to replace them both before she made it back! Pretty smart thinking for an immigrant: he managed to get himself three glasses of wine this way instead of the one she permitted and he was happy!

But Grandma Louise was no dummy - short, grey haired, squatty and built like a box, Grandma had eyes behind her back and although she never said it, I'm sure she knew what he was doing. Maybe because 3 of her 5 babies died and she suffered from epilepsy, she was tough as nails, took no crap from anyone and kept the family in line at all times, especially her French poodle, Pee Wee, and my cousin Gary who she threatened to sweep the floor with constantly if they didn't heed her warnings. On those Sundays when my brother joined the chaos, the entertainment couldn't be beat as there was always fighting, yelling, laughing, and someone getting hit. (There was no such thing as a "time out" for misbehaving kids in those days!) It was that old-world-Italian, rough-around-the-edges-way about my grandmother that also made me love Moliterno Sundays because in spite of her bluntness and seemingly guarded persona, this lady hand-fed me Cheerios for breakfast when I was a baby and slept at their house, rubbed my back for hours to lull me to sleep, knit me sweaters and mittens and hemmed my bellbottom jeans, and amused me endlessly with her scoffing and snorting at women wearing mini skirts, professional boxers cheating during a match and bitchy women fooling around with someone else's husband on the daily soaps. Best of all, she was the family matriarch so every Sunday, in spite of Cookie's under her breath complaints about pulling out the food all over again, all my grandmother's nieces, nephews and their kids came over for dessert and coffee and to pay their respects to this lady. And for her part, though she "hmmmmphed" behind their backs, she accepted them and served them generously week after week after week. 

One of the Sunday cousin visitors was Greg. Since Greg's mother was my father's first cousin on Grandma's side, Greg, like his mother, wasn't really a Moliterno but a Crocco, and maybe that's why my grandmother was the way she was because it seemed that the Crocco lineage was responsible for that rough and tough veneer, although it was (fortunately) lost on Greg and a few other next gen cousins. When that clan united on Moliterno Sundays, the stories exchanged among Aunt Cookie, Greg's mom, Mary, her sister Renee, and brothers Frankie "Bird Cage," Bobbie and Johnny, as well as my grandmother herself were unbelievable! The teenaged second cousins like me, Greg, Glen, and Chris were left, as Greg said years later, in shock and awe. Stories included Grandma telling her cousin Biase with the huge handelbar mustache to shave his arms so that the homemade cheese he sold in the parking lot at any relative's wedding (my parents' included) wouldn't have hairs in it (no lie) and revolved around people with nicknames like the "Andrew Sisters", 3  unmarried distant cousins; "Lady Norelco," a hairy female cousin;  "The Little People" a family of short relatives, and "Da-Da"  a nosey neighbor who rocked on her front porch commenting on the neighborhood goings on most of the day (hence the da-da slang for guarda, guarda) - all brought laughs so hard from the adults, in-laws included who knew this people only by nickname, that when it grew late and everyone started packing up to go home, it was us young ones who begged to stay longer and hear more.

As the years went on, the younger cousins stopped coming to the Moliterno Sundays choosing to go out with friends of their own age instead; some of the older cousins moved away or divorced or just chose to wash their hands of the family shenanigans and the guard changed. My Poppa died, my grandmother moved to the south with my aunt and her family, and the family bond, as harsh as it may have seemed, just fell away. I didn't see Greg for years but from time to time we would email one another, even call and talk, and always we reminisced about some member of our crazy clan, Biase's hairy cheese or Joanne's "damn danderees" but always fondly and somewhat longingly. He was the only cousin from "the other side" I felt any closeness to and with him gone, I'm left to the memories of Moliterno Sundays alone.

Nevertheless, this is a cooking blog and so I will provide a recipe from Grandma Crocco Moliterno that is a favorite in my family. Although she wasn't a great cook, there were a few things that she made that my family loved like her Sunday gravy with neck of lamb (got some of those in my own freezer),  breast of veal stuffed with egg and breadcrumbs, steak pizziaola which I cannot duplicate and her famous chicken with Bermuda onion that I have provided below. This is as close to associating food with Greg that I can come so make this chicken on a family Sunday and enjoy the memories. I promise the next blog will be more light hearted....

Chicken with Bermuda onion
Chicken parts (legs, wings and some breasts with bone)
1/2 cup Olive Oil
2-3 Bermuda onions sliced
1-2 T. Oregano
Salt and Pepper

Wash all chicken parts and pat dry with paper towel. Place in a baking pan and add sliced Bermuda onions, olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper. Toss to coat chicken.

Bake at 350 for about an hour turning chicken pieces halfway through cooking. Remove when onions are soft but not burnt.

This can be made in advance and eaten cold during the summer or hot as desired. The onions are delicious by themselves. Serve with rice and vegetable. Grandma would have served this chicken with baked rice, similar to baked ziti (fix cooked rice in a baking dish with tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella), and escarole.