Our “New” Normal Might Look a Lot Like My “Old” Childhood: a Post Lockdown Opinion

Although the exact quote escapes my memory, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni referenced a colleague or friend who said something along the line of “feeling silly about past complaints of waiting in a crowd, for an exorbitant amount of time, for a table at a busy New York City restaurant.”

The reference went on to mention that, in these strange times, what a pleasure it would be to waste your time waiting like that once again.

It’s funny how all of us have taken for granted the mundane moments of perceived inconvenience: a long grocery line, or a crowded restaurant.

Or even worse, taking for granted the good stuff: a hug from a friend or loved one. That meal out, once the wait was over. The anticipatory buzz of the crowd right before a concert or performance.

With a viral pandemic has come a lot less of what we had, but perhaps more of what we need. As the curve flattens, and cases keep declining, the new anticipation and buzz will be looking to the future, how we should navigate it, what some are calling a “new normal.”

To me, that normal could look a lot like the mid 70’s, seguing into the decade of the ’80s: what I perceive to be simpler times, less convoluted lives, and the return to focus on what’s important, rather than the unessential.

A Better Life with Less?

If you’re like me, you’ve been driving less. No commute, and making trips that are only absolutely necessary.

Speaking of trips, there may be less travel overall. Although my wife and I had targeted 2020 for an initial trip to Italy, and canceled a March trip to the west coast of Florida, I wonder aloud: will we stay closer to home now?

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A favorite northbound road trip

Less car travel should mean less traffic. Less road induced stress. Easier trips when taken. Less pollution, with cleaner skies. A renewed appreciation for the road trip, as it’s being taken less frequently .

There should be less brick and mortar recreational shopping. More thought put into what we do buy. Less consumer consumption, and jostling hostility during silly holiday sales.

I know this may be just a crazy dream, but how about a little less political strife? Maybe a little more listening to your fellow human being without judgment and angry rebuttal.

While we’re on the subject of more, what could we expect more of?

Much of it, as far as I can see, looks like a throwback to a well spent youth.

What There Should Be More Of

There should be more gratitude. If virus related death or illness has not yet invaded your inner circle, praise your good fortune. Praise the fact that when your feet touch the floor in the morning, you will have another day.

If prayer is your thing, participate in more of that. It can only help.

When there is a return to normal, if it’s possible, I predict more heart, more affection. As an Italian American, it destroys me to not be able to hug family and close friends. Kiss them on one cheek, or both.

I’m not wired this way, and my guess is you’re not either. I can’t wait for my first rib crushing hug from a friend when it can happen.

There’s going to be more genuine communication. Maybe this is showing my age, but I find myself picking up the phone more to talk, rather than just shooting over a text or a social media update.

In the same vein, more neighborhood socializing is becoming prevalent, as we go outside with any opportunity to leave the house, weather permitting.

We’ve been sitting on a neighbor’s concrete backyard patio recently – properly distanced, imbibing in a drink or two, sharing recent family news or well recalled memories.

If there is a throwback to the old days, this point would be it. In a neighborhood rife with Italian immigrants, the tight knit social network was the end all, be all of their American lives.

On a sunny morning or afternoon (yes, here in the Northeast, they are becoming more frequent!), my wife and I will spend time on our back deck. Thank God for the deck, and the music that accompanies it. Music lovers to begin with, we’re listening much more than we used to, complimenting the isolation situation.

Music is the language of sanity during times of strife and stress. Enjoy more, more, more of it, absolutely guilt free.

More time outside equals more movement: whether you prefer a walk around the neighborhood, running, yoga, or simple play, it’s all good. If music is the language of sanity, movement and exercise is the translation.

There is a trend already burgeoning toward growing more of your own food. As an article at reuters.com recently noted:

People around the world are turning to gardening as a soothing, family friendly hobby that also eases concerns over food security as lockdowns slow the harvesting and distribution of some crops. Fruit and vegetable seed sales are jumping worldwide.

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My son and I in front of my grandmother’s massive vegetable garden – seems like a lifetime ago.

Watering and mowing the area around the numerous fruit trees and vegetable gardens at my grandparents’ house is a cherished memory. If growing food is a trend, well, the Italian immigrants were the original trendsetters. Pears, cherries, corn, peaches, zucchini, tomatoes, beans, basil – back in the day, we had it all.

Apparently, this way of life is making a long overdue comeback.

Where some of us may be looking to grow our own food, the concrete trend we can point to is everyone is now, for better or worse, cooking their own food.

Restaurants, surviving on a pivot to providing optimum curbside take out and delivery service, may finally open soon. But a 25% occupancy may be all that’s allowed at first, to enhance social distancing and safety protocols.

I wonder aloud, yet again: when the openings happen, how many of us will show up?

Do you really want to sit at a table, being approached by a waiter who needs to pull down his N95 mask to say “May I take your order?”

I don’t know about you, but I may be waiting awhile to inhabit my favorite restaurants.

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Pan fried meatballs in our kitchen, just like the old ladies used to make.

We’ll basically keep doing what we’ve always done: cook the majority of our meals ourselves, in our own kitchen.

While no slouches in the kitchen to begin with, we’ve taken our normal cadence of food prep to another level – especially my wife, whose furlough from her job has given her an abundance of time to take it there.

The constant activity in the kitchen is the thing that most reminds me of my childhood: one Sicilian or another would always be in the kitchen cranking out dishes that would provide calories, sustenance, and most importantly, the comfort and connection we craved.

That sense of connection is needed more now, to carry us through uncertainty that we face.

When we’re in the kitchen together, the outside world is banished.

Aromas permeate the house that bring back the cooking sessions of my childhood, where I was just an observer.

They bring back the conversations with my grandmother, memories of great aunts and uncles now gone. The stories told, lessons learned.

It’s relaxing, energizing, comforting. Just the tonic we need to bring us through the pandemic age.

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In Times of Anxiety and Stress, a Grandmother’s Comfort Food Solution

Whether it was for a happy celebration, or aid to get through a painstaking ordeal, comfort food has always been there for me. We have a long, storied history together.

When I was younger, my side of the relationship was just a little too dependent: to the point where I needed to call on outside resources to help me do some damage to existing fat cells, improve my long term outlook, and lose weight.

Both my grandmother and her sisters were partners in keeping me a well fed boy throughout most of my life. To this day, I still enjoy many of those dishes with a familiar gusto and passion: albeit in smaller portions.

As we move through what looks like the “middle chapters” of an incredibly stress inducing time for many people, to stay mentally healthy and engaged we will all be searching for comfort – as much as we can in a state of self imposed isolation.

My wife and I are not “social isolation” types. But we are managing quite well through her working hours being slashed (like all restaurant workers), my son about to partake in distance learning for his college courses, and my own acclimation to a makeshift office with laptop and mobile phone that will, most likely, now be headquartered at our dining room table.

Gratefully, we are all healthy. Although we know people have the virus, COVID-19 has not darkened our door.

There are Students, There are Masters

img_0995When Rosina and Nicolina were alive, my wife paid attention: their kitchen tips, tricks, and habits were absorbed by the student, and now she has become the master. We, even in what we would call “normal” times, have always reached to the unwritten recipes and generational traditions that these women shared with us. We don’t want to forget, and they need to stay alive in spirit: My godmother has been gone for several years, and my Nonna passed away 10 years ago, this past January.

Their gifts to us, whether gastronomical or inspirational through their fascinating stories, keep on giving: and they will be well appreciated in this challenging time period that is to come.

One lesson my wife learned well is that of La Cucina Povera, or Kitchen of the Poor. The skill proved to be important when our kids were young and we had little money, and it will more than likely prove to be effective now that we are certain to face roadblocks in this uncertain year.

The Kitchen of the Poor for me, however, reads more like a menu of luxury items: the ultimate in my grandmother’s comfort food arsenal. The list might include a silky vegetable minestrone, greens and beans spiced appropriately with hot pepper, an egg frittata, or as pictured above, a simple dish of pasta with tomato, onions, and peas.

They’re inherently easy dishes to prepare, and would include ingredients you would probably already find in your fridge or pantry: no need to visit a store with your mask and tape measure, to ensure you are six feet from the closest fellow human.

My wife and I have recently broken our longstanding commitment to any broadcast news exposure to stay informed here – and as you might expect, our anxiety levels increased dramatically with that exposure. Aside from staying home and in isolation in the attempt to stay healthy, the comfort foods from the past provide much needed respites from the effects of your local/national talking heads.

There is much more to Sicilian comfort/ resilience than what you can eat, as you might imagine. Nonna could very well, as you were eating, tell you not to worry: that dark clouds will disperse (she knew that better than anybody), ask you to express gratitude, work through the challenges that you face, and create some happiness in others by making them smile.

By the time I would have reached the bottom of the bowl, I would have absorbed at least a few lessons in good living.

And in this house, that’s why it’s called “comfort food.”

To make your own delectable entree like the one pictured here, see below: F25BD020-CCE7-460B-B44A-5044CFEA1D12

“Can’t get much simpler” Easy, peasy pasta with peas

Simple, simple, simple: that’s what our menu reflects. You’re stressed enough – who needs complications? First, grab a box of dried pasta. If the market still isn’t sold out. Thin spaghetti or Angel Hair. Barilla brand is fine, or better yet, DeCecco.

You’ll need a tomato sauce. I’m usually against sauce in jars, but we’re trying to keep stress at bay here. Just buy a quality/local brand: no Ragu or Prego, please. For a simple sauce recipe you can prepare, use this easy one made famous by chef Marcella Hazan:

Find a large white onion. Cut it in half. Put the one half flat side down in a deep pan. Heat the pan, adding butter (I use a little olive oil in the pan, as well). Half stick, whole stick, depending on how decadent you feel or how much comfort you need. Take a can of San Marzano tomatoes, crush them with your hands, and once butter is melted, throw them in the pan. Bring it to a boil, then let it roll on simmer for a half hour.

That’s it. Your sauce is done.

While the sauce is cooking, boil a pot of water, salting it liberally once heated. Cook your macaroni according to the directions.

Take that other onion half, and dice it. Add that to a smaller pan with a little olive oil, and throw some frozen peas in. Let them roll until they shrink up a bit and start to caramelize. Add the pasta to the pan with some of the sauce, and sprinkle grated cheese on top.

You’re done. Dinner is served!

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The Family Ties That Bind, and the Greatest Grilled Cheese Ever

 

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Aunt Carmel, center, with my great grandmother Maria, and family friend Maria Commis

If you’ve been with me on this journey somewhere over these 130+ blog posts, you’re intimately familiar with my thoughts, and the specific love and admiration I have for all things family.

You’ve met the individuals who I consider the titans of our little tribe, many of them more than once: my Nonna, who arguably is the reason I started putting my fingers to a keyboard. My great aunt, also my godmother, dubbed the “Last Sicilian.” You’ve met Dominick a number of times, as well as Mariano and Antonio.

All amazing people, with equally amazing stories, that I feel compelled to share with you.

But there is one glaring omission: one that has gone for far too long and needs to be rectified.

This sin of omission happens, perhaps, for the lack of key memories. This family figure passed away when I was just a boy, not even yet a teenager.

I called her Aunt Carmel, but Carmela Tagliarini Prezio was my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, who came here with her sisters as part of the immigration wave of Southern Italians and Sicilians to this country.

Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily.

My “Aunt Carmel” had such a giant personality and family care taking instincts that she had a chance to supplant her sisters, my grandmother and godmother, as being my favorite. She just left us a little too soon to find out.2386CD98-AD99-461C-8DB6-E6ED78E53819

Her story (and their story) emigrating to the wintry slop of New York from sunny Sicily, is a dramatic one. Although I believe the connection between Italians and organized crime is an overblown stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood cinema, a true crime story was happening in Sicily to drive my grandmother’s family out.

My great-grandfather, Calogero, was running a warehouse for the government in Sicily. The local branch of organized crime targeted him as a revenue source, which he had no interest in complying with. The situation became more extreme with a warning gunshot to my great grandfather’s foot, and the future decision was made to flee Sicily when they could.

Aunt Carmel was like many other Sicilian immigrants: hard working, entrenched in her faith, and centered around family. There were mighty struggles, and good times, throughout her life. Her husband, Anthony Prezio, carved his path as one of our family’s first entrepreneurs (and restaurant owners) after holding a series of jobs.

If you’re familiar with immigration history, many of those that came to America (Irish and Italians included) were offered only the most menial, sometimes dangerous, manual labor jobs.

For some Italians, the only way for upward mobility was to start a business, in an attempt to control their own destiny.

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Celebrating life and love with family

My connection with Aunt Carmel was a close one, as the family was tight knit, living on the same block on the same street, as many immigrants were to do. My grandmother lived directly across the street, so us kids would bounce back and forth between houses as necessary.

The most consistent memory of my aunt was as I was coming home from elementary school for lunch, stopping at her house to be fed. Since my parents and grandparents were working outside the home, Carmela invited me into her’s for many wonderful meals.

Her specialty  was a toasted cheese sandwich: not a grilled cheese, mind you, but a cheese sandwich made crunchy and melty within an actual toaster oven. Fantastic.

Being the spoiled child that I was (remember, I had more than a couple of Sicilians to provide meals, making sure I was well fed) I remember asking her if we could have something else after a long succession of lunch time toasted cheese.

Looking back on my adolescent complaint of “toasted cheese, again?”, I would love to travel back in time, just to have one more of those sandwiches.

But the sandwich is only symbolic, wouldn’t you say?

To my younger self, that sandwich meant comfort, safety, security. A place to turn where there was nowhere else to go, however temporarily.

Carmela, along with her sisters Rose and Nicolina, represented all that was right with the world. Whatever trivial matters could go wrong in the life of an adolescent me, they were the port of refuge that provided that comfort and security.

And that was the ladies. The men, once they came home, reinforced it all.

It’s said we are a country divided, here in 2020. It’s thought very few of us can be trusted, and we’ll need those sources of comfort and security to believe that, as in the early 70’s at Carmela Prezio’s kitchen table, “all is right with the world.”

More than that, reflection on the generosity, faith, and kindness they all displayed instill in me the belief that we aren’t really divided at all: just a little lost, and trying to find our way.

Aunt Carmel passed away when I was only 12 years old, so our relationship never really had a chance to blossom fully, but we are kindred spirits even now as she enjoyed writing her thoughts down as much as I do. And her sisters were the gift to me that kept on giving.

It’s with the memory of their guidance that I use to find myself, each and every day.

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“Hacking” the Seven Fishes – How I Cheat My Way Through a Holiday Tradition

img_1141Yeah, that’s right. I cheat my way through an Italian American staple of Christmas Eve celebration.

There’s no reason to feel guilty about it, however.

Your traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes – which is reported to have started in southern Italy – feels like just a little too much work, being seven separate fish dishes. And in some families, the fish count can go as high as twelve (in homage to the 12 apostles).

I like to think of myself as an ambitious worker, especially in the kitchen. With some of the dishes my grandmother used to make – meatballs, fresh pasta, rice balls, chicken cutlets being examples – I think the long, slow, hard work route is the most satisfying. I try not to take shortcuts, and actually enjoy the labor involved.

My grandmother always featured a fish dish in the house on Christmas Eve – but I don’t recall her doing seven of them, as she had little time for such endeavors. Aside from cooking for her family, she was always buried in food prep during the day for the family restaurant that she helped establish.

On Christmas Eve, she had already worked plenty hard. I doubt she had any interest in the intense work of creating such a meal after a long day running her business.

Her meal that she liked to make was a simple one: a piece of freshly fried haddock, or one of my favorites, a linguine tossed with a sauce of tuna and tomatoes. A dish like that is a memorable one for me, bringing childhood flooding back all over again.

That’s the idea of trying to recreate tradition, right? To release the memories from their time capsule, to bring forth an even more enhanced holiday experience.

As I’ve said before, I don’t like to live in the past but I do like to make the occasional visit.

To make our tradition here easier and a little less laborious, my wife and I will condense the formidable preparation of seven fishes down into three straightforward dishes:

  • Dish number one is a simple crab dip made with lump crab meat, cream cheese, mayo, dashes of worcestershire sauce and ketchup. It’s my mother in law’s recipe, but my wife sweetens it up by adding chili sauce from a secret family recipe that was created decades ago by my grandmother’s sister, Carmela.
  • Number two? An even simpler shrimp cocktail, made zesty with a horseradish sauce my wife mixes, with a little extra kick of wasabi. We buy raw, frozen shrimp with the shells still on, for two reasons: they’re more cost effective (at half the price) than cooked shrimp, and I actually like peeling the shells off. Years ago, I helped peel shrimp in the restaurant kitchen – and I was trained well.
  • Number three is the big one: cioppino, or seafood stew, is the centerpiece for our Christmas Eve, and has been for several years. The sauce consists of tomatoes, fish stock, thyme, tomato paste, wine, and a touch of hot pepper. Once the sauce simmers for a bit, the fish is thrown right into it: scallops, clams, mussels, calamari, and a firm fish like cod or haddock.img_1142

If you’re counting, the number of fishes once the stew is done, comes together as seven.

My wife and I like to serve this dish simply, as well – with just a crusty bread on the side, to soak up all the goodness from the sauce and fish liquid that shouldn’t be wasted.

We do have company for this meal, and the preference for a couple of family members is to have the fish and broth ladled over pasta. It’s an option that’s delicious, and one I can recommend, as well.

Interested in a recipe? Try this one, from the celebrity chef (and our favorite television personality) Lidia Bastianich. Her version can be found here:

Seafood Soup

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My Italian Grandfather, and 5 Ways I Observe the Magic of October

IMG_4197A favorite story of my grandmother’s that she used to tell me – which took place just after my grandfather and she were married – is the tale of how unrecognizable he was coming home from work, his face, hands, and arms stained black from the grime and soot of being underneath a locomotive as part of his job.

Like many Italian immigrants, he was tasked with employment of the most arduous physical labor, the only jobs that were made available to immigrants at that time.

As she recalled the story, we would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee, and she would make a face attempting to replicate how stunned she was at the time. Pure shock.

I’m sure he stunned her more than once, with his determination, grit, and drive. The smile on her face, once this version of the story ended, said it all. Years after he passed, she was comforted by this small memory as she finished the remnants of her cup, in the kitchen where I spent much time in my formative years.

What’s really stunning is he came to this country as a teen with his younger brother and father, (his passport photo is below) with his father returning to Italy shortly after. With limited grasp of the English language, equipped with the skills of only a teenager, America, even with its opportunity, was sure to be a rough ride for him. YoungPop

Reflecting on his beginnings and the life he lived, progress he made here, how he and other family members paved the way for my generation – it makes my grandfather one of my heroes.

He was human, but to me seemed infallible. When I look back at the persistence that was required of him to do what he did, I’ll shake my head in disbelief. He was part of an amazing tribe, that we may never see the likes of again.

October is a special month, not only because of the federal holiday that celebrates our heritage – which, for a lot of us, has extended from one day into an entire period of reflection and celebration – it’s also the month my grandfather was born.

I’m not the one to get into the Columbus controversy, numerous attempts to rewrite history, or how so many people protest “off the cuff” without knowing that history (“What?? I saw it on the internet…it must be true!”).

My wife and I stay happy in large part to avoiding rage inducing news programming, so I’m not your most reliable or updated source for the trendy, swirling “Columbus hate.”

Columbus Day can be seen as a segue to the more important Italian American Heritage Month – not as a celebration of an individual, no matter how storied or maligned – but to celebrate an entire cultural narrative, one that may have finally felt worthy of inclusion into America’s history with the induction of Columbus Day.

img_0906It’s a month to reflect, to think about grandparents, great aunts, and uncles who provided influence. In some cases, massive influence.

It’s a month to keep traditions alive, even for someone like me who thinks about breathing new life into them every day, October or not.

I didn’t attend a parade, paint my face with shades of red and green, or wave a flag, other than the one you see here that adorned the west side of my back deck. I can say that my participation in seeing this month as “our” month wasn’t noticeably different than my normal day in July or December.

Maybe you’re curious – if there was no parade attendance, or face paint, how exactly does one celebrate Columbus Day or, more extensively, the magic month of October?

img_0904Well, it’s about the food, of course – The morning of Columbus Day, after proudly displaying the flag on the deck, my wife went Italian with the breakfast selection making this frittata. Full of protein, fats, and (perhaps) garlic powder, it also featured delicious greens – spinach and kale, sauteed to perfection.

Reflection is key, as well – pictured here are my Nonna, img_0912and my great aunt. The initial inspiration for this very site, they are always top of mind, and we salute them repeatedly during this month. In this photo, I like to think they are planning a menu, or perhaps conspiring on chores and tasks for their grandsons.

Speaking of “saluting” – it’s not month specific, but my wife and I celebrate the good fortune in our life whenever we can. Life isn’t “social media perfect,” there are always challenges, whether imposed by the world or challenging ourselves. It’s always worth a toast when we can overcome those challenges and enjoy ourselves.

img_0902Express some gratitude – again, not specific to October, or even November, but always good to reflect on where you are, where you came from, and God willing, where you’re going to go. Articles here typically focus on the past – but I can be as future oriented as it gets. And with a bounty like what’s pictured at left (taken at my cousin’s house), how can you not at least feel a little grateful?

Just a little more reflecting – the couple pictured below, in my eyes, were damn near perfect. Married for well over 60 years,  my grandparents epitomized the immigrant success story, and became my singular focus when I decided to start writing for fun again. From the stories I’ve heard in the past, and continue to hear from relatives who knew them well, I ascertained I had a wealth of material to work with.

img_0995.jpgThey are reason enough to celebrate October with a dynamic fervor – and every other month as well.

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