Lessons From the Past: An Immigrant Work Ritual

hard work ethic
Manning the restaurant meat slicer during one of her chaotic mornings

Like many other young people of my generation, I was taught to go to work at an early age. My indoctrination to the world of work wasn’t really difficult: a very part time gig in my family’s restaurant, manning the dishwasher during a slower period in the mid afternoon.

Not being sure in the beginning as to why I was being put to work in the first place (I had school work to do, you know), I slowly got into a rhythm of what the business was like, even for just a few hours a week in the “back of the house.”

It was here that I learned respect for those that lived and breathed hospitality, and the nature of the chores they had to do. While many of the restaurant’s customers came in from their office jobs in pressed suits and ties, I more identified with the working style of my family, and the restaurant’s other employees: grinding out physical labor, at times on the run, for shifts of varying lengths.

It was an ordinary day for my father to spend 12 hours in a hot kitchen, on his feet, attempting to coordinate dozens of different entrees out to the dining room at the proper time.

Dad was a younger guy back then, and could easily handle the workload. The real respect was formed for my grandparents, especially my grandmother, who continued with this type of physical labor into their seventies and eighties.

Nonna’s schedule, at that age, bordered on the ridiculous. Her typical day went like this:

5:30 AM – awake time.

6:00 AM – hop into a cab, or take the bus (she never drove a car) to the restaurant to prepare for the day.

6:15 AM – fire up the ovens, stove top, grill, etc. When the oven was preheated, in would go a whole turkey. For the purpose of making turkey sandwiches, mostly. She did this just about every day.

6:30 AM – once the turkey was in, prep would start for various soups, sauces, salads. To the right of the stove was a steam table that would hold vats of soup that she prepared every day. Deli meats were readied on a meat slicer, and she would respond to calls from early morning vendors who knew she was there.

8:00 AM – time to unlock the front door, to receive her “fans” – mainly older, retired gentlemen who liked an early morning cocktail or two. Now, she would start tending bar for customers, pivoting back and forth from the bar to the kitchen to make sure all systems were go with the oven and stove.

There were times, when I was the restaurant’s main bartender, I would come in the morning to find an already full bar. I had mixed feelings about that, as now I had to juggle serving customers and prepping my space for the day. But my grandmother’s fan club was always a priority for her: so I had to keep my lip zipped.

11:00 AM – when I came in around 10 o’clock, she was free to focus on just her kitchen duties. The turkey was cooled and ready for slicing, soups just about done, grill clean and ready to go. Sandwich and salad area prepped and pristine, soon to be enveloped by the lunch hour chaos.

Photo courtesy Pexels.com

At this point, I was to drive her home for job number two: prepping even more food for the restaurant at the house, as well as a different dish or two for dinner for my grandfather, when I dropped him off that night. It wasn’t unusual for her to receive visitors during the day, entertaining them while making a cauldron of lentil soup that I would pick up later on.

From the early morning hours to the evening, she was all about the work: interrupted only by the occasional prayer or counting of rosary beads. She embraced the simplicity of her life, and when all was said and done, the work – the feeding and nurturing of family and customer alike, with the adoration of the “fan club” (men I came to know, respect, and share a few laughs with myself) – was what made her happiest.

I can’t come close to matching the work ethic of these amazing people: but on days when I think of them and attempt to model their way of getting after it, it’s those days where I wind up feeling my best. I believe that, no matter the circumstance, they were proud of their family. Although they’ve departed, I’d like to think I’m doing all I can to make them proud still.

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Why I Love That Chip on Tom Brady’s Shoulder

Featured photo by amny.com

As a fan of the New York football Giants, my opinions of Tom Brady ran the gamut from mild distaste to unwavering suspicion (think: Deflategate).

Brady, even with his success, could be viewed (albeit rarely) as an unfortunate figure: with two crushing Super Bowl losses to New York, fueled by game saving Eli Manning passes that could be described as nothing less than miraculous (check out the freakishly accurate throw to Mario Manningham in Super Bowl XLVI).

Even with those two unlikely defeats, last week Brady secured his seventh Super Bowl win in 10 attempts. To label him the greatest of all time is making an understatement.

With his successes comes my growing admiration: even as a Giants fan, I recognize Brady’s humility and praise of his team’s efforts to buoy that success. Even better, he knows he’s an older guy that needs to work even harder to sustain the levels he’s reached.

Photo: foxnews.com

At 43 years old, he is the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl game.

That’s the reason I’m now fond of Brady: not much younger than myself, he lives and plays with a certain fire. Never satisfied, and still with a gigantic chip on his shoulder.

If you’re a man, in your 40s or 50s, and not inspired by Brady’s exploits, you should see your doctor and have your testosterone checked.

The chip on his shoulder, formed by being drafted out of college in the sixth round (even now, it sounds ridiculous), has never been worn down by the swells of his success. Even behind that smiling face and “aw, shucks” demeanor, you know his attitude looks to burn through the most competitive foe.

As someone that has experience with chip on shoulder syndrome, I can relate. The chip in me formed as a middle schooler, overweight and an easy target, and segued into a Stallone inspired workout regimen and steely resolve into fighting shape. That chip has never wavered, and into my late 50s, I still pursue the ideal of what will be the best physical shape of my life.

There is no other alternative than to go down fighting. With Brady, you can just sense his never quit mentality.

With as much as I hold my example close to heart, to be fair, it’s a small one. I have family, relatives who were crucial in setting the table of prosperity that we sit at now, to give the most credit.

Picture this: your father, a successful businessman, and your mother, a healer, pull you from your home because of outside criminal threats. Mayhem and violence.

You leave your home country, landing by boat to the bleak skies and bitter winds of New York City. We’re not in sunny Sicily anymore.

In your previous life, you had relative luxury – even with staff to help you keep house. In the new land, you are nothing: in some eyes, less than nothing. You now have nothing. The tables have turned. You are now the servants.

That’s how, as a child, my grandmother’s story started. The nucleus of my grandfather’s story isn’t vastly different. For them to survive – to hell with the concept of succeeding – they needed a chip the size of a boulder to plant on their already weary shoulders.

They had them. And they made it. Through sheer force of will, with the strength of their backs and resolve, they built lives, businesses, communities, and a deeply appreciative family.

To say my grandmother and grandfather were ferocious competitors in the game of life would be yet another understatement, on the same level of calling Brady a decent quarterback.

No matter what type of shit storm they had to persevere through – and there were plenty of them – they never stopped moving forward. They were, as I’ve often said, relentless.

Watching Brady meticulously call audibles and throw passes last Sunday, to keep a lightning fast Chiefs defense on its heels, I didn’t think of comparing future fortunes of two unrelated, underrated underdogs: whether a late blooming college player, or the immigrants that spent so many years working to shape our own destinations.

The conclusion I came to draw is undeniable: with the team I always had around me, I was set up to win big games my entire life.

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Just Who is “Nonna,” Anyway?

As the pace of this blog ebbs and flows, and more posts are added and shared via social, it’s heartening to note that new readers are coming aboard: in fact, there’s more than just a few of you here, enjoying these essays new and old.

With that, it’s justified that I reintroduce the central character in this decade long online story, especially for those of you that might not be intimately familiar.

That character is my grandmother, who my two kids grew up calling “Nonna.”

Rosina Tagliarini, who would eventually become Rosina DeGiorgio by marriage, emigrated to this country in the late 1920’s with her mother and her sisters from a small town in Sicily: Acquaviva Platani, in the province of Caltanisetta.

Escape From Oppression

Unlike many immigrants who came to America to escape poverty, my grandmother’s family had to leave to evade constant threats of organized crime. Her father was specifically targeted, not buckling to kickback and payoff requests: individuals that wanted their share of government warehouse reserves that he protected to ensure local residents were fed and nourished through the war years.

Me, with my Nonna, late 1960s

She came here with her mother, and sisters. Her mother Maria, my great grandmother, was who I called Nonna when I was really young. She held a special place in the home my grandparents had built here in the late ’60s, a modest brick ranch, surrounded by gardens and fruit trees spread out over almost an acre of land.

The family matriarch, she was an ordinary citizen here, but not so in Sicily. She ran an apothecary, known in her small town as a healer. In her later years, I would bring macaroni with butter and cheese to her, with my little six year old hands, as that was all she cared to eat.

My grandmother’s sisters also came here, two of them with notable influence on me, as well: Nicolina, who I dubbed the “Last Sicilian,” and Carmela, who watched after us youngsters with a caring but steady hand during lunch hours (we walked home from elementary school for lunch) and after school.

She also had two brothers, named Lillo and Franco. Fond memories of mine include “Uncle Frank,” who would visit from Italy occasionally, and was my first exposure to a man who I thought was a jet setting world traveler (People could come here from Italy so easily? Amazing!).

His sister showed how thrilled she was by his visits, rolling out her version of a red carpet. A prolific cook already, my grandmother went full throttle when company was coming. A visit from Franco assured a large number of arancini (riceballs, see photo), a Sicilian street food and family favorite. I’m salivating now, just writing this.

Married With Children

A few years after arriving, she married my grandfather Sebastian DeGiorgio. Their marriage was an ongoing success story, lasting 64 years until his passing in 2000. They had two sons, my father Joe (yup, I’m a junior) and his younger brother Anthony, who died tragically as a teenager months after I was born.

Parents never get over such a life changing event, but Rosina’s strength and resolve to carry on through her grief to provide support to her family was undeniable. It’s one of her traits that I remain in awe of, to this day.

After stints of factory work, what she called “piece work,” she took over sister Carmela’s restaurant in the late 1950s. Known as Jack’s, that was a successful venture for my family for 10 years, until acquiring another restaurant, this time with my dad: the Trojan Tap Room, where I spent 25 years of my working career myself.

Aside from her prowess in a professional kitchen, she was an accomplished home cook as well. For family, friends, acquaintances that dropped by – there would always be an offer of something off the stove, if you were to sit at her table. If nothing else, a cup of coffee and sweet treat was required to have.

Bound to a strong family unit, she had a tight knit group of friends – Mary Marino, Flora DeCurtis, and Maria Commis come to mind immediately. She shared faith centric friendships with these ladies, as practicing her Roman Catholic faith was of utmost importance, in line with the dedication to her family and her life’s work.

She lived a full 96 years, most them robust and energetic. Constant movement was her calling card, at first as survival mechanism (as an immigrant, you’d better have hauled ass), then subsequently as a path to success: expending every shred of energy in support of family.

A recent statement by Pope Francis (who I’m sure she would have loved) summarized it beautifully, and inspired me here:

“It is striking that the Lord spent most of his time on Earth living an ordinary life, without standing out. It is a beautiful message that reveals the greatness of daily life, the importance in God’s eyes of every gesture and every moment of life, even the most simple.

That was her, in a nutshell. Simple life, with every day well spent. Diminutive in stature (under five feet), but with an outsized personality. Her influence is still felt, every day.

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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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