As a guy at the age of 54, I’m finding it hard to keep up with the boundless, almost frenetic energy of my seventeen year old son. I use it to try to recapture a little youthful exuberance for myself, but there are limits.
I see my son’s face etched into the decades old photographs of my grandfather, and I wonder how similar they are. I wonder what they share, and how they are different.
One thing’s for sure – their journeys at this age are radical in that difference. While my son readies for senior year and acting as captain of his golf team, his great grandfather was getting ready for, or taking, a trip that would change his life.
Did he have that same youthful exuberance so many years ago, or was he the stoic and silent man I knew when I was growing up?
Why did his family leave their native southern Italy? Was it poverty? Crime? The remnants of a “unification” that was more aggression than unifying act?
Was he a scared teenager? Or did he share his family’s fire to seek a better life?
Did he have any lira in his pocket? Or was he poorer than poor? Was his dress tattered? Did he have warm clothes?
Did he go hungry while on the ship? Thirsty?
When the Statue of Liberty finally came into view, what was the emotion in his heart? Fear – or hope?
How much English could he speak? If any at all?
My father told me, years later, when he was young and driving my grandfather to pick up other relatives coming to America, he could guide my Dad down New York City side streets like he lived there forever – but he never drove a car.
How could he do that?
For me, it’s just not my curiosity – but an appreciation of the struggles and hardships of being a young immigrant to a country that was not exactly accepting.
When you look at success, or how it’s defined now – such as our family’s success, that ranges between moderate and luxurious depending on the situation – you must give the credit where the credit is due.
To the table setters.
There is no such thing as a “self made man,” and we do not live in a vacuum. Our lives, and what we decide to make of them, were made possible by a table set so long ago. We are the sum of the struggles and the power of our recent past.
On a day that’s good for me – when I’m feeling healthy, have money in my pocket, with a future looking bright enough to don the sunglasses – I silently thank the table setters.
On an even better day, I’ll take a ride and stop by St. Mary’s cemetery. To say “thank you” in person. To those who made it all possible. Table setters.
I dabble in my family’s history. On my wife’s side, her aunt Connie Burkart was the expert family historian. If you needed to know something, you asked Connie. I will miss her praise, and words of love and encouragement whenever I posted here. This one’s for you, Connie.
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In upstate New York, our summer season is greatly anticipated – if only to erase the meteorological memories of bitter winters and wet, cool springs. Traditionally, our official kick off is Memorial Day.
This year, our family will follow a familiar route – driving up I-87, also known as the Northway, into the heart of the scenic Adirondack park. Specifically Bolton Landing in the Lake George region.
Although it looks as if this rainy spring will hang on at least one more weekend, with uncooperative showers and chilly winds, the party will go on for all of us. In the past, we’ve consumed enough clams to warrant renaming the weekend Clam-a-palooza.
Everyone will have their fun, including our small group in this small town. But we call it Memorial Day for a reason. It’s more than a three day weekend – the meaning can run much, much deeper.
Years ago, a friend of mine put it succinctly in a social media post:
“Happy Memorial Day”. That statement doesn’t make sense to me at all. Today is a day of reflection for selfless sacrifice both past and present. I am not celebrating. I am remembering.
We have a special soldier in my immediate family – PFC, and former member of the 105th Infantry, Dominick DeGiorgio. He was my grandfather’s brother. After surviving the brutal fire fights in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, he was later killed in action in Germany in World War II, still a young man. As far as I know, he is my family’s only recipient of the Purple Heart.
Another brother, my great uncle Mariano, fought for the Italian Army during European campaigns. It seems incomprehensible now, but there was true potential in that war for brother v. brother, each fighting, shedding blood, for their country.
Even though Dominick was killed well before I was born, I felt I knew him through countless stories from my grandmother. While my grandfather Sebastian was a man of few words, his brother had a huge personality despite his small stature.
A good looking guy who was always laughing and in good humor, he was, as my Nonna would state, very popular with the ladies. So much so that he would draw big crowds of them at the ice cream shop where he worked before going off to war.
I still wonder what it would have been like to have him here, and the impact he could have had on our lives. His bright and cheerful persona as counterpoint to my own grandfather, the “strong, silent” type. What fun we could have had with that.
The great war ensured we would never know. As for many other families, the battle for freedoms takes away as it gives, and erases what could have been.
He gave it all, fighting for the next generations of Americans with, as my friend said, “selfless sacrifice.” I’m sure there were plenty of disappointed girls at the ice cream window at Manory’s store.
The battles are faded history. Many have forgotten.
I’m happy I’ll have the opportunity to sit on a porch on what may be a stormy May afternoon, to reflect and wonder about a man whose brief life and unending potential were taken away far too soon.
Dominick DeGiorgio took part in the D-Day invasion of France, and earned a bronze arrowhead for his campaign ribbon. He also participated in Operation Market Garden, where he was KIA on September 17th, 1944. For his service on the continent of Europe, he earned the following decorations:
Combat infantryman badge, bronze star medal, Purple Heart medal, European – African – Middle Eastern campaign medal with bronze arrowhead and two bronze service stars, WWII Victory Medal, New York State Conspicuous Service Cross (and Star).
Rolling over bleary eyed in the bed that I slept in at my Nonna’s house, those would be the words that I would first hear, early on a Saturday morning. The source of the noise would be my Aunt Maria, shouting my grandmother’s name as she burst through the front door.
It was her Saturday greeting, and it would always wake me up.
As I cleared my head, the smell would hit me, the reason my Aunt came over in the first place. The combination of frying meat, onion, and garlic.
I’d jump out of bed and quickly descend the stairs to the beat of the sizzling frying pan. Still in my pajamas, I would stand patiently in the kitchen, waiting for Nonna to make the offering: my early breakfast treat of a freshly made meatball, straight out of the pan.
Over time, my involvement with the meatball went from taking the sample in my pajamas, to preparation and cooking stages. As I grew, Nonna would allow me to mix the meat with my hands, form the balls, and taste the first ones before we continued.
Every once in a while, she would let me cook one. To get the feel for the hot spots in the pan, and to know when to roll them as one side began to form a crust.
As she grew older, cooking 90 to 100 meatballs at a time began to fatigue her, and she eventually just had to sit and supervise. It was then I took control of the pan. The torch had been passed.
Now that she is no longer with us, it’s my responsibility to ensure the meatball remains a staple of my family’s diet. Like her, I was a traditionalist with meatballs, pairing them with pasta, simmering them in tomato sauce along side braciole and pork.
I learned from my Nonna’s sister the joys of meatball experimentation, serving them as their own course, and using a different sauce than the ubiquitous tomato variety. Her sauce was a savory mixture of bacon, onion, and white wine, and is now my favorite way to eat a meatball. It’s a simple recipe, easy to simmer in a crock pot and a big hit at dinner parties as well. Enjoy!
Meatballs alla Nicolina ( “white” meatballs )
For The Meatballs
1 pound ground beef, top or bottom round, ground twice
1 cup fine dried breadcrumbs (home made only!)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium onion
1 large egg
salt and freshly ground black pepper
cup vegetable oil
For The Sauce
2 strips bacon
1 large onion
1 cup sherry wine
Crumble the beef into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, parsley and garlic over the meat. Beat the eggs with the salt and pepper in a small bowl until blended, then pour over the meat mixture. Mix the ingredients with clean hands just until evenly blended, and shape the meat mixture into 1 ½-inch balls.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Put as many meatballs into the skillet as will fit without crowding. Fry, turning as necessary, until golden brown on all sides, about 6 minutes. Adjust the heat as the meatballs cook to prevent them from burning. Remove the meatballs and repeat.
Cut the bacon strips into small pieces, about 1/4 inch. Cook in the pan for 3 minutes or until crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan. Slice the onion and cook in the bacon grease until onion is soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the bacon back and the wine, put your finished meatballs in the pan, and let simmer for 15 minutes, making sure to spoon some liquid over the meatballs to keep them moist. Serve with a crusty loaf of bread and a hearty red wine.
In the life of the middle aged Italian American, there may be no more important Sundays than those on the calendar now. Palm Sunday, which was last week, is a major league event as Mass includes the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a reading that details the crucifixion of Jesus, and is a prelude to the Mother of all Sundays, coming up this week – Easter Sunday.
While the religious connections remain important to those of us with “traditional” mindsets, the connection that may be accepted universally is the significance of the food at these important weekend holidays.
If you paid attention to the last post, you read details on how to build the perfect Sunday dinner – Italian style, with a traditional bent or modern flair. If one detail may have stood out, it was this – these meals are high in volume, calories, and activity.
Don’t kid yourself. Eating in this manner, notably at holiday time, is not unlike participating in your own athletic event.
I can use myself as an example. There were Sundays in my past where I could put away a plate of spaghetti, a riceball, a couple of meatballs, salad, and perhaps a chicken cutlet or two. Satisfied with the notion that I had done my best in the eating category, I could still get a puzzled look on my Grandmother’s face that said one thing:
“That’s it?? You can’t be finished already!”
Taking It To A Different Level
Eating at this stage isn’t just about providing sustenance. It’s also about impressing your family and making the people that prepared the meal as happy as possible. The biggest compliment I could ever give my Gram was to eat as much as I could without passing out. To do that, you need to approach the meal with a different mindset. You need to prepare yourself mentally as well as physically. You may even need to play an inspirational song or two.
You are an athlete. To take down more than your share of an Easter lasagna (as an opening course, no less!) is an extreme physical event. It could compare to what Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt do to win the gold.
The difference between you and them, however, is they do little else on event day. Just concentrate on the monumental task at hand. And that’s something we could all learn to do.
Luckily for you, I already have helpful tips on spending your Sundays thinking about eating, preparing to eat, and finally, the actual act of eating – and cutting out the rest. I hope they help you enjoy a relaxing and calorie filled meal with family and/or friends, holiday or not.
Focus And Concentration – Pathway To Success
Ironically enough, to prepare for holiday eating, no other athletic events are allowed. No flag football games. No tennis. The 5K should be shelved. No rounds of golf with the boys. These are physical in nature, and will strip vital energy that needs to be conserved for the eating process. Participation in any of these should be limited.
However, it is a Sunday tradition to watch athletic events. In fact, it may be mandatory to watch the football game before catching a well earned nap. Always feel free to indulge in this activity.
In the same category, you should probably consider limiting physical exercise. No going to the gym, heavy lifting, running, pick up basketball, or chasing your dog. There’s time enough for this stuff during the week. As has been said, Sunday should be a day of rest.
I will, on occasion, break this rule to play catch with my son. But that’s it.
There should be no recreational shopping on Sunday. For men or women. Walking through the malls and flipping through the racks at Macy’s saps strength and stamina necessary to repeatedly lift your fork and knife. Refrain from this activity. You’ll save money, to boot.
Lastly, there should be no working around the house on Sunday. No pounding nails, no driving screws, no cleaning your car. Put the paint brush down. No brooms, hoses, power washers, power saws – nothing. And no mowing the lawn.
Going into your backyard is OK – if you want to walk around a little, look at the trees, pick up a couple of branches off the ground. Even picking some basil or parsley out of your garden. Very acceptable. Just no breaking a massive sweat pushing a mower around ahead of Sunday dinner. Your will to put away “maximum macaroni” will be compromised.
As you can see from the above, sweating and exertion is not recommended. If you can avoid this, you’ll be fresh as a daisy when you sit at the dining room or kitchen table, ready to tackle a big meal with people you love on the most relaxing day of the week.
As far as traditions go, it’s right on top of my list. How about yours?
Take an informal poll of people that you know, and ask them what their favorite day of the week is, the answer would almost always be Friday. The start of the weekend, you get to abandon your unfulfilling job for at least two days, and the opportunity is there to hang with your friends.
In an Italian American household, however, you may be surprised to hear a different answer. Our favorite day of the week is rarely Friday. The chosen day for many families around the country is Sunday.
These days, my Sunday routine revolves around going to an early Mass at St. Anthony’s Church with my Dad, and then making a quick trip to my cousin’s apartment to attend what we commonly refer to as “The Breakfast Bunch”.
Weekly attendance includes mainly cousins from my Grandmother’s side of the family, and it’s an informal gathering where we’ll have toast, coffee, baked goods, and shoot the breeze. Sometimes there will be an egg casserole or two.
It’s one of the best parts of my week not only because of the social aspect, but also for the memories it triggers of days gone by – of the fantastic Sundays of my youth.
The Flames of Tradition
My Godmother passed away a couple of years ago, and my Nonna has been gone for four years this January. As they were both in deteriorating health the last few years of their lives, it’s been a struggle to keep the flames of Sunday dinner traditions burning.
I still make a pot of Sunday Sauce at least every couple of weeks, and I’ll have a dinner with my wife and kids featuring the same food I had as a child. It’s just minus the massive crowds, and the jostling around the 14th Street dining room table that we used to gather around.
When I was young, I was at my Grandparent’s house for the entire weekend. Sunday was the fantastic finish. I would be there long before the aunts, uncles, and cousins showed up. Not only would I get a sneak peek at what was going to be served, I might also get a freshly pan fried meatball, or a piece of Italian bread dunked into the tomato sauce that was simmering all day.
More or less, it was the same menu every Sunday with a twist here and there. If it was Easter Sunday – well, that was the day the gigantic pan of homemade lasagna was broken out. If manicotti was made at my family’s restaurant that week (and didn’t sell out), that may have spilled into Sunday as well.
Regardless of what was featured on the table, it was always delicious, and there was always plenty to go around. My little Sicilians were expert cooks, and their Sunday Sauce was second to none.
The preparation of dinner was a process as well. Timing needed to be considered, as we usually sat at table in the early afternoon. Prepping was done as early as the day before, and Nonna would be in the kitchen for hours on Sunday.
Sunday’s Menu of Decadence
There’s a right way to do Sunday, and each menu item has the proper order in which it’s served. My grandparents’ end of the week dinners were always old-school, but just for kicks we like to take things to a modern level on certain Sundays.
Both ways are eminently enjoyable, and you can be as formal or informal as you like. But as far as the old-school way is concerned, there was nothing better. In my house, we’re pretty good cooks – but those Sundays from twenty or even thirty years ago provide a boatload of cherished memories.
Want to try it yourself? Here’s the balanced approach, whether you like it modern or old-school style:
Old School: Appetizers? Really? With the tonnage of food that hit the table for dinner when I was a kid, appetizers were not required. We would have more than enough, believe me. But I was always an expert at sneaking the aforementioned meatball before dinner, so that could count as an app. Score.
Modern Take: We can get really fancy here – we’ve done calamari, stuffed mushrooms, clams casino, mussels in broth. I’ll stop right there. Getting hungry just typing it. No pun intended, but the world is your oyster when it comes to appetizers.
Old School: In my world, the pasta course is ubiquitous. My Grandmother’s choice was almost always a spaghetti or ziti, dressed with a tomato sauce that had been cooking for hours. Special occasions brought out the 10,000 calorie baked pasta dishes. Unbelievable.
Modern Take: We’ll still take it old school style here, but we often change the shape – ravioli, rigatoni, tagliatelle, among others. The sauces can change, too, although the Sunday variety is still my favorite. Oil and garlic, bolognese, and a variety of light cream sauces are new traditions that have hit our table.
Old School: In those days, the meat was meatballs front and center, and sausage or braciole. That’s it. And in the end, that’s all we needed.
Modern Take: We’re not doing quail or Cornish game hen here (that’s really fancy), but in my house we like chicken cutlets, braised short ribs, and my wife loves to roast a whole chicken on any given Sunday. Osso Bucco is something on my radar to try soon, as well.
Old School: The salad was always eaten last at the table on 14th Street, used as a palate cleanser. It was iceberg lettuce, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Very simple, and although it may not sound good to you, I thought it was excellent.
Modern Take: Like the apps, you can go many different ways here, and we have – Caesar salad, salads with walnuts and cranberries, avocado, with chick peas and beans, with balsamic glaze and other fancy dressings. And we rarely use iceberg for anything – it’s romaine, spinach, or mixed greens. Again, unnecessarily fancy. But so very good.
Desserts and Beverages
Old School: With the calorie meter obliterated already, dessert was still on the way, but here’s where the Sicilians threw their twist in and decided now we should eat healthy – by giving us nuts and fruit. My Grandmother would roast chestnuts or crack walnuts, and my Grandfather would peel and eat multiple pears, his favorite. I also remember Italian cookies, and the ladies were fond of sponge cake. Drinks included water, soda, and a simple red table wine. Espresso at the end.
Modern Take: I’m already thinking about grabbing tiramisu from the local bakery for the next Sunday dinner. My wife will bake cakes and make other desserts (we call one of our favorites “chocolate crack” for its addictive qualities), and her mother is a great pie maker. Drinks have run the gamut- mixed cocktails, sparkling water, red wine, white, craft beers. Very fancy.
Find Your Way Back
As my Grandmother’s age crept into her 90’s, she couldn’t host the big dinners anymore, on Sunday or any other night. I took over the meatball making chores for her on Saturdays, and on the following Sundays a smaller group of our family would show up for a little brunch.
Nothing too over the top. Scrambled eggs, some meatballs with sauce, Italian bread. Strong, stove brewed coffee. Sponge cake. Seated in the kitchen instead of the vast dining room table.
Those Sundays were special, too. My kids grew up around that kitchen table, having their first servings of spaghetti in their high chairs, in the house on the street that I grew up on.
Those days are sorely missed. And with our “Breakfast Bunch” gatherings now, we try to recreate that special feeling of family ties that were their strongest, so many years ago.
When Sunday was, without question, the favorite day of the week.
What’s your story? Have a favorite day? Or tradition that you’d like to share? Leave your comment below.