A Craving For More Tradition, Sunday Style

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.

sauce
Centerpiece of the day – Sunday Sauce

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:

Appetizers

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.

Pasta

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.

Meat

Meatballs on my stove - like Nonna used to make
Meatballs on my stove – like Nonna used to make

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.

Salad

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.

Winning at the Lottery of Life

diceWhether fair or not, there’s a lingering stereotype that Italian Americans can be fond of the activity of gambling. While I will admit to playing an occasional football game, poker match, or horse race in the past, wagering my money is not something I do anymore.

However, when the Powerball or state lottery here in New York rise to obscene dollar amounts in prize money, most of my office mates (and myself) pool our money and go buy some tickets for the win.

When I was younger, I used to take my Grandfather to the local mom and pop grocery where he could play his lottery games. He liked to win (and he did hit big a couple of times), but he mostly liked to play for fun.

We play for fun as well, but I find it interesting how people can become overwhelmed with an urge to play all the time, for the remote chance at millions. Because that one big score will change your life and make all of your problems disappear.

If we could only win.

That one prize takes all of the issues of life, the ones that consistently beat you down, and makes them go away. Forever.

I’ve heard it from people who don’t have two nickels to rub together. And from people with asset portfolios in the seven figure range. Interesting, right?

For most, the lottery is nothing but a pipe dream. We can play, but we won’t win. We can fantasize about the new house, fancy car, and exotic trip, but chances are we’ll be going to work the next day.

Should that depress you?

The answer to that question should be “no”. Because in the lottery of life,  you have already won.

You live in America. As much as our government tries to make a mockery of our systems, it’s still the best country you can call “home”.

We are in a time of unprecedented technology. Our every need and desire can be met. You, and you alone, can determine the level of your prosperity. All you need is hustle.

Here’s my favorite quote, that I will take credit for and believe to be the truth:

Any day you are above ground, in good health, and able to enjoy the company of friends and family, it’s a good day.

See? You have officially won the lottery!!

I can tell you, now at 50 years old, I have hit the lottery numerous times. You’ll guess that I’ll mention my wife and kids here, and you would be right.

How and when and where I met my wife was truly a lottery score. Nothing but total blind luck. I can only thank the alignment of the planets that night for finally getting me that “right place, right time” moment.

If you go back through the archives of this site, and read about other members of my family (especially the Sicilians), you’ll know that I practically owned the lottery growing up.

And the “friend lottery” is an example of where I continually cash in. My buddy Mike and I hung out for nearly 30 years before his passing in 2012. I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderful friend he was, and how fortunate I was to know him.

Lottery winners just don’t get that lucky.

Many of us will rate ourselves and our level of importance by the things we collect. The titles we acquire. The promotions we achieve. The time spent at the companies we work for.

The trinkets and toys that fill our lives. The stuff that lottery dreams are made of.

It all would be easier if our numbers would just come in. Life is a game of chance, God’s game. We already have the best of luck if we’re here, and get the chance to play.

You already know the truth. A lottery cash prize would be the icing on an already extraordinary cake.

Just play for fun. Because you’ve already won.

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What Inspires Me: One Relentless Man

My Grandfather, left, with brother Dominick, who was KIA in WWII
My Grandfather, left, with brother Dominick, who was KIA in WWII

On a cool summer evening in the late 1930s, my Grandmother stood on a neighborhood sidewalk, talking in Italian to a friend that lived on the same street. In the middle of conversation, the friend noticed a man walking up the sidewalk.

“Here comes your husband”, she said. My Grandmother replied that it couldn’t be him, that she didn’t recognize the silhouetted figure. A stunning moment later, she realized it was him, although she couldn’t see his face. The man she married was covered in soot and grime from a new job at the railroad yard, one of the first he held in his steadfast pursuit of their version of the American Dream.

Coming to America was just the first step at the bottom of the hill. He was relentless in his ascent up the mountain of the dream.

That dream must have looked impossible to a man whose English was rough, and came to the USA with primarily physical skills.

His was the story of thousands of Italians who emigrated to these shores, to the land of hope and dreams for sons and daughters to follow.

Joe DiMaggio turned to baseball because he hated the lingering smell of dead fish that stained his father’s fishing boat. Rocky Marciano ran straight into a boxing ring to avoid the factory life that crippled his father into a shell of his former self.

My Grandfather’s family came from the unforgiving terrain of Southern Italy for just a chance to chase something better.

His relentless nature proved to make a modestly successful immigrant life, and paved the way for the generations after him. We enjoy what we have in part because of the fruits of his labors.

He had to continue to be relentless with sadness and grief as a life companion. He lost a brother in our country’s Great War, a brother fighting for the nation he had just begun to call “home”. Fighting for the freedom we enjoy and take for granted in modern America.

He had to continue to be relentless after the death of a son who was barely a teenager in the early ’60s. His attempted therapy to make his sadness go away was cleaning the floors of the restaurant that would support our family. My cousin’s description of his demeanor was that of “a rock”, steadfast in the face of the worst tragedy.

He was relentless with old age and declining health, still coming to the restaurant although he, at times, had to drag one of his legs across the floor while walking. He never complained of physical pain or ailments. It was hard, maybe impossible, to know if he was feeling under the weather. There were no clues.

I try to make it a common practice that whenever I think I have a “problem”, I think of what my Grandfather had to go through. His courage and relentless nature are traits that are hard to replicate, deemed mostly unnecessary in our cushy and overly convenient society.

We can only admire, and try to scratch the surface of, the relentlessness that was ingrained into the hearts and will of the immigrants that dug through the mud and built the foundation of the Old School as we know it.

How To Stave Off Old Age

Two favorite video subjects: Nonna and my infant daughter, 1995. Forever young.
Two favorite video subjects: Nonna and my infant daughter, 1995. Forever young.

First days of school. Halloween, complete with princess costume.

Christmas and Easter, northbound trips to camp, birthday parties for young and old alike.

Magical footage of my kids on the Cape Cod beaches that we still haunt. The ritual of making homemade macaroni with my Grandmother and Godmother, with my very young children “turning the crank”.

One project I’m undertaking (on a list of many) is to review old video tapes that need to be converted to DVD before the tapes disintegrate. I was able to watch all of the above and more.

The old is new again. Overcome with everyday events which, as we were running the camera so many years ago, seemed ordinary. But not so. They were sure and concrete steps that turned out to be the details of a big life – a time on Earth that can’t be replicated or replaced.

In a previous post, I turned 50 and wasn’t sad about it – I was in pretty good health. Then the knee, the left one to be exact, turned to a pile of shit. Had me using the elevator for the first time in a while. The original diagnosis at the doctor’s office was osteoarthritis. An x-ray revealed an injury, what is referred to as “soft tissue damage”. Just a little something that needed to heal.

Bullet dodged. There you go.

Although I’m glad not to be in the throes of arthritis, there should be no kidding myself. The sands of time are marching on. To keep the concept of advancing age at bay, the most important thing to do is think young. The videos helped. Access to a video camera and using it with any regularity provided me with the quickest trip to the fountain of youth.

You can see amazing things. Like:

  • Seeing a friend who was gone away, directly in front of you, smiling back at your camera
  • Watching your mentors apply the tasks that had built their lives – and influenced yours
  • Watch your son bounce uneasy through a tiny wave on the Cape Cod shoreline, basking in the glory of a June sun
  • To see your daughter in that princess costume, stalking your old neighborhood, taking candy from the people you grew up around yourself

Easy Ways To Stay Young

With a title like the one this post has, you probably came here with the idea of finding useful and pertinent information, and not just listen to me wax poetic about the recent past. Fair enough. Though I think most people aren’t much for following advice, I’ll put in my two cents.

Feeling young for me includes having a catch in the yard, running/walking with/chasing my dog, or beating a heavy bag while listening to Aerosmith and Van Halen at ear splitting decibel levels. The most important way to capture that elusive essence of youth is movement, or exercise. If you’ve got that one covered, fantastic. The following tips may be helpful as well:

1. Fast Food? Really? – Neither inexpensive nor convenient, fast food is still a go to for millions of Americans daily. And I still don’t get it. The advertising is sultry, but the food never looks that good when you finally get it. Yeah, I may take my son into the drive-thru occasionally for a treat. But the kid has probably just played a game, a practice, or has run sprints for twenty minutes.

I’m guessing your average American isn’t involved in that kind of activity before going to McDonald’s.

Skimping on food and buying to reduce expense in this way is idiotic. I once knew a guy who would go to Subway and Burger King because it was cheap, but he had multiple cars and boats (and insurance policies) sitting in his driveway. Now there’s a way to prioritize your spending.

Stay young by avoiding fast food.

2. If It’s Not Life And Death, Forget It! – You know the drill: stress is the silent killer. Work place stress equals financial stress, leads to marital stress, yada yada yada. Everybody has stress. I’ve had plenty of the workplace variety myself, in the past. I decided that working for that particular company wasn’t worth the stress. Inevitably, we parted ways.

I know people that stress out because their IPhone isn’t working right, or their Starbucks isn’t hot enough. Or they found out they didn’t qualify for the financing on a $400K house. Poor babies.

Although it’s not perfect, one rule I try to remember whenever I’m feeling any type of stress is this – if it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s just not that important. Unless you’re dealing with death or severe illness, your perception is worse than the actual likely outcome.

To stay young, chill out.

3. Take It Easy On The Carbs – This is one that’s hard for me. Imagine an Italian American that has completely given up pasta or Italian bread. No such thing, right? Correct. I’m starting to think there’s a bit of good sense tied to a diet of protein, vegetables, fruit, and good fats, hence I’m working to reduce the amount of refined carbs that I eat. Although I could never see myself not eating pasta at all, there is a fantastic product called Dreamfields that I love. It’s what they call low glycemic index, and quickly becoming the only brand of pasta I’ll use.

Watch the stuff that makes you fat: white bread, potatoes, rice, and yes, macaroni. In moderation only.

4. Catch Your Zzzzzzzzs – My wife has this one right, for sure. She tends to be in bed most nights before 10PM, and she always tries to get me to come up with her. 😉 But, I have always been a night owl, and as much as I want to change that, there are still going to be nights when I’ve got things to do. I’ll stay up late. If I’m writing a post like this, rest assured I’ll be at the laptop past 10, or even 11PM.

I’ll keep trying to make it an earlier night. When your body’s used to being up late, it’s a difficult transition.

5. You Are The Sum of The 5 People… – There’s an oldie but goody. Want to stay young, energetic, and stress free? Get rid of the jerks in your life. Plain and simple, just like most old-school mantras. Whether they are family or “friends”, people that are negative, unsupportive, nasty, and without criticism of the constructive variety have got to go. If you are not willing to jettison these malcontents, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

With the possible exception of number 3, I’m sure my little old Sicilian mentors would have agreed with all of these. That alone makes the above fantastic advice to stave off your aging process.

Start a conversation in the comments section. How do you keep the attitude of that young person you are or used to be?

Jim Valvano

If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”