The glory that was grease?

I’ve been recuperating and relaxing for the past four days, staying with my mother, and I’ve been letting her pamper me – including cooking meals – as I regain my strength and energy.

So one day she’s making grilled cheese sandwiches on this really old looking flat skillet and says “Your grandfather used to make grilled cheese on this.”

What?! Grandpa Nash! My grandpa died 51 years ago. That’s one old goddamned skillet. That’s a hell of a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. I want that griddle someday!

Wait! There’s more! The next night, Mom was boiling something for dinner. When she was done, and had washed out the pot, she held it up and said, “This pot is more than 60 years old. I bought it when I got engaged.”

My mother is still using a cooking pot that she bought years before I was born! I want that skillet and I want that pot!

I guess there’s no point to this, other than some vague notion that the big and expensive and spacious skillet given to me by my daughter a few months ago is a great skillet, but it now seems like some sort of poseur, some kind of upstart, a kitchen utensil that may never, to really stretch this and allude to one of those fancy old English poets, acquire the glory of my Mom’s old cooking pot nor gain the grandeur of my grandpa’s old skillet.


Caveman cuisine

Pondering the “paleo” diet?

It’s time to hog the spotlight, to cast swine before pearls, to wallow in a swill-filled existential sty as I contemplate the backyard pig roast I attended last weekend in New Jersey.

I am rendered nearly inarticulate. Why? I think it mostly has to do with my love for the bus-driving and steam shovel-operating animals who populate Richard Scarry’s Busytown, where I’ve wanted to live since I was four years old and where, other Busytown devotees may recall, the traffic cop blowing his whistle and directing Busytown’s traffic was a jolly, friendly pig.

Add in several readings of “Charlotte’s Web,” several viewings of those movies about Babe the Gallant Pig, and countless hours of wasted youth spent watching Porky Pig cartoons (and listening to Porky sing his version of “Blue Christmas”), not to mention a recent weekend spent at a country fair where we saw lots of portly but pulchritudinous prize-winning pigs, and it’s a wonder that I managed to even look at that poor 80-pound porker with its cute little snout and its curly little tail and its innocent half-smile as it sat there all brown and crispy on that big platter, never mind how I managed to take part (along with several-dozen other carnivores) in quickly devouring that poor beast.

Perhaps I was distracted by a conversation I had with a fellow carnivore who, as we stood there waiting for our chance to wiggle our way into the feeding trough, revealed to me with great enthusiasm that he’d embarked about a month before on the so-called “paleo” diet, which basically involves eating no foods and drinking no beverages unless they were available to Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble and all of the other cave people.

I stood there and gazed at the barbecued pig and pondered the relative merits of eating what cavemen and cavewomen ate. On the one hand, those early people were the forebears of humankind. On the other hand (or so I pondered as I enjoyed my second or third helping of pulled pork), cavemen hit each other over the heads with clubs; they weren’t exactly Rhodes scholars, if you get my drift; and they were considered really old if they lived to be about nineteen years old, which was their normal life span unless they died young because they’d encountered an Ice Age or a saber-toothed tiger.

No, I decided as I also enjoyed a glass of non-primitive white wine and some delicious non-paleo pasta salad, I’ll lay off the brontosaurus burgers and continue to eat modern food — pausing occasionally as I travel life’s path to stay in touch with my caveman roots by munching on some poor not-as-evolved-as-me animal cooked primitively but to crispy perfection over sizzling hot coals (thank goodness Fred and Barney discovered fire!)


Above, my grandparents’ hometown of Scerni, in the province of Chieti, in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

The irony did not escape me. There I was, at a holiday weekend picnic/barbecue in a relatively affluent town in New Jersey, surrounded by friendly and  interesting and educated people — in a setting and surroundings where my Italian immigrant grandmother would have felt like she’d landed on another planet…if she even knew or believed in the existence of other planets,  seeing as she believed the moon landing and moon walks were faked.

(She also believed in the evil eye. And once, when we made a family trip to upstate New York and visited a place called Howe Caverns, we actually convinced Grandma DiGiovanni to take an elevator down into the caverns. We even got her to get into the flat-bottomed boat which took visitors on a ride on the cavern’s underground river — and she was fine until the lights were turned off, and bats fluttered around, and Grandma screamed hysterically because, I gathered, she believed we had been lured down into the home of the Devil).

My grandparents, long gone now, were from Abruzzo, from a small mountain town called Scerni in a province called Chieti. They came to America in the 1930s.  My grandfather was a farm laborer. My grandmother was a shepherd girl — she once described to me, in her broken English, the time a wolf attacked her flock of sheep.

I was in my 30s when my grandmother died, which means I have clear memories of her — and of her huge Sunday dinners, which are a hallmark of Abruzzo, especially in the small towns and on the peasant farms.

Peasant cooking, of course, produced meals that were hearty and filling — and used whatever ingredients were available, including parts of animals that more affluent folks might not even think about cooking and eating. Hence, we eat sausages, with ground up less-appetizing parts stuffed into the animal’s intestines, then cooked. Tripe? Yes, that’s the lining of a cow’s stomach, and it’s also of peasant origin. Lamb brains? Yes, my grandmother used to cook that when she would head down to the Italian markets on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y., and buy an entire lamb to cook for Easter dinner. The brain would be chopped up and mixed with eggs and breadcrumbs and parsley, then cooked right inside the roasted lamb’s skull.

I don’t think any of the people I was with last weekend would have eaten baked lamb brains.  Me neither!

But what I did cook as my contribution to the potluck meal — which lots of folks ate and liked —  was a good hearty peasant dish which I call, um, Grandma DiGiovanni’s Italian Cheese Patties.

Here’s the recipe:

Get two big round loaves of good Italian bread. Remove the crust (save to make bread crumbs) and break the insides of the two loaves into small pieces. Put the bread in a large bowl and add six beaten eggs and two cups of Parmesan cheese. Mix together well. The bread mixture must be sticky and moist enough to form into patties; if it’s slightly dry and crumbly, just sprinkle a little water on the mixture; if it’s VERY dry and crumbly, trying adding another beaten egg; conversely, if the mixture is TOO sticky, mix in some dry bread crumbs until the mixture can be molded into patties.

Mold the mixture into patties, then fry them in good olive oil until both sides are golden brown (don’t overcook and turn over the patties carefully with a spatula). After the patties are golden brown on both sides, simmer them for two hours in a good homemade tomato sauce.  After two hours, remove from sauce….and, mangia!