gravy

Worn tin box is my time machine

IMG_6916_rw1As published in The Providence Journal, April 15, 2018. Photo: Rob Walsh

I cast my line into Google’s data ocean with the words “vintage recipe box” as my bait, and get a quick 3 million nibbles. I click for images and, after one scroll down, there it is: a red metal tin identical to the one that sat by my mother’s stove, and now sits on my desk.

According to eBay, Mom’s recipe box could fetch me $19.99, but I’m not selling. How can I? The worn tin is priceless – a treasure chest, a time machine, a family portrait.

After 60 years, the artwork on the box is more kitsch than cool. A fish peers at me one-eyed from a frying pan; an orange Jell-O mold is topped with a cherry or perhaps an olive – I’m not sure which. The bottom panel reveals a manufacturer’s pride: “Design Copyright by Stylecraft of Baltimore.” Such recipe files were popular in 1956, the year my parents got married.

While Mom’s cooking wasn’t fancy, it always “hit the spot,” especially her chicken cutlets, and macaroni and meatballs.

After I moved into my first apartment, I asked my mother for her meatball recipe. Instead of reaching for a pen, Mom reeled off a litany of ingredients that included ground beef, stale Italian bread, an egg, some milk, pepper, and a dash of garlic salt. I guess she presumed I would know what to do with them. It was years before I produced an edible orb.

This exchange left me with the sense that my mother was averse to writing down the secrets to her dishes, but her recipe box proves otherwise. It contains a hodgepodge of index cards, folded notes, newspaper clippings, and alphabetized dividers, which Mom clearly had no use for.

Today, almost five years after my mother’s death, the first recipe I pull out of the box is a family classic: Nonnie Caione’s Easter bread – a miracle of eggs, butter, sugar, aniseed, salt, sugar, yeast, and flour. By Palm Sunday every spring, a loaf would appear on our kitchen table, waiting to be sliced and then slathered with soft butter. As we relished each bite, Mom would celebrate her maternal grandmother, invariably noting, “Nonnie was tiny.” My brothers and I found this funny since, at 5 foot 1 inch, my mother was no Wilt Chamberlain.

A preprinted card from the Virginia Electric and Power Company lists standard measures on one side and a hamburger and vegetable casserole recipe on the other. It reminds me that, as newlyweds, my parents lived in Fredericksburg while Dad was training at the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico.

A recipe for veal and mushrooms is grease-stained, indelible proof of its deliciousness. The dish, from a dear family friend, became a favorite for special occasions and send-off dinners.

There are surprises. A Providence Journal clipping from the early 1980s details how to make President Reagan’s favorite macaroni and cheese. I don’t recall Mom liking mac and cheese all that much, but I do know she loved the Gipper. Who knew her recipe box would confirm her preferences at the ballot box, as well?

Two recipes stand out. One is for “gravy,” the meat-based tomato sauce that simmered on our stove every Sunday. No doubt this culinary prescription was given to my mother by her mother in our family’s version of Moses receiving the tablets. The other recipe, for meatballs, is equally sacred. It echoes my conversation with Mom from long ago: ground beef, stale Italian bread, an egg, some milk …

Recipes now come to me via Bon Appetit email blasts and Tasty videos on YouTube, which I love. Still, I’m holding on to the vintage red tin for the ingredients only it can serve up: my mother’s familiar handwriting; artifacts from my parents’ early life together; connection to foods my grandmother and great-grandmother once made.

It’s a family archive to be savored.

All Gravy: Feedback on My ProJo Column

cali_gravy

 

My op-ed column, “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which appeared last Wednesday in the Providence Journal, is by far the most widely read piece I have written. To date, it has elicited 477 Facebook shares and 138 Tweets from the Journal’s online edition alone.

In addition to garnering social media love, the column has prompted readers to contact me directly via email. I have heard from fellow bread and gravy aficionados, displaced Rhode Islanders, people who grew up on Federal Hill and Charles Street, long-lost cousins… The feedback has been great, and I wanted to share some of the highlights.

                                                        

“The Italian bread never tasted better than when dipped in the gravy. Not to be confused with American white bread. As I am reading the article, I’m laughing because my wife’s family and mine have been having the sauce versus gravy debate for 20 years of marriage.”

                                      

“I grew up in Mt Pleasant (born 1956) and went to many of the same bakeries. My late mother, born and raised on Federal Hill, admonished me with the same words as she sent me to the Castle Spa to pick up a loaf of Crugnale’s bread. I recall running down Chalkstone Ave with the bread ‘like a football’ and taking a piece off the end. Your words warmed me as I recalled the love of my mother.”

                                     

“Having resided in NH since 1969, I’ve suffered with the lack of food products and choices I grew up with. This problem is only rectified by numerous trips back to RI to stock up. My New Hampshire-born wife had to endure the same ‘gravy-sauce’ and ‘macaroni-pasta’ education you mentioned.”

                                            

“My mother was from Federal Hill and my father the North End or, more specifically, Charles Street. Every Sunday morning on the way back from church at St. Ann’s I would stop at a little bakery on Russo Street (Palmisciano’s, as I recall) and would eat the heel before I was at the next corner – my house. I would turn the bread upside down and it wouldn’t be discovered for at least a couple of minutes when my father would take the bread out – for the same reason.”

                                      

“My wife and I are long-time bread lovers. When we lived on the East Side, we bought bread on Federal Hill, including at the old Palmieri’s.”

                                      

“I turned a shade of pink, having been guilty of stealing the heel.”

                                             

“I grew up in the Silver Lake section of Providence and we certainly had our share of bakeries. Fact is, as a young child, I baked the bread and delivered it to houses in those days. THANK YOU for stirring up those memories.”

                              

“My husband is half Italian and did exactly what you did when asked to go to the bakery. To this day, he dips a crusty piece of bread into the ‘gravy’ just to test!”

                                   

“Don’t we love the food debates and yes, a good local bakery that you can walk to is such a treat. Moreover, it brings back those great childhood memories.”    

    

“The scent of all those neighborhood bakeries rose off the newsprint. Thank you so much for that memory.”

                                            

“I was once in a high-end store in the Berkshires and following a couple whose wife asked her husband, ‘What kind of pasta should I get?’ Unable to control myself, I said, ‘Why the ‘rigs’ of course.’ They turned to me somewhat confused… ‘Uh, I meant rigatoni.’”

                                      

And finally, this gem:

“Thank you for supplying me with new material to use in the never-ending ‘sauce versus gravy’ wars we enjoy with our old Italian friends. I can still recall, as a child in the fifties, loitering in the kitchen waiting for my mother to ask if I wanted to try the gravy on a piece of Italian bread. She eventually taught my Hungarian wife to make equally high-powered gravy. One of our Hunga-Wop daughters carries on the tradition. We never, ever, used the word ‘pasta,’ either. That was for people on TV macaroni commercials.”

 

Thanks to all for sharing their bread and gravy stories. And if you haven’t done so yet, feel free to add your thoughts below – would love to hear from you.

 

Stirring Things Up: The Gravy Recipe

crushed tomatoes

I have written seven Op-Ed pieces for the Providence Journal since December. Topics have included Wiffle ball, the return of “Mad Men,” and Christmas Eve at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill.

Of all the pieces, one stands alone in its popularity: “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which ran this past Wednesday. It garnered, by far, the most Facebook shares of any of my columns to date.

I’m not surprised. Having grown up in Providence, I know first-hand how passionate people can be about bread and gravy.

When the number of Facebook shares topped 100 on Wednesday afternoon, I offered an incentive in hopes of generating more: if the shares reached 200, I’d publish my gravy recipe. It worked. Shortly before noon on Thursday, we hit the magic number. By the end of the day, the shares exceeded 300. First thing Friday morning, they were at 401 (appropriate number) and still climbing.

My gravy recipe is simple, but figuring it out was anything but that. Years ago, when I asked my mother about the ingredients, she said “depends on what you have.” (For meat, she would use sausage or pork or steak or braciole – whatever was on hand.) When I asked her about proportions, she used phrases like “just a bit” and “a good amount” and “you know, until it tastes good.” That’s when I learned these truths: making gravy is more art than science. And each batch is as unique and personal as a signature.

My mother’s gravy was delicious, the ultimate comfort food for me. I watched and experimented and fine-tuned. And then one day, many years later, my mom said, “Your gravy is good.”

If I had been elected President of the United States, she would have been proud. But it would have been a silver-medal accomplishment next to my gravy gold. I had arrived.

Opinions abound about what makes a good gravy, so feel free to weigh in. Just don’t get me started on the meatballs.

Buon appetito!

Here’s the recipe:

THE GRAVY

INGREDIENTS

> 1/4 cup vegetable oil

> 1 small onion, finely chopped

> 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

> ½ pound sweet Italian sausage, about 3 links, cut into pieces (OR pork or steak or braciole, “depending on what you have”)

> 1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes

> 1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce

> Fresh basil and thyme, finely chopped, OR Italian seasoning

> 1 small carrot OR a pinch of sugar

> 1 bay leaf

> ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

> ¼ teaspoon salt

In a large pot, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and onions, and sauté until onions are tender and translucent. Add the sweet Italian sausage (or other meat) and brown. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, fresh basil and thyme (or Italian seasoning), carrot (or pinch of sugar), bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Simmer partially covered over low heat for at least two hours; if the Patriots are playing, for the entire game. If gravy gets too thick, add “just a bit” of water.

 

 

Please Pass The Bread – And The Gravy

 

 

meatball_post_image

As published in the Providence Journal on July 16, 2014.

My wife and I had only known each other for several weeks when she asked me a serious question: “Do you eat bread with every meal?”

My astonishment foreshadowed the mash-up of backgrounds that our eventual marriage would bring. “Don’t you?” I said.

Deb was raised in Canton, Conn., up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads — a great place to grow up. But the nearest Italian bakery was at least 30 minutes away.

I was raised in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Lord’s Prayer at catechism, “give us this day our daily bread” made perfect sense to me.

Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Papa had his own preferences. Driving home from the Hill to Elmhurst, he sometimes stopped his copper ’75 Olds Cutlass at Amore’s Bakery on Valley Street, or at a neighborhood market, where there might be a loaf of Crugnale’s. And on Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery for bread. As I bounded out the door, I’d hear the familiar refrain: “Don’t eat it all on the way back!”

I’d walk the eight blocks home, fresh loaf tucked under my arm like a football, further proof of Pavlov’s theory. I couldn’t resist tearing off the heel of the bread and biting into its flaky, crunching crust. When I got home, I’d tear another piece off and dip it into my mom’s burbling gravy before she could shoo me away.

“Gravy” was another point of courtship conversation for Deb and me. “You mean sauce, right?” she asked. “No, I mean gravy,” I replied.

My mother was a Pantalone, and on Sundays, she made “the gravy.” All my aunts made gravy, too. But I understood Deb’s puzzlement. As I moved beyond the Providence enclave of my upbringing — teeming with first- and second-generation Italian Americans — my use of the term gravy for tomato sauce had produced similar confusion in others. In college, a friend asked, “You put brown gravy on your pasta?”

A quick Google search shows that the gravy-versus-sauce debate is spirited and ongoing. This much seems clear: gravy, as my mom and aunts knew it, is a meat-based tomato sauce, cooked slowly for hours. The term is peculiar to Italian Americans in the northeastern United States. And, yes, it is red, with a hint of brown from the meat and a depth of cooked-tomato color that can make store-bought red sauces look like cheap ketchup.

The word “pasta,” which Deb used, revealed another instance where our vocabularies forked. It was always “macaroni” to me — any of the tubes or shells or twisting ribbons that, coated lightly with my mother’s gravy, made up the first course of Sunday dinner or Wednesday supper. I can hear my mom’s voice across the decades: “Have some more ’ronis.”

During our first trips to the market together, Deb laughed when she found me pondering the options in the pasta aisle (by then, pasta had entered my lexicon). I insisted that the different shapes had different tastes or, at the very least, different textures when cooked.

If nothing else, pasta presented a feast of melodic words and delicious etymologies: “farfalle” meant butterflies; “rotelle” translated as little wheels; “mostaccioli” were little mustaches (it is the staple macaroni in our house today); “cavatappi” meant corkscrews; “orecchiette” were little ears (though we called them pope’s hats because they resembled the pontiff’s zucchetto or skullcap).

After college, most of which I spent living on the East Side, I moved back to Federal Hill and rented an apartment near Holy Ghost Church. Next door stood a small bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.

Fast-forward 31 years to last winter, when a sign appeared in the window of a vacant store on Main Street in East Greenwich: “Coming Soon: Palmieri’s Bakery.” I looked closely at the logo: “Federal Hill Tradition. Established 1898.” I couldn’t believe it: the legendary Providence bakery was opening a new location right around the corner from my house.

On the Sunday after Palmieri’s opened, I hustled down to Main Street and bought my first loaf. Walking home, I resisted the urge to tear off a chunk. But that didn’t last long. With the first bite, I was a kid again.

Back in my kitchen, I smiled as my daughter dipped her bread, with a communicant’s care, into my simmering gravy.

 

Gravy Or Sauce? Stirring The Debate

crushed tomatoes

Sunday is gravy day. Not the brown gravy that you ladle on turkey or pool in a mound of mashed potatoes. I’m talking about red gravy – OK, sauce – burbling on the stove and filling the house with the promise of Sunday dinner.

Is it gravy or sauce? There was no question when I was growing up. My mother was a Pantalone. On Sundays, she made the gravy. My friends’ moms made gravy, too. But as my life took me beyond the Providence neighborhood of my upbringing – filled with first- and second-generation Italo-Americans – my use of the term gravy for tomato sauce brought puzzled looks. You put brown gravy on your pasta?

A quick Google search shows that the gravy-versus-sauce debate is spirited and ongoing. This much seems clear: gravy is usually a meat-based tomato sauce, cooked slowly for hours. (When the sauce has no meat, it’s a marinara, which comes from the Italian alla marinara, meaning “sailor style”.) A deeper search reveals that use of the term gravy to describe tomato sauce is peculiar to Italian Americans in the northeast United States.

On Sunday mornings, I walk across Peirce Street to St. Luke’s for the 10:00 service. The rhythms of the liturgy are familiar and comforting. Shortly after 11:00, I return home and head to the kitchen to begin a second weekly ritual.

I pour a bit of oil in the bottom of the pan. I add the diced onion, followed by sweet Italian sausage and, if I have it, steak or pork. I brown the meat and then pour in the crushed tomatoes and a small can of sauce. I add Italian seasoning, a bay leaf, ground pepper, a pinch of sugar or maybe a carrot to counter the acidity of the tomatoes. I stir, I cover, I simmer, and I wait…

Soon, the gravy’s heavenly aroma wafts through the house, connecting me to my mother’s kitchen, my grandmother’s kitchen, to the kitchens of Italian ancestors I never knew.

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