Italian-Americans

Thanksgiving served up “auntie” love

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The author’s “aunts” Grace Besachio and Tina Giuliano, fourth and fifth from the left, at a family wedding in 1956.

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 17, 2019.

The hiss of Mom’s hairspray on Thanksgiving morning announced that it was almost time to leave.

“Grab your coats, boys,” she called from the downstairs bathroom where she always put on her make-up. “We’re going to Auntie Big Gracie and Auntie Tina’s.”

Big Gracie and Tina were my mother’s first cousins, which technically made them first cousins once removed to my brothers and me; but we called the fun-loving sisters “aunties” out of respect. As for the “big” in Big Gracie’s name, it was confusing. The only thing outsized about my aunt was her personality – she stood 5 feet 2 inches, tops.

“Why do you call her Big Gracie?” a friend once asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We just do.”

I would later learn that the “big” was bestowed on Gracie to distinguish her from a younger cousin – one of my mother’s sisters – who had the same name. She, of course, was known as Little Gracie.

As a kid in the late-1960s, it seemed I had loving Italian relatives on every other block in Providence’s Elmhurst neighborhood. Big Gracie and Tina lived side-by-side in a towering three-story duplex across from La Salle Academy. They each had four children, and on holiday mornings, the duplex was a hubbub of hugs and laughter, coffee and cordials, with non-stop spillover between the attached homes.

On this particular Thanksgiving, Big Gracie greeted us at her front door: “Norma and the boys are here!” she called out behind her.

“Hooray!” came back a shout from the rooms beyond.

With her easy smile and loving voice, my aunt ushered my brothers and me through the throng to her dining room table, which was laden with cookies, cakes, and candies. “Help yourselves, guys,” she said.

After a short stay on Big Gracie’s side of the festivities, it was time to visit Tina. In an ordinary house, this would have meant walking across the front lawn to the duplex’s other entrance. But this was no ordinary house. Years earlier, the two sisters had broken through a closet wall to create a secret passageway between their dining rooms, allowing them to visit each other without going outside.

Family lore has it that during one holiday gathering, a would-be suitor of Tina’s youngest daughter, fueled by holiday libations, sat dumbfounded as he watched a procession of people enter what was apparently a closet, only to have an entirely different group come out moments later. The young man resisted every impulse to flee, and he and my cousin eventually wed.

“Look who’s here!” Auntie Tina called out as my mother, brothers, and I emerged from the closet to make our second big entrance of the day under the same roof. “Norma and the boys!”

More laughter. More cookies. More hugs.

At one point, Auntie Tina asked me if she had forgotten to give me a gift for my birthday earlier that year. I was quick to say yes, though I didn’t actually remember.

“John!” my mother said, shooting me a look. Auntie Tina intervened.

“This is between John and me,” she said, shooing my mother away. Minutes later, when Mom wasn’t looking, Auntie Tina pressed a shiny silver dollar into my palm.

Mother-child relationships are a complex stew, one that nourishes, sustains, and sometimes boils over. Aunts are chicken soup. I remember mine with endless affection because, as James Joyce wrote, “love loves to love love.”

The word “aunt” derives from the Latin “amita,” a diminutive of “amma,” which is baby talk for “mother.” The etymology reflects an age-old truth: there’s a lot of our moms in our aunts.

Just the right amount, I think.

Pursuing The Perfect Meatball

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It’s my favorite Jack Nicholson line and I can’t find it on YouTube. I had no trouble finding the others:

“Here’s Johnny!”

“You can’t handle the truth!”

“Hit me, Chief, I’ve got the moves!”

But this gem, from Prizzi’s Honor, is nowhere to be found:

“Practice your meatballs.”

In his role as Charlie Partana, Jack advises former flame Maerose Prizzi (Angelica Houston) to “settle down, get married, have a few kids, get a life, practice your meatballs.”

The line makes total sense to me. Good meatballs earned you big-time props in my Italian-American family. But they don’t come easily.

Good meatballs take practice – lots of practice. The variables are endless. Ground beef or a mix of beef, pork, and veal? Fried or baked? Bread or bread crumbs? Onion? Seasoning? And what about the eggs and milk? How do you get the right consistency – not too dry, not too wet?

My first efforts in the mid-1980s were woeful – rock-hard meatballs, soggy meatballs, tasteless meatballs, push-to-the-edge-of-your-plate meatballs. They were so bad, I gave up – I went meatball AWOL for twenty-five years. And then I discovered Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe for turkey meatballs. My inaugural batch was edible, even tasty. I started practicing.

*     *     *

“I don’t like turkey.”

That was my mom’s reaction when I handed her a container of my turkey meatballs and Sunday gravy. “Just try them tonight and let me know what you think,” I said. My mom was not one to candy-coat her opinions — about politics, about fashion, about anything. She’d let me know what she thought about my meatballs, alright.

The following morning, my phone rang. “I had your meatballs,” my mom said, in a serious voice. “They were fabulous.”

If I had become a doctor, my mom would have been pleased.

If I had been elected President of the United States, my mom would have been proud.

If I had invented a universal TV remote that didn’t require the assistance of an MIT professor, my mom would have been my first customer.

But these would have been mere silver-medal accomplishments next to my meatball gold. They were fabulous confirmed that I had found my meatball mojo.

*     *     *

In The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, published in 1761, the author states that “practice makes perfect.” Adams’ dictum reflects his era’s belief that through reasoning and diligence, man could become the master of his universe.

But meatballs are not easily mastered. Making them is more art than science, and meatball nirvana is fleeting. The next batch may have a tad too much milk, or the oil may be too hot, or there may be a sudden drop in barometric pressure. You can never predict exactly how the meatballs will turn out. Consistency is a more realistic goal than perfection.

It’s like shooting foul shots in basketball. One day, you go ten for ten; the next day, you’re throwing up bricks.

I don’t think John Adams knew jack about meatballs.

But Jack certainly does.

Finding Meaning In Macaroni

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When I was growing up, I loved macaroni and hated spaghetti. But it’s all pasta, right? Not to me – not back then. The word pasta wasn’t even part of my vocabulary. At our table, it was either macaroni or spaghetti.

Macaroni meant 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.”

Rhode Island-native Nancy Verde Barr’s first cookbook was titled We Called It Macaroni: An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking. That made sense to me. My grandparents emigrated from southern Italy. They called it macaroni, too.

So did Thomas Jefferson. He was introduced to pasta in Paris in the 1780s and even had a “maccaroni machine” shipped to Monticello. But according to James and Kay Salter, in their book Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, pasta’s real introduction in America “came with the great Italian immigration wave in the late 1800s, when it was known as macaroni, still the word Italian-Americans use for pasta.”

With its many shapes and sizes, macaroni serves up a feast of melodic words and colorful etymologies:

> Farfalle, which means butterfly, though in our house, we call this shape bow ties

> Orecchiette, which means little ears; we call them pope’s hats because they resemble the pontiff’s zucchetto

> Penne means quill pen, as the pasta is cut on the diagonal at both ends

Mostaccioli translates as little mustaches; it is the staple macaroni in our house today

> Cavatappi means corkscrews; this pasta is a twirling tube

> Rigatoni means large lined ones; a favorite of mine growing up

With age, my aversion to spaghetti – little strings – has abated. I have even come to love spaghetti’s thinner (in the U.S.) cousin: vermicelli. It means little worms.

Buon appetito!

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