meatballs

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.

“Brooklyn” and the art of making meatballs

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As published in the Providence Journal, January 17, 2016.

There is so much to love about the film “Brooklyn” — from its compelling narrative and superb cast to the gorgeous cinematography. Rhode Islanders in particular will have a keen appreciation for the romance at the heart of this poignant, coming-of-age story: a charming Italian boy, Tony, woos a lovely Irish girl, Eilis, after she arrives alone in New York in the early 1950s.

If you’re from Rhode Island, you’ve likely seen your share of Italian-Irish pairings. You may even have been born of such a union, as I was, though my parents’ ethnicities are reversed from those of Tony and Eilis.

I was two weeks into my freshman year in college when a classmate noted my Irish surname.

“Actually, I’m half-Irish, half-Italian,” I said. “My mom’s maiden name is Pantalone.”

“That’s an odd combination,” the girl replied. Clearly, she wasn’t from Providence.

Had she grown up in the city’s Elmhurst neighborhood, like me, she would have seen Italian and Irish families rubbing shoulders, house by house – Riccios and Ryans, Fiores and Whelans, Gugliettas and Lennons. Is it any surprise that Cupid’s arrow occasionally flew over the fence?

In “Brooklyn,” Tony asks Eilis if she likes Italian food.

“Don’t know, I’ve never eaten it,” she says.

“It’s the best food in the world,” he says, and invites her to have dinner with his family.

That’s when we know things are getting serious between them.

I grew up thinking Italian food was the best too. And just about everyone around me, regardless of their ethnic background, seemed to love Italian meatball grinders.

Uncle Frank made a good one at his sandwich shop on Smith Street near La Salle Academy.

Mrs. Breen, my friend Jimmy’s mom, made a good one too. She was delighted when I complimented her.

“After all,” she said, smiling. “You have an Italian mother.”

My mom’s meatballs were delicious, though occasionally she’d put raisins in them, which I picked out with a fork.

Not that my palate was refined – far from it. I loved the meatballs that my Nana Walsh served, and they came out of a can. My mother was appalled when I asked if we could get some Chef Boyardee for home.

In “Prizzi’s Honor,” Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) advises former flame Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston) to “settle down, get married … practice your meatballs.”

It’s a funny line – and wise. Making good meatballs is an art to be practiced for a lifetime.

My mom didn’t write down recipes, and her measurements tended to be vague – “some,” “a bit,” “enough.” But I did glean a few of her meatball musts – a mix of ground beef, veal, and pork; Italian bread soaked in milk; an egg. From there, I was on my own.

My first attempts were woeful – rock-hard meatballs, soggy meatballs, tasteless meatballs, push-to-the-edge-of-your-plate meatballs. They were so bad, my Scottish-Welsh-Irish-German-American wife wouldn’t eat them. I gave up. I went meatball-AWOL for 15 years.

But as our family grew and my Sunday supper traditions deepened, it was time for another try. I discovered Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe for turkey meatballs. My inaugural batch was edible, even tasty. I started practicing. And a few months later, I was ready for the ultimate test.

“A recipe from a celebrity chef?” my mother said, looking suspiciously at the container of meatballs and gravy I was leaving with her. “She’s probably never seen a kitchen.”

“Just try them,” I said.

“I don’t like turkey.”

“Just try them and let me know.”

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 all right.

The following morning, my phone rang.

“I had your meatballs,” my mom said. Her voice was hushed. Oh no, I thought. Had they made her sick?

“They were fabulous.”

At last – this half-Irish, half-Italian kid had found his meatball mojo.

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.

 

 

Pursuing The Perfect Meatball

meatball_post_image

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.

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