Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Goodbye my Friends

Three years ago, when I was driving to my Aunt’s house, I saw something that opened the Italian-Canadian flood gates of my mind. Memories of happy days with cousins and friends came flooding back to me, and after spending time with Zia, I rushed home to write them all down as a tribute to my Italian-Canadian roots.  While writing out my memories, one particular thought hit me like a thunderbolt.  The era I had grown up in—that early-immigrant culture—was gone. Those of us who were born to immigrant parents are not who our parents were, and many of our parents have transformed over the years, adapting new ways and a new culture (though I’m willing to bet most of our moms still use rags rather than Swiffing the dust away.) Ma che Swiffer?! Ma per piacere! Much of the good times and hilarity I remember was rooted in our frugal roots.  Learning to live on less and making the most of what we had— whether or not it was tomato season was a religion that few of us practice anymore.

But back to the story I first wrote in 2009. I tried to peddle Growing up Italian-Canadian and what to do about it to Toronto’s major newspapers and a few national Canadian magazines but got the va via response instead.  More attempts and rejection letters later, I filed the story away and forgot all about it. Only when a friend asked about its outcome a year later did I decide to take another look at it and publish it myself. And so this blog was born. 
The past 10 months have been fun and nostalgic and I thank all of you for reading my stories. I am deeply grateful to have had you as followers. I hadn’t planned on leaving you so soon, but I have an opportunity to take on more responsibility in the work I love to do and I’m going to go for it. If I keep blogging while taking on this increased work load, I'll be a regular Joe Pesce before long. And since I've learned my limits at this point in my life, I've decided my stories must end here. I’m glad I had a chance to contribute a portion of my Italian-Canadian memories, and delighted that I had any followers at all! I hope you’ll revisit these pages when you’re feeling a bit nostalgic, or look up other sources that pay tribute to our roots.  

Vincenzo Pietropaolo’s powerful and moving photo-documentary book Not Paved with Gold is one I revisit every now and then. I’m so happy to have it in my personal library and highly recommend it. The Italian-Canadian Museum in Vaughan provides a wonderful tribute to a time and culture that’s slowly slipping away. And if you like to travel and love history, you may want to visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax. Just last week, I met someone who told me he's planning a family pilgrimage to Pier 21. He and his parents emigrated to Canada when he was 10 and he wants to go back with his kids to look up some history there. How cool is that?  Check out www.pier21/ca

Time has changed many of our traditions but there’s one I’m planning to keep as long as I’m able. Come fall, you’ll find me at my favorite farm knee-deep in perfect bushels of tomatoes and sweet red peppers. I’ll select a few for the trunk of my car, then chat with the owner while we work our way over to the vegetable stand to select a few eggplants, zucchini and other gifts from the earth. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Thanks again everyone! Arrivederci e tante belle cose.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Memories are Made of This

When I was 10 years old, my Dad had a heart attack. It happened after a New Year’s Eve gathering at our house in the middle of the night. When my sister and I woke up, only Nonna was there. My parents had taken the ambulance to the hospital. Three days later, Dad suffered another heart attack, only this time it landed him a 3-month hospital stay.  It was a game changer for all of us.

Do you remember that one aunt and uncle who hosted all those big family parties when you were growing up? Well, in our extended family there were two of them: my parents and my Zio Paolino e Zia Angelina. It was party central at our house and at theirs for years, ‘til the heart attack hammer smashed our fun to smithereens. 

Some days, free-falling fragments still hit me wherever I happen to be standing. At a funeral last year, an extended relative who I hadn’t seen in years said to me:  “We couldn’t wait for the weekend so we could go to your parents place! In those days, Toronto was so small and there was no place to go. Come Friday night… scappa… out from work. At your parents’ house we had so much fun.” 

Although Dad’s hospital stay saved his life, it was the beginning of a recovery that lasted years. His heart attack propelled us into the giant swimming pool of life and we swiftly learned to tread water. Mostly I remember watching Gilligan’s Island after school and playing with my sister while waiting for Mom to come home from her daily hospital visits. Nonna was always there. She’d cook pasta, then clutch her rosary and stare out the front window.  It seemed as if someone had turned off the music in our lives.
By the time Dad came home in March, each of us had fallen into various states of brooding. Dad for his beloved Lucky Strikes, a two-pack-a-day habit he ditched on doctor’s orders. Mom for new ways of cooking besides the dip-it-in-egg, then breadcrumbs and fry method. And my sister and I for our favorite crusty Italian bread, pastries, salami e salametti, potato croquettes, arancini, Ma’s sky-high pizza pies, and the Sunday pasta al forno she used to bake loaded with chunks of ham and mozzarella cheese. "Time for a whole new diet," announced the doctor. "And no visitors, just lots of rest."  I cried inwardly for my cousins and the large family gatherings. I missed them, but we had to face the music…or lack of music… for as long as it would take for Dad to recover.

In came The Osterizer, the new family blender purchased to whip up health and nutrition, and other nightmare concoctions like Breakfast in a Glass. The kitchen table became our battle zone. Our lovely, chunky Italian bread swapped places nightly with thin slices of brown toast bread until Mom started baking her own. And skim milk subbed in for red wine. Just who was this crazy doctor? Son of a badda-bing. My sister and I were too young to understand and we hated him for issuing such mean-spirited rules.

By force—that’s how I joined Healthy Eating Anonymous. Feelings about my membership have evolved over the years from Tearful Rookie to Diet Natzi—I transformed into an unquestionable fanatic after my kids were born. I’ve calmed down a bit, though I opt for healthy alternatives for everything that crosses my path. That’s how this Quiche-tatta came to be. It features a brown-rice crust that’s better for your heart. And since this is Heart Month, why not give it a try? My recipe is below. As for my dad, he’ll be 88 next month. We’re thankful he’s still here to lecture us on what not to eat. To our relief, Mom put the Osterizer away years ago. Though she's not pureeing them anymore, she's still Queen of Vegetables. Like every family, we’ve shared good times and bad. I like the way Dean Martin sings about it here.

And now the Quiche-tatta: 
For the crust:  mix together 2 cups of cooked brown rice, an egg, 3 tablespoons of crushed flax seeds, a tablespoon of parmiggiano cheese and a little salt in a bowl. Blend well, then transfer it to a pie plate (greased with olive oil first) and pat down so it’s even all around like a regular pie crust. Because I often use whatever leftover rice I have on hand, at times I only have enough rice for the bottom.  Bake about 12 minutes or until firm in a 350F oven.

For the filling:  Beat 4 eggs with whatever leftover vegetables you have on hand (this time I used a ½ cup of broccoli, a few mushrooms and chopped cooking onion but I’ve used spinach and rapini, too) with 2 to 3 tablespoons of grated cheese. Cheddar and parmiggiano make a nice combo. Thin slightly with 1 or 2 tablespoons of milk. Season with salt and pepper and dried parsley. My kids don't like fresh parsley but I still use small amounts in soups and resort to the dried flakes everywhere else and they've yet to notice. Clorophyll is good for you! Add this filling to your par-baked rice crust and top your quiche-tatta with fresh tomato slices. Bake at 350F for about 40 minutes.  Allow to cool slightly before cutting and serving. Great for lunches if your kids are tired of sandwiches. Just don’t mention the brown rice, flax and parsley parts.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

National Nonna Week

In his button-up coat, far right, is Mr. BBQ  with his siblings, cousins, and Nonni, fondly remembered by all as Babu and Dido.
Nonna Maria TV had me doubled over this week. I laughed so hard I feel like I’ve done a month of situps. Thanks to everyone who sent it to me. It’s vintage. Did our Nonnas all go to the same school?  Did they all learn the fine art of what to do with shoes? Met-te-te le scarpe, leva-te-le-scarpe! No, no, lascia le scarpe, lascia le scarpe...

If you haven’t seen the clip of the charming and lovable puppet created by Montreal native Anthony Imperioli and his friends, check out their latest episode all about what Nonnas say. It is priceless.

School of Ma must have been where all our Nonnas went.  Ma, a-do-vai?  Ma, a che ora ritorni? Ma, sh-tat-attende, si capite? Ma, che-shta- me- fa shi-pazza!  So many memories; such fierce love those Nonnas had for us.

Top pic: i Nonni Siciliani.          Bottom pics: la Prozia e i Nonni Ciociari
We felt it every time we ventured out, especially when it came to La Giacca.  Speaking of jackets, it’s February and I’m feeling mezza scema. My big bulky giacca means I take up more room than usual. It’s a fight to turn the steering wheel in my car, and I knocked over a display at the grocery store. I will have to buy my groceries elsewhere for a while. I sound loud and swishy when I walk but it’s my very best heating device. Ma, whadda-you-gonna-do? Che brutta figura. At least I’m not like my dad, wearing my giacca in the house, swishing all over the place. Oh yeah. That’s what we can look forward to when we’re in our 80s.  Even central heating can’t warm up those ceramic tiles. Well, I suppose it could if you raised the temperature a little but then that would blow the Tomato Budget come Fall. Can you imagine having only 100 jars of sauce in your cantina instead of 300?  Che brutta figura. 

No one recognizes my dad these days as his giacca fits well above his nose. The only way I’m sure it’s him is because a) I know he lives there b) I recognize his eyes and c) he’s worn the same giacca for the past 10 years. Plus, I hear my mom in the background. But, let’s face it. At his age, going back and forth from the kitchen to the cantina in a Slanket would be complicated, so da ski giacca itza-gonna-be! It's warmer this week so he has probably scaled back to his heritage Nonno sweater.

But back to Nonna Maria. She make-a my heart-a sing, eh? Her stellar performance stirred up memories. Te facci’ neccone pasta?  Te facci’ neccone pizza?  Te facci’neccone castagne?  No matter what the season, my Ciociara grandmother was ready to feed us even before we could peel off our swishy giacchette.  She had lots of stories to tell…and a prayer or two to share. Here’s one she taught us about chestnuts, adapted from the Signs of the Cross Blessing, and one I never got tired of asking her to repeat in her dialect when I was very young:  In nome del Padre, figura in cape, nocce, nu-sci-cchie e castagn’infornate.
Soak chestnuts in water for 10 minutes before you slice them.

Ma, that’s how I remember it anyway. Here’s Nonna's recipe for oven-roasted chestnuts. You can still find some at the grocery store if you hurry.  Just don’t wear your bulky giacca when you go there. And if you raccomando, non fate una brutta figura, eh?

Careful here...discard all chestnuts that are too hard to cut.
Cover chestnuts in cold water and soak for 10 to 30 minutes. Longer is  

better. In the meantime, set your oven on broil mode.  Place chestnuts on a cutting board and make a deep cut in each one before placing them on a cookie tin. Don't attempt to cut those  that are hard as rock. Toss them out. Place tin under broiling elements; keep oven door slightly open as always when you broil and check every two to three minutes. Careful…like anything else on broil, chestnuts can burn easily and there's no saving them once they're black. Roast til they’re golden brown (anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes). Save your fingertips from burning and let cool a little before eating. While you’re savoring them, enjoy this classic Nonna Maria video of her at the hair salon. There are many other episodes online as well. Keep up the great work, Nonna Maria TV crew. Bravissimi!  

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

You Know You're Italian When...

When did grocery shopping get so complicated?  I remember the days when I’d go to one store, pick up everything that was on my list, come home...realize I had forgotten a few items...add them to my list for next week and put everything away while the kids helped and snacked on all the best goods.

Now it goes more like this:  drive to the store but while the rapini looks pretty good, the peppers and eggplants are disappointing. Too mushy. Hmmm...what to do? Buy the rapini and a few other things.  Drive to another store for some firm and amazing peppers only to discover the eggplants are musha-musha over there too. What is going on?  It’s January that's what. Soooo…it’s on to store number three for the melanzane while nursing a headache. If they’re not primo over there, I’m not buying them this week which gets me thinking about being Italian, or European, or just a Foodie who is so particular about veggies that are firm and flawless you’d think I was shopping for diamonds. 

And so, another list comes to mind as I drive home. I'm on a roll now so instead of cooking dinner, I focus on my list of You know You're Italian when and take my last emergency-backup lasagna out of the freezer for tonight's dinner.  Must make a couple of backup replacements for the freezer this weekend!  You never know when the next emergency will strike. So here goes. 

You know you're Italian (or a Foodie) when...

1. The size of the cantina might stop you from buying a house.
2. Family members check out the cantina before you sign the papers.
3. The brand of tomato paste you buy can be an issue.
4. Whether or not you buy tomato paste at all can be an issue.
5. You’ve had countless conversations about which pasta doesn’t stick when you cook it (with or without oil... another cause for discussion), how many packages of meat are left in the freezer, and how much money to put in the envelope.
6.     Someone in your family works in the food business.  No worries. If they work in contracting or hairdressing, they’ll know someone in the food business.
7.     You can have your hands on a Pizzelle Iron in one or two phone calls.
8.     Picnic is another way to say Family Reunion.
9.     You’ve driven up to an hour to pick up cheese, meat or porchetta.
10. You’ve gone as a group.
11. You’ve done this more than once.
12. You’ll do it again. 
13. At least one person you know owns a 40-year-old stove that sparkles like it just came off the assembly line. 
14. You recall hearing “Quanto arriviamo a casa facciamo i conti” of days gone by and know it has nothing to do with math.  Your parents most likely said it to you after you ate more than your fair share of cannoli at Zia’s house. 
15.  When you visit your parents or aunts and uncles, you sit at the table, even though it’s not lunch time. It’s not dinner time either. But there's food on the table.
16.   Summer camp involved dusting and vacuuming the house for your mom or cleaning out the garage.  Then you made pizza or biscotti. Or both.
17.  Your parents’ idea of downsizing is giving away only one of their pasta machines.
18.  Your parents’ freezer is packed to the brim with food even though they’re empty nesters. They never know when they"ll have to feed a crowd at a moment's notice.
19.  Your kids started peeling garlic to help with dinner when they were three.
20.  Going to the grocery store for eggplants only to find them mushy all over town can drive you more than a little crazy. But you know you'll do it again.

Enjoy your grocery shopping this week.  May the first store you visit stock everything to perfection so you don't have resort to your emergency back-up plan. I can't wait to see the Farmer's Market again this summer.  How about you?