Pie

In the 1996 movie Michael, John Travolta starred as an archangel sent to Earth to do various tasks. Andie MacDowell co-starred and sang a country song entitled Pie. In the restaurant scene, Travolta orders two dozen different pies and my mouth watered for the next hour.

What is it about pie? Whether serving it a la mode or a la not mode, pie has a place in our hearts as a favorite comfort food along with meatloaf, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, tomato soup and oil sandwiches. Yes, oil sandwiches. Salted olive oil on Wonder bread. This was my childhood comfort food. Every bite left me with feelings of warmth, love and all is right with the world. If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around an ‘oil sandwich’, just think of dipping breads and oil – same thing just using fancy rolls and not white Wonder bread.

Historians trace pie’s initial origins to the Greeks, who are thought to be the originators of the pastry shell. Even then people disagreed about what constitutes a pie. Some said that any dish that has a crust with a filling is a pie and others said there are only 4 types of pies – fruit, custard, cream and savory. My belief, it’s a pie if it’s warm and smothered with ice cream.

Apple pie still remains America’s favorite but contrary to popular belief, it isn’t an American invention. The first written apple pie recipe dates back to 1381. It was printed by Geoffrey Chaucer and included apples, figs, raisins, and pears in a pastry shell…no sugar.

Recently I made my first pie. Yes, you read correctly. I’m ‘older than my tongue and younger than my teeth’ and never made a pie. Growing up my Mom made all types of desserts but not pies. So why did I decide to make one? An abundance of ripe peaches. We were having friends for dinner and to guarantee a successful meal, I made my specialty – 4 layered lasagna with sweet Italian sausage and meatballs, garlic/cheese bread and Caesar salad. Usually my go-to dessert would be any bakery item from the Amish Market but since I had all these peaches I decided to bake a pie. After all who better to experiment on than friends!

One thing I knew about pie baking was the crust can make or break it. Pillsbury Pie Crust to the rescue. Didn’t want to experiment too much after all, I like these friends. After slicing the peaches, I realized that I didn’t have the five cups that was called for. I looked around and there they were – red, shiny crisp, apples, perfect to fill the peach shortage. After coring, peeling, and slicing the apples, I was still a cup short. Now what? Searching the refrigerator I found fresh, plumb blueberries. Just enough to make the required 5 cups.

The Peachappleberry pie was delicious, the friends didn’t die and I have a new baking passion…Lemon Meringue anyone?

Growing Up Italian

The Godfather, The Sopranos, The Green Book – all great shows that portray life in an Italian family. For the most part, they were spot on. Italians have a distinct way of life that’s almost impossible to mistaken for any other nationality. If you’ve truly lived it, like I did in South Philly, or spent time in the homes of your Italian friends, you’ll might recognize some of the following food and family ‘traditions’.

Whether our home or my grandparents’, no one understood the concept of ‘being full’. Basically we ate when we were hungry and, because there was enough food to feed an army, we were forced to continue eating. If you stopped and pushed back from the table, the guilt remark was made – “Remember there are starving children…” in whatever country they chose at that time. So we ate. I believe there is no Italian translation for the word ‘calorie’.

Every Sunday after church my Mom and me made 2 stops – the corner grocery store to pick up cold cuts, ordered in specific amounts like a third of a lb. minus 2 slices of mild Genoa salami – sliced thin. The second stop was the bakery where the scent of freshly baked cinnamon buns with nuts, raisins and gooey caramel added 5 lbs. to your hips without touching your mouth. Besides the cinnamon buns, a dozen fresh, warm Italian rolls were always on the list. White, wheat, rye or whatever bread was sold in the supermarket never compared. My Mom always carried a small container of butter and a butter knife so we could indulge in a buttered fresh, warm roll on the bus-ride home.

Sunday dinners were spent with family at my grandmother’s. Dinners consisted of pasta, meatballs, sausage, roasted chicken, vegetables, salad and, of course, three or four desserts. There was so much food, you were full until the middle of the following week. Best of all, everyone went home with enough leftovers to last until the next Sunday dinner.

Back yard lawns – no bigger than the depth and width of two cemetery plots were the pride of every man in the neighborhood. They were the captains of their lawns in charge of raising tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, basil, parsley, broccoli rabe and watermelons. Competition started at the first planting and ended when the last vine died. The winner? Every neighbor who shared in the abundance of crops all season long.

As for family…you probably haven’t met all of your cousins. And the cousins you have met are your 1st, 2nd and, 3rd maybe even a 4th. Of these most were named Tony, Joe, Frankie, Rose and Maria. Conversations went something like – “So I was talking to cousin Frankie. No the other Frankie. Not tall Frankie. Short Frankie. You know the one with the one blue eye.”

If you were single, your relatives were always asking when were you going to meet a ‘nice Italian boy or girl?’ Even if you were married to someone who wasn’t Italian, they always asked when were you going to meet a ‘nice Italian boy or girl.’ Ma don!

Finally, the two most consistent and recognizable Italian traits – our volume dial had only loud and louder settings – no low. As for our hands, they had a mind of their own.

Growing up Italian – more a blessing than a curse!

Traditions


When I hear the word tradition, I mentally picture a fiddler on the roof in the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof where the Papa, the Mama, the sons and daughters did specific things because they were a tradition. Traditions are symbolic in meaning with special ties to the past. Some go back farther than anyone can remember and some begin out of necessity like the chicken’s tail.

I was preparing to roast a chicken using my grandmother’s secret recipe. Jeff came in and asked me why I was cutting off the tail, “Because my Mother did” I replied. When we visited my Mom he asked her, “Mom, why do you cut off the tail of the chicken before roasting.” “Because my Mother did.” she replied.

Not satisfied with either answer, we drove to the source – my grandmother’s home. My grandmother, the oldest of 13 children, was born in America. She was a voracious reader, a midwife, an excellent cook, had a heart of gold and a temper that would flared if you crossed her the wrong way. Her kitchen was her domain and that’s where we found her. After consuming some of her mouthwatering ricotta cookies, Jeff asked her the chicken tail question. She looked at him and said, “I don’t do that. I only did it years ago because the pan was too small to hold the whole bird.” Traditions.

For me, there’s nothing sadder than the ending of a tradition. I’m Italian by heritage and raised Catholic. The number of Italian traditions is only exceeded by the number of Catholic traditions. Combine the two and you can write a 365 day calendar! The Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fish is one of my fondest memories and traditions.

Why seven fish? No one really knows. Some insist it’s a religious symbol and others a marketing ploy to get people to eat more fish. Regardless of the origin, it was a tradition in our family dating back to the early 1900. It carried with it no hard and fast rules regarding what fish to serve however in our home, it wasn’t complete unless baccalà and smelts were on the table. Over the years, the Feast of the Seven Fishes moved from my grandmother’s home to my Mother’s and finally to me. That’s when the change started. The younger generations turned their nose up to the traditional fish dishes wanting only mac and cheese, buttered spaghetti and chicken fingers. The tradition didn’t just die – it vanished!

As some traditions die others are born. Every New Year’s morning my nephew, who lives in Southern California, drives his family of 5 to a specific beach. Here they write the former year in the sand and watch as the tide takes it away with all its good and not so good happenings. They then write the new year in the sand, sharing their hopes and dreams for the upcoming year. Traditions.

In the words of Tevye, the Papa in Fiddler on the Roof, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” Keep your traditions and pass them on.

The Good Old Days

Eddie V’s Prime Seafood, Ruth’s Chris Steak House or Sublimotion, the most expensive restaurant in the world – $2,000/person – have nothing on the downhome atmosphere and Southern cuisine of a Cracker Barrel. Okay, that’s an exaggeration but there is something about Cracker Barrel that most restaurants would die for…at least in my humble opinion. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. is an American chain of combined restaurant and gift stores with a southern country theme. The company was founded by Dan Evins in 1969; its first store was in Lebanon, Tennessee and they’ve been expanding ever since. So what’s so great about Cracker Barrel? The food sticks-to-your ribs and other parts of your body, the service is good and the prices won’t break the bank…so what makes it special? The décor and the emotions it evokes. The moment you sit down, your eyes are drawn to the pictures, wall hangings, tools, toys and ads of years gone by that adorn every wall. Each store has an average of 1,000 authentic pieces of décor all specific to the local area. A commonality in all 645+ stores in 44 states are the ox yolk and horseshoe hanging over the front door, a traffic light over the restrooms and a barrel with a checker board in front of the fireplace. So why does this hit home with so many people? Nostalgia. Nostalgia is powerful. Studies have determined that nostalgia can counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It also promotes people to be more generous and tolerant of strangers and couples to feel closer and look happier. All as a result of sharing nostalgic memories. I can’t remember a family or friend get-together when someone doesn’t say “Remember when…” and from that point forward the conversation drifts towards reliving times that made us feel safe, loved and happy.

As a teen, I use to roll my eyes and sigh every time I heard my Mom or Dad talk about a current issue and say “That never would have happened in the good old days.” So what are the ‘good old days’? The good old days are defined as a time in the past when it was believed that life was better. Nostalgia has a way of bringing us back to the past quicker than you can blink and, of all our senses, smell is the most closely linked with memory. Scents like a wood burning stove, an orchard in blossom or cookies baking in the oven can take us back to a time that warms our heart, makes us smile and reminds us of ‘the good old days.’

On a personal note – if you find yourself visiting a Cracker Barrel, order the pecan pancakes. Unlike most restaurants who simply sprinkle the pecans on their pancakes, Cracker Barrel mixes them in the batter making every bite a special treat. Drench the one, two or three stakes with the warm maple syrup, close your eyes and return to ‘the good old days.’ Happy trails to you…

Christmas Traditions

Jeff and I had been dating for about a year and I thought it was time for him to meet my family and experience a traditional Italian Christmas Eve. I didn’t however, warn him about the Twilight Zone he was about to enter. However, I did give strict instructions to my family. No interrogation, no Rosanne stories and please don’t mention Uncle Guido or the cash hidden behind the wall at Grandmom’s. We’ll save those for his second visit.

Upon entering the house, Jeff asked “What is that”? “It’s our aluminum Christmas tree” I answered. That’s right, we had an aluminum tree proudly adorned with bubble lights and tinsel. My Dad called it the tree of the future – no fuss, no muss, saves time and money. Put it up, take it down and store it. He was right except for the year he jammed the branches in upside down making the tree look like an arrow spearing the carpet. It took Mom and me hours to reassemble.

Our celebration consisted of dinner, singing carols, and reading The Night Before Christmas. Jeff was amazed by the variety of seafood served. I was grateful he liked fish otherwise it could have been a long night for him and a short relationship for me. Fried smelts were his favorite. Smelts are small fish eaten whole – eyes and tails included. They’re delicious especially if they’re floured and fried so you don’t see the eyes.

After dessert, Mom put Perry Como on the turntable and handed out the sheet music. Everyone was singing off key and loudly when disaster struck. Uncle Tony’s false teeth flew out of his mouth and landed on Uncle Fred’s knee. We all laughed as Fred chased Tony screaming “You bit me”. These two brothers were the best people for such a happening. Uncle Tony was a shrewd self-made contractor. Once, to insure payment, he placed a sheet of glass halfway down a client’s chimney. When the home owner called raging that his house was filled with smoke, Tony ask for the payment, got it then dropped a brick down the chimney to break the glass. Uncle Fred was also successful having worked his way from the mail room to the C Suite at the largest bank in Philadelphia. As down to earth as Tony was, Fred was just the opposite and the perfect recipient of a bite by a set of false choppers. As a grand finale, one of my nine uncles – usually the one who could still stand and read by the end of the night, read the classic poem.

Jeff survived my family and learned how to use a spoon to twirl his spaghetti. He also came away with an appreciation for an aluminum tree and the importance of Italian Christmas Eve traditions. Do you have holiday traditions? Continue them, pass them on and hold them in your heart. This is the best present you can give or receive.