Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Love and Meatballs

[the following story recently appeared in Toque Magazine -- http://www.toquemag.com/]

Every Thursday afternoon when I was growing up, my mother would take a big, bright-yellow Pyrex bowl from the cupboard, sit on one of the long wooden benches that ran alongside our kitchen table, and begin the process of making meatballs. This was our standing Thursday night dinner. I looked forward to that spaghetti, red sauce, and savory little orbs of meaty love every week like it was nobody's business.

I would come home from school and tell my mom all about the trials of teenagehood while she tore up ieces of white bread into small bits, which she would then combine with chopped meat from my dad's butcher shop, parsley, and several other tried-and-true ingredients that made me go back for seconds and thirds--and sometimes get into it with my older sister Laura over the last meatball. She generally won.
My mom passed away when I was 21, right around the time I was moving into my first apartment and taking the helm of my own stove (albeit a really small, crappy one). My roommate back then was a vegetarian, so no meatballs were made on that miniscule stove; there was no sense in making a big pot of sauce and meat when only I would eat it. Plus, we were perennially broke, so I slipped into vegetarianism for that brief period for all obvious and practical reasons, and to my father's great chagrin.
After that, I kind of forgot about meatballs, until recently when I realized I'd utterly forgotten how to make them--or, more accurately, make them well. The thing was, I'd been spending all these years experimenting with all sorts of exciting new-to-me ingredients and recipes and cuisines; meatballs just seemed, well... boring. This coincided with a time when the whole culinary world was eschewing Italian-American cooking in search of "the real Italy," seeking out the most authentic ingredients from the wives of fisherman in Sciacca or the owner of a trattoria in Tuscany. It started to feel that meatballs were passe. And anyone can make them, right? Well, actually, no.
About a year or so ago, I was thinking about my mom and those great Thursday night dinner, and in a fit on fungry nostalgia, I threw together a batch for dinner with my very Italian husband, Dan. We sat down to eat them and... meh. I chewed and chewed. He chewed and chewed, avoiding my anxious gaze.
"They're not very good, are they?"

He smiled supportively, but gently shook his head.

"No. They really aren't."

It was total meatball ineptitude and failure. How could this happen? How could I be such a whiz in the kitchen and be unsuccessful at what I considered the most basic of dishes? The acute disappointment I felt was doubly hard to swallow because it made me yearn for my mother's company, her cooking, and the incredible attention and love she put into it. And us. I could almost smell a phantom pot of her sauce on teh stove. I needed to learn how to do this.

It's been over a year now, and as I sit here writing this I'm anticipating the heady smell of meat, cheese, garlic, and parsley cooking on my stovetop. It took me all this time, but I finally figured it out-- in part from looking at good recipes that made sense and figuring out what I liked, but also from allowing myself to remember those days of sitting and watching my mom at the kitchen table with her big, yellow bowl. I'm making this batch for Dan tonight; I can't think of a better way to show someone you love them.
Respectable Meatballs
1 lb ground chuck
1/2 lb ground sirloin
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup (or more, to taste) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/4 of an onion, finely minced
1 tsp Kosher salt
a few twists of black pepper
3 slices good white bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup milk
2-3 Tbsp vegetable oil
Soak the three slices of bread in milk in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, add all the other ingredients, except the bread. Tear the milk-soaked bread into small bits and add to the other ingredients. Using your hands, mix until all ingredients are just combined.
Fill a small bowl or cup with water and keep it next to you. Wet your fingers to keep the meat from sticking to them, and form the meat mixture into 1 1/2 inch balls.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan. Brown the meatballs on all sides, frying in batches (do not crowd them).
Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain, then gently drop them into a pot of simmering sauce. Serve with your favorite pasta and someone you really like.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Squash Tree

If you squint at the picture to the right, you might be able to make out a sweet, be-capped elderly gentleman proudly showing off what appears to be a bumper crop of...what is that, exactly?
Squash. It's squash. Growing from a tree. And that's my grandfather, John Zavatto. A post-WWI immigrant from Calabria, Italy, and the happy grower of said squash, among other things.
Here's what you should be saying to yourself: "Squash doesn't grow on trees..." -- and you'd be right about that. Until the age of about 11, though, I sure thought it did.
In truth, it was an old, dead pear tree up which my grandfather trained his vines to grow and wrap and spread, so by the thick of summer they'd drip from the branches as if it were the most natural thing for a tree to sprout squash instead of leaves. I liked believing this, in that way when, as a child, you easily accept all kinds of myth as plain, irrefutable fact. It was a strange, unsettling kind of let-down when, several years after he'd died, my Aunt Iris stifled a laugh and let me in on the truth. It was...disorienting.
In my family, though, this was a little bit of a theme. Half-pieces of information, stories not told, things lost from the Old Country to the New. Calabria wasn't such a nice place to live when my grandparents and my aunts Iris and Phyllis left it in the early twentieth century. Being an Italian immigrant in America then was none too easy, either. Like many others who came over, my family just wanted to fit in; to feel like they were part of something. That they were home. Born here, my dad and his brother, Frank, don't speak Italian. We didn't do fish on Christmas Eve. We didn't do Calabrese hot peppers. We didn't call our aunts "zia" and our uncles "zio." Whatever few things we did do seem to have died off, year by year, generation by generation, until finally, three generations later, we fit in just perfectly.
My sisters and I grew up on pork-chop casseroles, English-muffin pizzas, Fluffenutter sandwiches, and Hungry Man dinners when dad worked late. When he didn't, we ate in the style of the best middle American families--prime steak, roasted chicken, loin lamb chops with mint jelly. And even though my dad was a butcher, no organ meats darkened our plates. The most Italian we got was meatballs made by my Irish mother (very good ones, to her credit), crusty bread with every meal, and Good Seasons Italian dressing on the salad.
And then I married my husband.
His parents are off-the-boat Southern Italians whose thick-accented English is all but indiscernable on phone messages. They have a picture of the Last Supper over the large dining table, which sits in the kitchen, in as close proximity to the stove as possible. Food is the central nervous system upon which my mother- and father-in-law exist. It's the thing that seems to help them hold so tightly to who they were and who they are, sometimes frustratingly so. They have introduced me to things I never ate; never heard of; never knew I should have.
Fun as all this was, it also felt eerily like the squash tree all over again; like I'd been duped, had missed something, been left out. But as the years wore on and I left my old job to become what I am now--a food writer--something changed. It's made me think that maybe this was how I could find the way back. Like someone handed me a compass that lead me straight into the kitchen.
That's what this is. Stories of mining the past through the portal of a refrigerator, a stove, a garden, a bottle, a pantry, a dinner table. Instead of feeling lost, I'm letting hunger be my map. And so, here we go...