Foods Traditional, Commercial, and Unusual

Foods Traditional, Commercial, and Unusual

In the course of one very long day (yesterday), I helped S’s family celebrate his great-grandmother’s 102nd birthday, checked out the new Cereality shop in Philadelphia, and visited an old friend and her family. The range of experience—of food experience—was astounding.

Part One: Little Gram’s 102nd

The women on S’s mother’s side are renowned for their longevity: in addition to Little Gram, there is Big Gram (her daughter, S’s grandmother), who’s in her 80s, and Aunt Lena, another daughter and Big Gram’s sister, also in her 80s. Little Gram’s own mother was 96 when she died. Until very recently, Little Gram still lived alone—Aunt Lena moved in with her some months ago. All of these women cook and bake tirelessly. Pizzelles, chocolate chip-peanut cookies, tomato sauce, meatballs…it’s inspirational. The cookies are occasionally tough these days, which upsets S since he remembers them as being wondrously good, but you can still taste the care with which they’re made, the countless years of experience baked into each one. S’s mom has compiled a binder filled with family recipes—we served the caponata at our wedding.

Little Gram’s hearing isn’t so good and her eyesight is failing, so at family gatherings she mostly just sits, hands folded neatly in her lap, staring. Sometimes I try to imagine what she’s thinking about, but with 100+ years to reflect upon it’s not likely that I’d ever guess correctly. When S’s nephew Michael was born just over a year ago, she sat holding him for ages while he slept. I can’t tell you how much I hope my first child is born in time to be held by her. And the beautiful thing is, when you interrupt her reverie to ask questions about her life, she still has a lot to say. S always takes some time with her, anxious to hear the stories before it’s too late. Little Gram told us once about a cross-country trip she took with her family, some seventy years ago. It took weeks, and they slept in the car or at friendly farmhouses. I can scarcely imagine living in an era when things took that long and it was perfectly acceptable—everyone was so jealous that S and I took a 3-week road trip for our honeymoon, and his great-grandmother beat us to it seven decades ago!

Now, one thing Little Gram doesn’t like is to have a fuss made for her birthday—to her, it’s no great accomplishment to just go on living. But she is a devoutly religious woman, so the family restored a stained-glass window at the local cathedral in her honor. It was dedicated at mass yesterday, followed by lunch in an Italian restaurant. I’d never been to a regular Sunday mass before, only christenings and weddings, so I was quite curious and almost nervous. It turns out to be not so different from the Shabbat services I grew up with, except for the huge organ and the brevity—a little over an hour, versus two-and-a-half hours for us Jews. Oh, and the kneeling. I wasn’t sure what I’d do when the kneeling began—obviously I wouldn’t do it, but I was afraid it would seem disrespectful to be the only person in the congregation who wasn’t participating. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. A lot of people didn’t kneel, I think. Plus S is decidedly lapsed in his Catholicism, and since he’s a filmmaker he’d been asked to record the day. I was drafted into being his boom operator, so during most of the service we were “working,” standing apart from the pews in a spot where he could shoot both the priest and his family. When it came time for communion, Father Mike brought the wafer over to Little Gram and served (is that the right word?) her first, before going back up to the pulpit where everyone else had queued. Watching that fragile, steely little woman take the wafer into her mouth and then bow her head, deep in prayer, was intensely moving. It made me teary. And I must say, I always imagined the wafer to be something airy and light that dissolved on your tongue—seeing everyone chew it, and the crunching sound it made, really surprised me.

After mass the whole family assembled at a local restaurant. I assumed we were in for a treat—after all, this is a large Italian-American family, who spend much time and care on their food. All the other events I’d been to were in someone’s home, with home-cooked feasts. Surely we’d be going to a place they saved for special occasions, where they’d built up memories over the years, where the meal would match the milestone. When I overheard a small squabble between S’s brother and his wife about where we were going—she wasn’t able to join us, and was disappointed—I was even more excited. But when I heard the name of the restaurant, I had to wonder: Italian Bistro. Yes, that’s the name. Italian Bistro. Considering what a recent development the Bistro Boom has been, I knew we weren’t going to any old-time family favorite. I had to wonder exactly what kind of Italian restaurant would call itself a bistro. And when I saw the menu, I knew exactly where we were: South Jersey’s version of the Olive Garden. It’s a mini-chain, with five locations in Jersey, Philly, and Delaware. The menu was probably ten pages long, printed in full color throughout, with copyright symbols all over the place. Laminated.

Now, don’t get me wrong—the food wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t the authentic Italian food I’d been expecting. Every single meal comes with soup and salad—the minestrone was pretty good, though heavily flavored with some mighty smoky ham (or an added smoke flavoring, perhaps?). The salad, though, was mall food: bagged salad greens, sliced canned black olives, listless diced tomatoes. I asked for the dressing on the side, and it was the thick, gooey, corn-syrup-based stuff that never separates. Nobody was standing in the kitchen with a whisk making this glop. I ordered my fallback for such situations—chicken marsala—and honestly it was just fine for all its pseudo-authenticity. Artichoke hearts mixed in with the mushrooms. Flavorless cauliflower gratin and roasted potatoes on the side. The chicken itself was nice, though, and the sauce was perfectly good. S’s gnocchi in meat sauce, too, wasn’t bad. It was just bland. Dull. Recently we discovered an Italian place in our own neighborhood called Cono O’Pescatore—exactly the sort of place I thought we’d be going to yesterday, where the food is deeply flavored and tastes as if it’s been simmering for days. When S orders the gnocchi with meat sauce there, we can barely contain ourselves with pleasure. Perhaps it was a mistake to order that same dish at Italian Bistro.

For all my moaning, my snobbery, my disdain for the inauthenticity, I still left there with a whopper of a stomachache, and it wasn’t because I’d eaten a bad clam. It was because I’d eaten too much.

To be continued, with Part Two: Cereality.