49. Brown Coffee and American Bread

49. Brown Coffee and American Bread

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

Brown Coffee and American Bread

The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later, you’re hungry again.

~George Miller

As a child growing up in a suburb of New York City, I assumed there were only three ethnic groups in the world: Italians, Irishmen, and Jews. Likewise, I believed each person was a member of one of three religious affiliations: Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. My family belonged to the first group, Italian Catholics. On my mother’s side, my brother and I were second-generation Italians. Our maternal grandparents emigrated from the small town of Naro, on the island of Sicily, during the great European immigrant wave of the early twentieth century. Our father, on the other hand, was what some people referred to as “right off the boat.” In 1948, at the age of twenty-three, he set sail from Sicily for a new life in America.

We were the quintessential demonstrative New York Italian family. Our lives revolved around food, family, food, weddings, funerals, and food—not necessarily in that order. With my mother’s three brothers, their wives, and nine children among them, plus my father’s five siblings and their assortment of fifteen offspring, there was hardly a weekend when our presence was not required for a christening, a first communion, or some other boring life event that other families celebrated on a much smaller scale. In addition, there was always Sunday dinner, a gastronomical feast that could bring a cardiologist to tears. To be absent from this weekly ritual was to risk disownment.

Sunday dinner was usually presided over by my Uncle Enzo, my father’s eldest brother and the family patriarch. He was married to my Aunt Gina, a slow-witted and very buxom bleached blonde with a high-pitched laugh that sounded like Elmer Fudd after castration. I do not recall Uncle Enzo ever wearing anything but grey pants and a sleeveless undershirt. At every occasion and in all seasons, that outfit was his uniform. When he sat down to eat, he immediately tucked a napkin into the top of his undershirt; God forbid he should get it dirty.

In addition to his predictable attire were his even more disconcerting dinner habits. One of these involved holding a halved lemon in his palm, cut side down, and squeezing the juice through his nicotine-stained fingers. Another was his obsession with Parmesan cheese. He was never without a grater and a large block of Parmesan. Uncle Enzo assumed no one in their right mind would eat pasta without cheese. He was wrong. Moving around the table, grater in one hand, cheese in the other, he hovered them over my plate like weapons of mass destruction and released falling bombs of grated Parmesan that I neither requested nor wanted. That was it. My meal was ruined, and I let him know it—that is, until I caught my father’s glaring eyes giving me the malocchio, the evil eye, that forced me to quiet down and eat my pasta, cheese and all.

We sat at the table and ate for hours, devouring course after course of tomato sauce laden dishes accompanied by several loaves of Italian bread. (“American bread” was that white stuff that was pre-sliced.) These were followed by pastries, such as cannoli and cream puffs, which always came in a white bakery box tied with string. At the end of the meal, someone would ask, “Who wants black coffee and who wants brown?” referring to the Americanized terms for espresso and Maxwell House, respectively.

We were constantly in each other’s homes and faces. There was no such thing as a “private family matter.” Everyone in the family knew everybody else’s business and did not hesitate to give their unwanted opinions and advice. As if this weren’t enough, we would get together every summer for a family reunion, something I viewed as completely illogical. I was more in favor of a family break, somewhere far from the word mangia (eat)!

By the time I was ten, thanks to my father’s hard work and keen intellect, we became a demonstrative New York Italian family with money, a dangerous combination. All that money was shamelessly flaunted in front of friends and family members who “hadn’t quite made it,” as my mother would say in a hushed tone. In 1964, my parents had a new house built in an affluent Long Island neighborhood. It was an architectural monstrosity: a split foyer conspicuously displayed among well-maintained English Tudors and traditional colonials, as out of place as a tray of baked ziti at a wine and cheese party. The furniture was provincial and uninviting, complete with plastic slipcovers that stuck to our legs on hot summer days. Lamp bases were obtrusive sculptures of voluptuous Roman goddesses balancing cascades of grapes above their heads.

The front entrance was guarded by a ceramic jockey holding a lantern; his flickering light might as well have been blinking M-O-N-E-Y in Morse code. Out back was a large flagstone patio with plenty of room for gatherings of la familia, during which my father grilled the finest Italian sausage, and my mother served trays of homemade rice balls. Once, they even hired a musician who entertained guests by playing the Tarantella on his accordion until the neighbors called the police. We were a WASP’s worst nightmare.

For all the time the family spent together, there was also a fair amount of feuding. On any given day, it was guaranteed that at least one family member was not speaking to another. This would have been tolerable if it involved only the two family members in question, but invariably their disagreement became a vortex that sucked in their spouses, parents, siblings, children, and the family dog. The causes of these feuds were usually trivial:

“My brother, Vinnie, borrowed ten dollars and never paid it back.”

“Carmella brought a cheap gift to my daughter’s wedding.”

“The kids didn’t kiss Aunt Nunziatta.”

“Frankie didn’t send flowers to my mother’s funeral.”

Like all arguments, there were always two sides: the Italian version and the very Italian version. Nearly every Sunday, Uncle Vinnie lost at least ten dollars during the family card games, so fu-get-about-it; all wedding gifts were cheap, and Carmella’s was no exception; perhaps if Aunt Nunziatta took a bath and shaved her mustache before her visits, we would be more willing to greet her instead of hiding under the bed; and as for Frankie and his flowers, or lack thereof, he didn’t know the difference between prize roses and chickweed, so it was no great loss.

I felt smothered and yearned to break free of all things Italian. My chance came in 1979 when I moved south to attend graduate school. As my car crossed over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, the Hudson River severed me from New York, and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I never looked back.

Or did I?

I must confess to a deep-seated sense of exhilaration when I meet someone who speaks with an unmistakable New Yawk accent, and whose expressive hand motions and voice inflections are a dead giveaway to an Italian heritage. There is an instant bond, a shared experience we fully understand. When the conversation turns to Sunday dinner and family feuds, I recall the voices of my extensive family as they raised their wine glasses in a jovial “Salute” while simultaneously cursing their latest adversaries.

Most of the voices are silent now. It took many years of self-imposed distance and several funerals to begin to appreciate these people whose genes I share. I may never understand everything about them, but what I do know is that they loved life, they loved good food and, for all their feuding, they especially loved family.

~Laurel Vaccaro Hausman

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