Thursday, January 9, 2014

Life Beyond Chicken Parm

PUT THE WATER ON.

It was Sunday's most familiar phrase in most Italian-American households.

Back then, there were no stainless Viking stoves with power burners for boiling the salted water in cavernous stock pots.

It seemed like hours until that water surrendered in its lidded vessel--bubbling just enough to accept long, curly fusilli or stiff and corrugated rigatoni.

After church, all that mattered was that the water was ON.

And so was the simmering vat of gravy--complete with sausage, meatballs, browned pork bones and a few hand-rolled bracioles swimming in a thick, garlicky tomato pool.

Let's not discuss the freshly baked Italian bread carefully tucked in its taped paper sleeve.
Or the velvety "pot cheese"--known as ricotta--that came straight from a metal container with a rubber-banded plastic-wrapped top.

During my childhood, this was any given Italian-American Sunday in Hoboken, New Jersey.

No one bought Polly-O ricotta or doughy bread from the Supermarket.  Ever.

And we all lived with the indoctrination that anyone who EVER used Ragu or Prego was simply déclassé and probably bought Shop Rite cookies for their kid's birthday treats.

The horror.

I should have known that I was screwed the minute I ate my first steamy homemade calzone.

Anyone who ever said that they do not enjoy eating definitely did not grow up in Hoboken.

In fact, when people return, the first thing they flock to is the brick-oven bread, the Thursday hot roast-beef doused in gravy sandwich special at Fiore's deli, focaccia at Dom's Bakery.  And the pizza. The pizza.

As an Italian-American child of the seventies in Hoboken, there was no escaping starchy carbs or food-pushers, even if you wanted to.

They even blessed loaves of Italian bread in church in honor of St. Anthony, on which my mother made our ham and wet mutz (mozzarella) sandwiches.

She told me it would make me feel holy if I ate it.
Sadly, there is no miracle for a blessed soul with cellulite.

And what about St. Blaise and getting my throat blessed every year?
Too bad I needed a thyroidectomy anyway.
Now every carb is entitled to squatter's rights on my body without the evicting power of fifteen rounds of burpees and interval training.
Thanks for nothing, St. Blaise.

During my childhood, amazing food was an elixir and symbol for all life's moments:  homemade Italian chicken soup with stelline pasta for when you were sick, percolated coffee and cake for when you got a hangnail, greasy, powdery zeppole at every feast (no one EVER called it an Italian festival, by the way), lasagna before the ten-course Thanksgiving meal, stuffed calamari ("calamod" according to the locals) for your birthday dinner.  Many of us wrapped ourselves in the soul-filling comfort of these delicious meals.

And sometimes still do.

It's no secret that you are judged by the spread you put out for family get-togethers.
There is no such thing as one main dish and one dessert.
Can you imagine?  God forbid.
You need at least a pasta, two entrees, a salad, ten sides, fruit, figs, nuts, fifteen desserts and steel willpower.
Food allergy?  Go see if St. Blaise could work that out.

The moment that I realized that this wasn't the norm was when I left Hoboken for college in Boston.  I swear I didn't even realize that "mozzarella" was a legitimate word as I always referred to it as mutz-a-delle, or mutz for short.

I met people who came from families that made five chicken cutlets for five people.

I met people who served only a small cake from Costco for a family event. Without coffee.

I met people who were vegans. People who never had sausage and peppers or veal marsala.

It was strangely anarchistic. Yet, oddly refreshing.

Throughout the years--give or take a thyroidectomy, three pregnancies and the popularity of skinny jeans--I have learned to master the balance between eating healthy while retaining the elements of my rich cultural traditions for my sons.

There is surely a life beyond chicken parm.

Year after year, resolution after resolution, I have realized that comfort doesn't always have to be sauteéd in garlic, love is not synonymous with Parmigiano Reggiano and dedication to your children is not defined by two carving stations at every family birthday party.

Health supersedes braciole and ravioli, which have become the old culinary bad boys I give into every a few times a year.

 "Penelope" by Sophia Webster.
 There's always room for more shoes.
I am now committed to kale, clean eating, almond milk and exercise --which admittedly I have had to learn to love.  It is definitely an arranged food marriage with benefits.

During nostalgia's visits, I have learned to just pick.

I only wish Quest bars came in a sfogliatelle flavor.