Wish Upon A Dish: Grab a chair and let me tell you a story about a little bird

February 29, 2012

Grab a chair and let me tell you a story about a little bird

I am trying to teach my 84 year old father how to make one large batch of something on Sunday, so he can feast on it all week. When I do things like that, memories flood my mind and bring me back to when my grandma did the same with me.

Last night I made a roaster, a small but pudgy bird and between my cooking lessons and that bird, I was inspired to sit down and write this post. It is not so much about the recipes but a small snapshot of a day in the life of Italians in America during 1960, straight from my memory album.

It is well documented that Italians are a frugal bunch as were most Europeans. Times were tough, immigrating to America was sometimes all they had, to look forward too, all coming over with nothing. Since I seem to have acquired the same gene from my Dad, whenever I go for a visit, I make sure my Aunt Jennie (his twin) comes over for cake and coffee and a sit down to let me pick her brain about what it was like growing up in America when your parents spoke no English. Daughters seem to remember family things, sons, well, went to work. She's all I have left of my family's early years.

Allow me to set the scene for you. If you saw the Godfather 2, when Vito was newly married and living in a tenement in NYC, that was my grandparents life. The movie year 1917, Grandpa arrived from Genoa in 1915.

I really can't pull more then 3-4 years of memories out of Jersey City before my grandparents passed away, both within six months of each other when I was 8, and I do seem to remember my grandma more. Along with my memories and Aunt Jennie filling in the blanks, I have been able to travel back in time. I always wished I called her Nonna or something Italian but am sure my mother had us call her plain ole Grandma (she was so German and so Ordinary People). Her given name was Louise, which I did not know until I saw her gravestone.

When my parents had weekend party plans they dumped dropped me & my sister at my grandparents house. This was not a regular "house" but an apartment building that my Grandpa bought in Jersey City, with enough apartments for the first ones to marry and have a family. One unique way to keep the family together. Back then (1920) family was all you had. My grandma arrived through Ellis Island by herself. Single women would travel with a Catholic chaperon, whether it be a family or actual nuns and priests. My Grandfather was already here when she stepped onto American soil. I finally got to visit Ellis Island last year and I stood there and cried. I am teary-eyed just typing this.

Apparently, the local Roman Catholic Church had socials every weekend and that is were they met. Ten kids later the twins were born and then the Depression hit. So, all this leads me to the guts of this post. A woman with 11 children, speaks very broken English has to feed a husband and family on one salary.

Why would I NOT pick my Aunt's brain. You will read this and think I was tying the script from the movie, but ask anyone whose grandparents immigrated from Italy in 1915 and they will tell you, I am not making this up.

I loved the short time I spent at my grandparents, a large vegetable garden in their backyard, with chickens and ducks and a rabbit or two running around helter-skelter. Even though I was there 25 years after the worst of times in America, things might have been better but they were still living in the past. I know immigrant parents never could shake that "living hand to mouth" time in their lives, and lots of those vibes were passed to their children, even when most became educated and financially secure.

Traveling to Jersey City from the town my father settled us in was like stepping out of a time capsule. Washing machines that gave spin cycle a whole new meaning (picture a large pasta roller mounted to the top). Laundry was fun for a 7 year old.

I vividly remembered the small black and white tiled floors in the bathroom that I counted while I was in there doing my "business" and which continued into the kitchen where I used to play imaginary Hop Scotch on the evenly spaced black ones until grandpa scowled that "someone needed to get the ants out of her pants (but always with a smile)". Nowadays people salvage those tiles for big bucks.

The large Formica table that we all sat at for dinner (and yes, Sunday everyone ate upstairs together). The small glass of wine I was allowed to sample (which was made in their basement and me and Frankie always tried to sneak a swig), and the games I would play with my cousins who lived in the same building. We practically lived on the front stairs, playing stoop ball and hide and seek down long alleys that ran between each apartment building, barely large enough to fit the garbage cans we hit behind. It was a magical place and what fun we had. My cousins Frankie and Richard would get me into so much trouble. "But grandpa, Frankie said it was OK to take all those games out of the closet!" and those stories still bring about a chuckle over a bottle of wine on a stoop at our family reunions.

Yes, I am getting to the bird......

After church on Sunday, grandpa would bring in a dead chicken. It didn't even phase me, maybe because I never put 2 and 2 together. They were careful to never let me see the bad stuff. Along with the hen, he would set down a basket of eggs, freshly gathered and probably still warm from when she was sitting on them.
I imagine if I did know the truth, it would be years before I ever ate another chicken.
Grandma would pluck it's feathers, cut off it's head, neck and feet and clean out the innards. She plopped all of it (except the feathers) into a pot of salted water with carrots, celery, onions and any odds and ends of vegetables not eaten during the week. While the chicken simmered away, she made the eggs for breakfast, always with the fried liver, kidneys and heart from the chicken and thick slices of toasted homemade bread. No, I never ate the gizzards, grandma made a small sausage for me.

After breakfast, while grandma did chores, Grandpa would wander off to tend his garden or read the paper under his grapevines and I would sit with him and eat the grapes. I loved that garden and probably drove him nuts with thousands of questions. I never remember him getting mad at the grandchildren, especially me. My Mom always told me, she would look out the window and if grandpa was in his garden, so was I, sitting there on barrels, watching the vegetables grow.

Grandma called when she was ready to make the pasta, which I loved to do. What kid wouldn't love real Play-Doh.
She would pull a chair up against the table because, holding her hand up, I was told...."Susan, you need to be this tall to roll out the pasta". So I was always "that tall". Grabbing an old broom handle as her rolling pin, just as her mother did, she would roll out the dough and then let me, finish it. I did a good job and quickly learned how important thickness was.
Rolling the pasta onto the handle she walked it into her bedroom, where a sheet covered her mattress. Unrolled and perfectly flat, she would open both windows to dry it out. I remember touching the dough to see when it was ready to cut. Thickness is as important as texture.
I learned a lot in a short time but I wanted more.
When it was time to cut, she reversed the process, back to the table but left it in a roll, sliding the handle out the end. I watched her cut 1/2" slices from that roll and my job was to shake them to make little birds nests. Oh, what fun I had, Grandma let me play.

Lunch was usually a soup or a broth of that chicken, cut into tiny pieces. All served in a bowl with whatever greens grandpa picked that day.

Sunday dinners were always family style, 10-11 at the table. The rest of the chicken meat was served on a platter with vegetables and polenta. A simple, wonderfully fresh meal that would take many years for me to appreciate, was really just dinner to me then. I was more excited about everyone eating the pasta I MADE.

I might not remember many things but jelly jar glasses of beer that grandpa smuggled for me and the same for him but wine, is something I always think about every time I see a jelly jar. We must have been a sight to see, my grandpa being a large, muscular man and I, a pixie of a girl, with curly hair and way too much energy. I would watch everything he did, carefully soaking it all in. He was the boss, it was his home and you did it his way.

Story complete, a smile on my faccia (face), I sat here, proof-read and corrected many mistakes. When I was finished and happy, I came to the realization that this story wasn't so much about a little bird ON the table as it was about a little bird AT the table.

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