Marshmallows in Germany

My guess is that blogs everywhere are going to be exploding with vignettes about family, food, travel and homecomings this week. Thanksgiving week is magical – more so than Christmas or New Year’s week because so much happens this week – the child who went away to college comes home for the first time. The estranged family member accepts the invitation to dinner and is on his or her best behavior. Mothers-in-law compliment daughters-in-law, most likely for the first time. Football teams are triumphant, as are fledgling cooks who meticulously followed Martha Stewart’s dozens of suggestions for the perfect holiday meal.  Mothers are demanding and critical, relatives get drunk (and become estranged), the college kid’s friends stop by sporting funny haircuts and using strange words (Hey! Mrs. C.!  How’s it hanging?), and diabetics eat way too many carbohydrates and jack up their insulin doses.

 

Ah, yes, Thanksgiving week. I have a few fond memories and stories to share.  One year, during our annual pilgrimage to North Carolina to see my mom’s sister and family, the temperature was in the mid-seventies, so a bunch of us donned bathing suits and laid out on the deck roasting ourselves not unlike the turkey. This was a huge deal to me because this Jersey Girl was usually eating her turkey while bundled up in GoreTex, welcoming winter’s wrath at Thanksgiving.

 

I’m sure of a year or two…or six…the boyfriend du jour joined my family for the feast.  In fact, it was, again, in North Carolina that I recall a chair breaking under the weight of a not-fat-but-tall-and-solid boyfriend. I didn’t laugh because I identified with his horror. A room full of strangers and the ‘new guy’ gets the broken chair. Even now it’s still not funny to me. After the dessert plates were cleared, and the incident long forgotten, it was time to play Bonanza.

 

Bonanza is a card game played after dessert by everyone in the house – age didn’t matter, the more players, the better.  Two decks of cards are shuffled together. A coffee can of pennies lands on the table with a thump. And every one throws quarters, nickels and dimes at the guy with the can in exchange for the pennies required for play. The young children in my family learn how to gamble and hone their skills during the annual game of Bonanza. During play, cards are dealt, pennies are thrown into the pot, pennies are taken from the pot, more cards are dealt, there is a countdown, and, at the end of each round, someone wins the pot. It’s a marathon card game that would incite my family to yell at the cards and at each other, cheering and jeering the winners and losers. Games typically would end when players started falling asleep at the table.

 

My ex-mother-in-law almost caused an International incident one year. A Fulbright Fellow from Germany was visiting the college where I teach. Frauke and I had formed a nice friendship, so I invited her to join us for her first American Thanksgiving. No one is more American than my ex-mother-in-law. She bleeds apple pie and judgment.  It was a roll of the dice, and I’m not much of a gambler, but I hoped the spirit of the Holidays would shine on this small-minded Majesty and move her to keep her damn mouth shut.

 

She didn’t. She lost it over the marshmallows that topped the sweet potatoes.  Frauke never heard of such a travesty – how could someone ruin a perfectly good root vegetable with marshmallows? Okay, so that was my point of view, but still, Frauke was so amazed at the marshmallows, she took pictures to send to her friends in Germany because they would never believe this stupid American could ever do this to the humble sweet potato. Okay, so I was the one who thought it a stupid American thing, but still, Frauke was amazed; she took pictures (after asking very politely if she could) of the dish and of her holding the dish, and she even tried some of the bizarre combination at dinner (deftly, I must say, hiding her disgust for the overly sweet baked dish of Type II diabetes).

 

However, ex-mother-in-law was having none of it. She talked about the family tradition that is the marshmallows and the many American recipes that use marshmallow. Throughout dinner, she made marshmallow comments. She asked Frauke if she enjoyed the marshmallows…twice. She made it her job to point out which foods didn’t have marshmallow in them, such as, the turkey and the green beans.

 

I was thankful that Frauke spoke and understood little English. Most of ex-mother-in-law’s snide comments passed her by as she smiled back at the woman smiling at her, insulting her.

 

I was even more thankful that I brought my own wine, a punchy Cabernet Sauvignon that I knew my ex-in-law’s palates couldn’t tolerate. I drank the bottle, but my drunkenness wasn’t enough to get me estranged. I’d have to work harder for that.

 

 

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Kitchens

I don’t remember the smells of my mother’s kitchen. When I put myself back to childhood, I smell my grandmother’s kitchen. Grandma and grandpa lived in a second-floor apartment in Clifton, NJ. I would sit in the back of the car – ever-changing makes and models – and tick off the familiar landmarks along the one-hour drive to their apartment. The Parkway bridges that gave us a peek at the drive-in movie screen, the Woodbridge sign by the exit that led to the mall, the sign for Rutgers, the factories, Newark airport, the abandoned brick building in Linden, the train station, the golf course, the sign for the Clifton exit, the Rowe Manse Emporium, the Allwood bakery,  then a left turn, a right turn, and finally, the small entrance to the blacktop parking lot on the right.

The apartments in the neighborhood were brick buildings meant to look like semi-detached homes. There were small, covered porches and two green doors per unit. Beside each door, the black buzzer buttons were stacked on top of each other and displayed the names of the occupants.  Venditti was the top one. The bottom buzzer never had a name although people lived there. My father would press the buzzer with his thumb, yell, “anybody home?” and in reply  my grandmother would shout, “Yeah? Come in!” My brother and I would push open the door and run up the narrow staircase, carpeted sickly grey-green, into their living room. As we ascended, the deep, rich scent of crushed tomatoes, garlic, and oregano would wrap around me.  My brother went straight for the spare bedroom where the toys were kept, seemingly unaffected by the Italian incense.

At the stove would be grandpa. He was the real chef in this operation. He stood, patiently, over the simmering sauces and stirred them with a wooden spoon. Always a wooden spoon. Grandma would be sitting at the white-topped formica table, prodding pizza dough into a square pan with her fingertips. Grandma’s pizzas were square, served when we arrived, and possessed a flavor and texture that has yet to be duplicated – chewy, crunchy, tangy, creamy. An impossible combination. The kitchen was small and hot. A metal fan would spin furiously in the kitchen window to no effect. Both my grandparents had kitchen towels draped over a shoulder – my mother would, decades later, recall the towels being called mappines. There were never less than three pots of varying sizes simmering on the burners – gas burners, the likes of which would fascinate me well into my twenties until I rented my first apartment that had gas burners. I was too short to see into the tall pots, so grandpa would lift me and let me lean my face into the steam and breathe deep my heritage.

Memories of my mother’s kitchen are different. There isn’t the rich texture of  hot, garlicky air. Instead, I recall, most vividly, my great aunts in my mother’s kitchen. Delia and Teresa, my grandfather’s sisters, fascinated me. They were quirky and eccentric. They cooked dandelions with garlic, bitter and delicious. Aunt Delia drank beer. Aunt Teresa wore amazing, large, sparkly rings. Her hair was shockingly white and curled up and around her head like soft cotton candy; Delia’s, cut into a simple pixie cut, was deep grey. They took lots of vitamins. They drove. All the way from New York. To suburban Sayreville, New Jersey almost weekly. I think they were the ones who gave me an apricot tree when I made my First Holy Communion. They smelled funny – later I’d learn that piquant scent is often found in small health food stores, herbaceous and pungent. And, best of all, they argued. They argued with each other and with my grandmother. Everyone else was wise to stay away from the fighting. They sat around the thick, round, butcher-block kitchen table and argued in the way the elderly often argue – over memories of events that didn’t quite happen or people who haven’t yet died.  Teresa’s voice was gravelly and strained at times, Delia’s voice was nasally. Grandma had a strong voice, heavy with New York and Italian inflections. She said, “huddy-call” when she couldn’t remember someone’s name.

I didn’t see Aunt Teresa when she died. Aunt Delia, on her death bed, cancer tumors having caused her head to become misshapen, said to me, “I wish you a happy life, Annmarie.”  The rooms of my home are decorated with Aunt Teresa’s charcoal drawings. She was a talented artist. When I pass through my dining room, I often run my fingers along the spines of the books I inherited from them – D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Rainbow, Les MiserablesThe Teachings of Confucius, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Thoreau’s Walden. They were ahead of their time – artists, flappers, visionaries.

My mother is a wonderful cook. I still request her hand-made manicotti for my birthday dinner every year. Mom swirls the delicate batter for the manicotti crepes in a small cast iron pan. When they have reached the ideal firmness, she lifts them out and places them on individual sheets of wax paper with the precision of a surgeon. Her sauce for the manicotti is as light as the crepes. A gentle dressing of simmered crushed tomato and fresh parsley. Mom’s trademark is her fresh parsley. But her food had a lot of competition back then. Grandma’s pizza and my Great Aunt’s dandelions stole the show. And mom was more fortunate than my grandparents – her kitchen was large. It didn’t trap scents or heat the way a small kitchen does. Yet, this past winter, I walked into my mom’s newest kitchen – not the one of my childhood, but the one of their retirement, and swirling around me in a loving embrace, was the italian incense of my grandmother’s kitchen.

xo,
~AJC

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