A year ago today, we lost my brother to non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Since that time, we have also lost my great aunt, a cousin back east, a cousin overseas, and a colleague and mentor of dpaul's, who died very suddenly in…
In observation of Mother’s Day, here’s a little something from the archives. Perhaps it’s time to bottle and sell my mother’s magic seasoning?
It’s always the same four ingredients — salt, pepper, garlic salt, oregano — recited in the same run-on order, in more or less the same proportions, measured in the palm of the hand, and it works for everything. Sauce? Brown the meat, cook the garlic, add tomatoes and saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano. Salad dressing? Olive oil, red wine vinegar and saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano.
But here’s the thing: Each of these things ends up tasting distinct and different. Perhaps there’s a little Magic in my mother’s seasoning after all.
A greater mystery, perhaps, is understanding why and how the dish called scallopine in my family in no way resembles scallopine as it is served in Italy or anywhere else on the globe. Traditional scallopine is a thin cutlet of meat, usually veal but sometimes chicken, dredged in flour, pan-fried and served with peperonata or some kind of sauce like piccata. In my family, it’s cubes of meat, browned and then stewed in tomato puree with sautéed peppers and peas (and, of course, saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano).
What I do know is that it is good, and absolutely must be eaten with a piece or two of good, crusty Italian bread. I have yet to find a bread out here that resembles what was generically referred to as Italian bread in my hometown of Schenectady. It always had a flaky, crisp crust and a light, fluffy crumb. Out here on the west coast, there’s a propensity for hardier, more rustic breads. A ciabatta or pugliese will do, but the fluffier the crumb, the better for sopping up all that good stew.
Every holiday has its food. Easter of course means ham, hard-boiled eggs, cheap chocolate and Peeps, but for me it also means cannoli.
The other day, we were cocktailing with our friend Michael, a fellow paisano albeit of Sicilian extraction. I mentioned I wanted to revisit my post on cannoli from a few years back. Michael said in his family they called them Aunt Mary Cookies, for fairly self-evident reasons, and lamented how much of a pain the shells were to make — getting the dough thin enough, frying them off, and so on. I mentioned that in my family, we didn’t do the fried shells, but used pizzelle and rolled them while still hot and pliable. “Yes, well, that’s cheating,” he said, to which I rebuffed, half-feigning indignity: “It’s not cheating, Michael, it’s regional.” But as soon as the words spilled from my mouth, I was suddenly filled with doubt.
So, yes, the cannoli I grew up with are made with pizzelle, the delicate, rose-window-patterned cookies, rolled into tubes. I blindly assumed that this was derived from some old-world tradition carried over from one of my forebears from the motherland. But I was also aware that I have never known anyone else to make their cannoli in this fashion.
When I mentioned to my mother that I was making a batch, she remarked that her grandmother didn’t use pizzelle; she had a curling iron-like device with which she wrapped dough around and dipped into frying oil. Somehow, this detail had eluded me for four decades. When I asked her how our family came by the tradition of using the pizzelle, she said she didn’t know. After Great-Grandma Battaglia passed in the 1960s, the cookies seem to have dropped out of our culinary tradition for a bit, then magically reappeared with this new technique.
I then went on to ask my Aunt Barb, my mother’s younger sister, who has long taken an interest in the family recipes, desserts in particular. She was also unsure where the pizzelle came in, though she in fact didn’t even remember her grandmother making the fried shells; she was rather young when Grandma Battaglia passed away. But she noted that Aunt Chris may have been the source of the recipe.
Aunt Chris is my mother’s sister-in-law. Of French and Irish descent, she married my Uncle Joe in the late ’60s, and right away took to adopting the family recipes to please him. I called her and asked who provided the cannoli recipe. She flipped through her recipe folio, and found the original recipe for the filling … which in fact came from her neighbor Ida Iovanella. As for the shells, she surmised that at the time she was not versed in frying, and came up with the idea to use pizzelle instead. In other words, it sort of was cheating.
But if it is a cheat, it’s a damn good one. For me and the other kids of my generation, this was the only cannoli we ever knew. My cousin Nicolle and I both prefer this version to the traditional fried shells. Plus it’s easier and a lot less messy to boot. It’s a tradition, no matter how recent, I think is worth carrying on.
I haven’t been entirely honest about my radical slowdown in posting over the past few months. To be sure, work has been wholly consuming and exhausting, but that’s not all. Last month, my father passed away.
Several months ago, on the return from DPaul’s and my trip to Chicago for our anniversary, I received a phone call from my father. He had just been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer with metastatic disease on the liver. It was the sort of diagnosis that most people would immediately accept as an instant death sentence. My father is not most people.
In the ensuing months, he pursued a wide array of aggressive and sometimes esoteric treatments, from hyperdoses of vitamin C injected directly into a port, to twice-daily coffee enemas (organic of course) and a litany of naturopathic remedies; to ultra-high potency and highly targeted chemotherapy at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America; to experimental (i.e., not approved in the U.S.) dendritic cell therapy in Germany.
And there was progress! After the third dendritic cell treatment, scans showed that the tumors in his pancreas and liver had shrunk, and his tumor markers were down dramatically. Through it all, despite sometimes unrelenting pain and nausea, he remained upbeat and optimistic, and we began to think that he just might make it. After all, we reasoned, if anyone could beat terminal cancer out of sheer will, it would have been him.
Unfortunately, they then found that the disease had moved on to bone, and so the battle began anew. This time he underwent Cyberknife radiation treatments and bone-hardening infusions to slow the encroachment of the disease. These treatments took a terrible toll, weakening his system.
DPaul and I finally found a moment in dad’s frenetic schedule to visit him in Colorado, a rare weekend between trips to various treatments, and so we booked a ticket. We assumed it would be the first of a few final visits over the course of upcoming weeks or months.
The night before we flew out, his wife Sylvia called me. She warned that jaundice had set in, and he was not looking too well. When we arrived in Denver the next day, they met us at the airport. He was yellowed and gaunt. In the car on the way home, he received a call from the oncologist, and was fairly tight-lipped for the rest of the drive home.
The next morning, we all sat at the kitchen table together. Dad said that the scans showed further progression of the tumors. The treatments he had undergone were doing more harm than good at this point, and he was too weak and unstable to return to Germany for another round of dendritic cell therapy. It was no longer about fighting to win; it was about managing the process until the end. He looked up at me, eyes yellow as egg yolks and said, "cancer sucks." Then he cracked his crooked smile, teeth flashing white against the jaundiced skin.
From that point on, things went fast. The next day he had deteriorated so much they called in Hospice. My siblings flew out, and DPaul and I extended our stay a couple days to be with them. A cavalcade of people from near and far arrived at the house, and phones rang non-stop. My aunts, his sisters, booked to come out that Friday.
Each day was worse than the one before. The pain increased, causing him to rely more heavily on the Dilaudid; but every dose triggered violent vomiting, exacerbating the pain. By the time his sisters arrived, he had been ready to let go for days, but held out for them. They arrived the evening of April 11.
A few minutes before 6 am on April 12, Sylvia awoke and noticed he was breathing very shallowly. She looked into his eyes and said, "I love you!" He moved his tongue to respond, took his last breaths, and was gone. He had turned 60 just three weeks previously.