By Rose Spinelli
I was in the produce section of one of those gourmet grocery stores looking for a choice bunch of rabe when I noticed that a tall, golden-haired woman with a fur hat and coat and very thin, red lips was sort of stalking me. She and a shorter man, in a full-length leather, with a ridge of graying hair, seemed to be monitoring my actions and then huddling to whisper. I didn't feel threatened; I was out in public, in clear view under the fluorescents. But I felt a little like a deer caught in the headlights. After one final deliberation the tall woman came resolutely toward me. The man followed. "What is that?" she asked.
"Rabe," I said.
"Say it again." She turned an ear my way and squinted in concentration.
"Rabe, as in...Robbie Kennedy."
They stared humorlessly.
"It's an Italian vegetable in the broccoli family."
"Oh." Her eyes did a little dance from my head to my toes and back again. "What does it taste like?"
"Well, it's a little bitter, I guess, but it's really good. Especially with lemon and garlic."
Her nose crinkled at the word "bitter." The man must have been her husband because he did it too, at the same time. Then they turned to each other in a moment of shared psychology.
"In what?" she asked.
"What do you serve it with?" The man gallantly came to her rescue.
"Oh. Well, you can have it with pasta, that's always good. Or you can have it as a side dish. That's what we did for Christmas."
"What else did you have for Christmas?" they asked simultaneously after doing that thing again. And then I swear they moved toward me as if I had something they wanted.
I stepped back. "Oh, let's see," I counted on my fingers. "Tortellini in brodo, pasta al forno, stuffed artichokes, veal milanese, saltimbocca. And octopus," I said. "We had octopus as an appetizer." As I was switching hands for extra fingers, I saw they were in a kind of swoon. They thanked me and put a couple bunches of rabe into their cart and drove it away.
They left before I got a chance to tell them about the desserts. And about my family's other culinary pursuits. If they'd asked about the octopus, I'd have explained how it's a holiday specialty and how it's cooked in the garage to spare the house its pungent aroma. We dunk it three times in a big pot of boiling water, for optimal tenderness, and then cook it for about an hour. I'm not sure why three times; this has always been the prescription, and it just wouldn't be prudent to stray.
Then it's cut into small pieces and dunked again in olive oil, lemon, and oregano and a dash of salt and pepper. We eat it out of a communal platter, standing up. It puts us in close range. Some of us like the skin (not) and some of us fight over who gets the curliest tips of the tentacles, those having the most suckers and tasting...the earthiest. Because he's the dad and prime dunker, my father has dibbies on the head. And at least one person, in a sexy movie-star takeoff, will affix a sucker to a quivering upper lip, hips swiveling, or just leave it there as long as it will hold, carrying on poker-faced. Gianni Morandi can usually be heard in the background, crooning something like "In ginocchio da te."
Of all my parents' rituals, garage cooking is probably one of the hardest to explain. Though it's one of many time-honored conservation practices, it's not that my family is poor or that the garage is the only room with an electrical outlet. In fact, it's only been within the last couple of decades, since moving to Park Ridge, that they branched out to the garage. Then they went about equipping it with stove, refrigerator, freezer, and shelving for pots and spices. It's connected to the house for ease in food relay. They like cooking in the garage, feel like they're saving wear and tear on the house.
"Spinelli." That's an Italian name. You know, white Italian Provincial furniture covered with that nice sticky plastic, runners zigzagging through the house to make a perfect track from room to room so that you never have to step on actual carpeting, candlestick centerpieces that never get lighted, artificial fruit that won't get eaten. Garage cooking preserves the sanctity of the real kitchen. In fact my parents have three kitchens: the basement one for everyday use; the regular kitchen, which is pristine but has all the working parts, just like a store display; and the garage, for big jobs. I think Granny liked cooking her possum out-of-doors, by the ce-ment pond, for the same reason.
The house--and the garage--is my family's laboratory, where they nurture their culinary passions. Come to my parents' house anytime and you'll likely find homemade salami dangling by their strings from the clothesline, deep in the throes of the aging process, and big cylindrical bricks of homemade ricotta cheese lined up on the laundry room floor. There will be trussed red peppers hanging to dry, most anywhere will do, and wilting stalks of herbs slung about in sorry Pottery Barn chic.
As a child I was disturbed by these eccentricities. Like any kid, all I wanted was peanut butter on white bread with just the tiniest suggestion of jelly. Instead I got homemade bread looking a lot like a football cut on the bias with a zucchini blossom and garlic frittata. I was all too aware that these items did not go unnoticed by the jury of my peers. Every day at lunchtime I faced yet another food indignity, pulling out a meatball sandwich bigger than my head, tomato sauce dripping out the sides. There was no eating this inconspicuously, and so I began stashing my lunches in places where their aromas began to haunt by midday, say behind the classroom radiator or jammed between library books at the back of the room. (Kids are dumb this way.) Eventually I switched to garbage cans. Oh, for a bologna on Wonder bread. But it wasn't to be.
Things are different now. Kids in restaurants order goat cheese crostini and figs wrapped in prosciutto while their parents look on proudly. But I remember feeling uncomfortably wedged between two worlds. At a sleep-over once a friend's mother made lasagna in honor of the Italian girl, but she made it with cottage cheese! I quietly phoned home to report the travesty to my mother. Still, whenever I tried to commingle these two worlds I was doomed to crash and burn.
It's my tenth birthday party, in the fall--tomato-canning and wine-making season. Up until the day of the party I'm convinced that I can hide the big wine press with its wooden shaft and metal crank and oak casks from prying American children's eyes. It sits near the door, where my guests are arriving. But the thing just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and as I blow up balloons, the smell of fermenting grapes grips my nostrils. In desperation I take a gingham tablecloth and throw it over the behemoth as it sighs and snorts and swells like the machinery behind the Wizard's billowing curtain. I am a ten-year-old wreck, trying hard to deflect attention from the expanding monstrosity and keep my guests out of the other room too, the one whose floor is a carpet of tomatoes ready to be marched to the cannery. All the while I field questions like Why do your parents talk so funny? Eeoow, what's that? and What happened to your house? Looking back, I see clearly that diversity was not celebrated then.
It isn't that I resent that things are different today so much as that I haven't fully adapted to the shift. Today my parents could carry on a conversation with Martha Stewart about the subtle differences in taste between the fat-leafed arugula versus the skinny kind, and my parents' arguments would probably be more profound. Over the years my tastes have blossomed; I no longer favor peanut butter over my parents' more inspirational gastronomy. And today my sisters and I affectionately refer to one room in my parents' house as "the store": there are bottles of vegetable caponatas, marinated artichoke hearts, black olives in oil, sun-dried tomatoes, and pestos, lots and lots of pestos--all for the taking. Could be worse, I could have to buy retail. But I still carry a free-floating shame about my family's differentness.
Last summer strangers started showing up at my parents' house to look at their garden, which contains vegetables most of us have never even heard of. The garden is rather large by Park Ridge standards, but to my parents there's never enough space. And so they plant lettuce between the marigolds, tomato plants next to the dahlias. At the crown of their lawn sits a little shop of horrors zucchini plant where a nice rosebush should go.
I was there recently, under the grapevine sipping espresso, when some strangers came asking lots of questions. Instantly I was ten again and an impulse to duck into the house came over me and, yes, triumphed. On the other hand, there's the Enlightened Couple at the gourmet grocery. I spied them at the check-out counter later, where they were discussing with some other shoppers the fancy foods in their carts. "Have you ever eaten rabe?" she asked the strangers. "It's good with lemon and garlic," he offered.