Eat & Drink, Lost to Found

26 Apr

If you squint at the picture above (sorry about the bizarre cropping), you might be able to make out a sweet, be-capped elderly gentleman proudly showing off what appears to be a bumper crop of…what is that, exactly?

Squash. It’s squash. Growing from a tree. And that’s my grandfather, John Zavatto. A post-WWI immigrant from Calabria, Italy, and the happy grower of said squash, among other things.

Here’s what you should be saying to yourself: “Squash doesn’t grow on trees…” — and you’d be right about that. Until the age of about 11, though, I thought it did.

In truth, it was an old, dead pear tree up which my grandfather trained his vines to grow and wrap and spread, so by the thick of summer they’d drip from the branches as if it were the most natural thing for a tree to sprout squash instead of leaves. I liked believing this, in that way when, as a child, you easily accept all kinds of myth as plain, irrefutable fact. It was a strange, unsettling, slightly disorienting kind of let-down when, several years after he’d died, my Aunt Iris stifled a laugh and let me in on the truth.

In my family, though, this was a little bit of a theme. Half-pieces of information, stories not told, things lost from the Old Country to the New. Calabria wasn’t such a nice place to live when my grandparents and my aunts Iris and Phyllis left it in the early twentieth century. Being an Italian immigrant in America then was none too easy, either. Like many others who came over, my family just wanted to fit in; to feel like they were part of something. That they were home. Born here, my dad and his brother, Frank, don’t speak Italian anymore, at least not fluently. We didn’t do fish on Christmas Eve. We didn’t do Calabrese hot peppers. We didn’t call our aunts “zia” and our uncles “zio.” Whatever few things we did do seem to have died off, year by year, generation by generation, until finally, three generations later, we fit in just perfectly.

My sisters and I grew up on pork-chop casseroles, English-muffin pizzas, Fluffenutter sandwiches, and Hungry Man dinners when dad worked late. When he didn’t, we ate in the style of the best middle American families–prime steak, roasted chicken, loin lamb chops with mint jelly. And even though my dad was a butcher, no organ meats darkened our plates. The most Italian we got was meatballs made by my Irish mother (very good ones, to her credit), crusty bread with every meal, and Good Seasons Italian dressing on the salad.

And then I married my husband.

His parents were off-the-boat Southern Italians whose thick-accented English is all but indiscernable on phone messages. A picture of the Last Supper hung over the large dining table in the kitchen, in as close proximity to the stove as possible. Food was the central nervous system upon which my mother- and father-in-law existed. It’s the thing that seems to helped them hold so tightly to who they were and who they are, sometimes frustratingly so. They have introduced me to things I never ate; never heard of; never knew I should have.

Fun as all this was, it also felt eerily like the squash tree all over again; like I’d been duped, had missed something, been left out. But as the years wore on and I left my old job to become what I am now–a food writer–something changed. It’s made me think that maybe this was how I could find the way back. Like someone handed me a compass that lead me straight into the kitchen.

That’s what this is. Stories of mining the past and the present and hunger and thirst through the portal of a refrigerator, a stove, a garden, a bottle, a pantry, a dinner table. Instead of feeling lost, I’m letting hunger be my map. It won’t always be sappy tales of food remembrances; some days — many days — it’s just about getting food on the table. But every day it’s about discovery — old things, new things, funny things, delicious things. I hope you enjoy coming along for the ride. And so, off we go…


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