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Things to Eat at the End of the World

21 Oct

tomato sandwichThis summer, my Dad’s tomato garden was quite possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Abundant and generous far and long beyond the summer season. My lycopene intake since July has been so off the charts, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if eensie little grape tomatoes were currently coursing through my veins.

The summer before, his fence had been infiltrated, and whatever got in there decimated much of the usual seasonal bounty, and also did a number on my dad’s spirits. the timing of which wasn’t great. He’d just had some fairly serious back surgery for an 86-year-old guy who’s barely had so much as a cold, so the death of his garden somehow felt a little bigger than just, “Aw shucks, we’ll get ’em next year.” Because what we realized was, despite his continued and amazing great health for a man his age, at this point “next year” is not something to be taken for granted.

Today, I made a tomato sandwich from one of the last few precious red orbs that he gave to me over the weekend — a big treat for late October not in the least lost on me. I gently cut and generously salted quarter-inch slices, spread a little mayo on some bread, and piled up the layers — brown, red, brown. Such a lucky little lunch. The kind that, next week, will likely just be a juicy, sweet memory. Like I learned last year, you just can’t take these things for granted, and when you are given something so pure and beautiful and lovely, acknowledgment of its fleeting nature goes a long way.

Last Friday morning, before heading out for the weekend to collect what I expect are my final tomatoes for 2014, I got word that an old friend had passed. An old friend who also happened to be my first real love. Which, now that I type that, seems like a dramatic and slightly selfish claim to make, the way people do when something bad happens and they feel compelled to attach themselves to a tragedy. Which it is — he leaves behind the true love of his life and their two young boys; a kind of painful reality that knocks the wind from your chest with the force of its horrible unfairness.

But from my tiny corner of a corner of his life, I will say this: He was a pivotal figure in mine. Like my dad’s decimated garden, we’d lost each other, but for much longer than a season. We broke up, like kids will do, and I hurt him enough that being in touch just wasn’t an option. Twenty years of fallow ground grew thick with other people and experiences and places and things. About five years ago, he contacted me (on Facebook, as people who are out of touch do these days, myself included) and, in whatever small, virtual manner it was, he gave me his friendship again — which, really, was what we always were at the core of it. We talked about food, career dreams and plans, our lives in the present, our worries for our siblings, parents, friends, nieces and nephews. He asked my advice on restaurants a couple of times. I felt a hole had been filled and was grateful; I felt forgiven.

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. I found this out when he sent me an odd, garbled DM that made no sense. But instead of turning angry and negative, cancer just seemed to make him nicer — open, accepting, positive, and perhaps more full of life than anyone I’ve ever known. He changed his Facebook banner to a snapshot of a funky, backlit marquis that said in stark, plain, black letters: Everything Is Going to Be Amazing.” He seized life, loved his family, danced when anyone else would feel silly, embraced the world. It was amazing.

The last time I heard from him, he wrote me this, apropos of nothing and everything: “[You] were so good to me all those years ago. Just wanted to thank you. A good friend and guide.”

I remember feeling a raw streak of panic in my chest. It sounded an awful lot like goodbye. It was. It was also an incredibly generous late-season gift, I just didn’t realize it at the time.

This afternoon, I sat near an open window to feel the warm breeze gently pushing its way through the screen, odd for such a late October afternoon, and consumed my last tomato sandwich of the year. I ate it slowly, carefully. Tasting every bite, feeling the cold of its juice,  its funny, acidic tang on my tongue. A fading kind of sweetness you can only really appreciate in the latest of late seasons, and for which I can feel nothing except entirely, thoroughly grateful.

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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