The way it used to be

Over-idealizing the past definitely guarantees you a berth on what my witty brother-in-law calls the “bullet train to Geezerville.” Still, there’s no denying the natural human tendency for nostalgia, which, since it’s pretty selective, is always fun, especially at Christmas. The Hallmark Channel, as we all know, makes a mint on it.

Except for the reliable constants of church, tree, cards, and presents, the middle-of-the-middle class Christmases of my childhood were dramatically different from anything that kids today experience. All trees were real. Nattily dressed shoppers crammed the stores, which were open two nights a week. The big treat was a night-time trip to town to visit Santa and see the animated department store windows—different every year, and always enchanting. Mail arrived twice a day, and there were so many cards that we lined the entire bannister with them, straight up to the second floor. Kids asked Santa for one special gift, just like Ralphie. While the stockings may have been stuffed with candy or tiny books or trinkets, and other family members may have provided more useful but modest gifts, that one present from Santa was what most children were thrilled and grateful to find under the tree. Christmas carols* and the secular holidays songs were on all of the radio stations, almost all of the time.

But above all,  in our big, noisy Italian-American family, Christmas was about being together. The celebration started with Midnight Mass, and, once Christmas dinner was over, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was spent visiting. We’d crowd around the table on one night at our house, on others at the homes of aunts, uncles, and cousins, where we were amply supplied with whatever leftovers were on hand and tray after tray of cookies. The grown-ups had a beer or two, or coffee and anisette, while we kids played with each other’s toys. We laughed and sang, disagreements were friendly and without repercussion, and no one felt left out. That’s one of our Christmas get-togethers in the photo above, at our house. That’s my mother, in the center, with the dark dress and pearls, and my father, on the right, in front of the china cabinet.

Our once-huge extended family has dwindled, and family members, with a few exceptions, aren’t close. Over the years, as children left the steel mill behind and began to make their way in the world, they lost interest in family celebrations, even disdaining them as quaint and unsophisticiated. The Christmas I knew as a child became little more than a hazy, idealized memory.  Still, I am so glad to have it.

I confess to a trace of envy when I hear of a family large enough, energetic enough, and committed enough, to celebrate in the noisy, crowded, overstuffed old-fashioned way. My own family, whom I love dearly and appreciate every single minute of every single day, is small; our Christmases are quiet but precious nonetheless.

Whatever you make of Christmas, may your day be filled with joy and gratitude for the blessings around your table, and may you have good health and prosperity in the year to come!

*Hear this, Hallmark Channel, although you know I love you, please stop the dancing to “Silent Night.” It just isn’t done.



The jars on the shelf

Update. Yet another Bonne Maman jar has been welcomed into the family. If you read my previous post from months ago, you’ll recall my homage to these marvelous little jars and the preserves they hold—the “gift that keeps on giving,” just as Cousin Eddie observed in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. By the way, Bonne Maman products are made only with good stuff, as the website attests.

I’ve been transitioning gradually to glass food storage containers over the last five years. The plastic ones I still have, while advertised as “BPA free,” will eventually go, too. My plan is to follow my daughter’s lead and use space-saving canning jars for everything I freeze . That will happen in good time.

Meanwhile, as I use up each little taste of France that Bonne Maman preserves provide, I add another perfectly sized glass storage container to my collection. This year, I’ve used them for the herbs I’ve dried from the garden  They find their way to the pantry shelf, too—for the last small quantities of rice, pasta, or dried beans. And with just the two of us, they are exactly “right-sized” for leftovers and for storing prepped ingredients till it’s time to put the dish together. Mirepoix and other basic flavor bases at the ready when you need them? That’s convenience! With the ready-cut veggies at the grocery store so expensive, it’s economical, too.

By the way, as long as we’re talking economy, bell peppers are always inexpensive at our farm markets this time of year. Yesterday, I bought a bunch, cut them into strips, cooked them till almost soft in olive oil, added some balsamic for zest, and popped them into the freezer to enjoy when peppers are $4 a pound. Today, I’ll be heading back to the market for another batch—this time to roast, peel, and freeze. By the way, fresh sliced peppers, gently sautéed with or without garlic and seasoned with a bit of sea salt, are wonderful (and colorful!) tossed with spaghetti. The oil they exude on their own is just delicious. And you can store the leftovers in your Bonne Maman jars.

Wishing you all a bon weekend!




Once, under the Tuscan sun…

I am in an almost perennial state of longing for Italy. Hubby has Italy on his mind as well. The fervor is fueled constantly as we watch our current favorite Italian TV series.  Una pallottola nel cuoro—the English title,  Bulletproof Heart. We watch Euro TV almost every night, thanks to MHZ Choice, which we began streaming several years ago. Every time we do, we are transported. In the case of Bulletproof Heart, it’s to Rome. Tonight, however, I’m recalling a trip from Florence through the Tuscan countryside. And if you haven’t read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, please do. It’s a delight—and SO much better than the movie!

I dream of Italy

When the weekend approaches, I often find myself daydreaming about all the wonderful places we’ve been. I’ve got Italy on my mind today, perhaps because it’s so warm and sunny here, perhaps because there are beautiful fresh tomatoes on the counter and basil thriving in the backyard, perhaps because there’s a field of sunflowers nearby, perhaps because I never really get Italy (or France, for that matter) entirely out of my head…

So today I’m sharing a few photos of our daydream-worthy visit to the remarkable, enchanting Cinque Terre. I’ve shown you photos of some of the food we enjoyed in this magical region in a previous post, but this time it’s all about the views. Do enjoy, and do visit if you’re lucky enough to be in Italy.


Cover photo: “Modern” recreational vessels punctuate an ancient seascape in Monterosso al Mare. Each of these photos is my own work.

Roman holiday

I’ve been sitting here tonight with Hubby and Miss Pup enjoying Roman Holiday for the umpteenth time. It never loses its luster. If you need reasons to love it, I’ll give you three, in no particular order:

Audrey Hepburn
Gregory Peck

Although “iconic” has become so overused as to be almost meaningless, Roman Holiday is replete with scenes that truly do seem iconic to me. After all, this is the movie that introduced not only Audrey Hepburn, but also the Vespa, to the rest of the world. And talk about impact: it gives me shivers when Hepburn’s princess rounds that dark corner to return to her “real” life, as Peck’s reporter, stricken with grief, watches helplessly from the car. More than 60 years later, I still fantasize about having that jaunty Italian haircut.

One of the things I’ve always loved about TCM is the back story, and Roman Holiday’s is fascinating. You should check it out on the TCM website.

When we had our own Roman holiday a few years ago, the streets were crowded with tourists, our time was limited, and it was difficult to get good pictures. I do, however, have photos of an extraordinary and memorable lunch we had, in a charming little restaurant, La Buca di Ripetta,  just outside the Piazza del Popolo. I’m sharing them with you tonight.




Photos: Cover—gnocchi in a sauce infused with zucchini blossoms. Below, the menu, the wine we chose, vegetable fritters with aceto balsamico, lamb chops and potatoes.

Food we loved in Florence

Food memories, like song lyrics, stick.

One of our favorite places in Florence was San Michele all’Arco, a farm-to-table “resto” (kitchen in the photo above) with the most marvelous local olive oil, prosciutto, and cheese. The soup pictured below was just exquisite—every flavor came through, every flavor mattered. The same was true for everything else we enjoyed there.

We stumbled on  another neighborhood spot, I Ghibellini, in Piazza San Pier Maggiore,  just after we arrived in Florence.  We’d been on the train for half the day, we were starving, and it was the closest restaurant still serving lunch. Lucky for us! Oh, that pasta al limone! Oh, those exquisite white beans! Oh, that bistecca!

The things is… even though you can buy superior imported Italian products here, they don’t—they can’t— taste quite the same as they do at the source.

We returned to both restaurants several times, which is our habit when we find places we especially like. So often, the neighborhood places that don’t show up in the tour guides end up being the most memorable.