Sweet distractions

I’ve been lean on writing  this last week; sometimes, real life just intervenes. In this case, in a good way. Here is where my time usually devoted to writing has gone…

The kitchen cabinets
I set out determined to clean both pantry cabinets and all the kitchen drawers, and I did. They are beautifully organized, old stuff has been pitched, and some goodies I’d forgotten I had have been used or scheduled for use in dinners or other delights. Some of you will no doubt think I’m sick, but cleaning closets and cabinets is really the only household task, apart from cooking and baking, that I truly enjoy, perhaps because it fairly screams, “Fresh start!”

The garden
We’ve spent considerable time enjoying our backyard garden and the roses and clematis that give our house the look of a little cottage on the Maine coast. Everything we planted, moved, replaced is thriving this year; all we need do is take the time to savor it. We added a climbing rose this week and hope it will be happy in the place we chose.

Long walks with Miss Pup
Our walks have been extra pleasurable on the sunny days that followed what seemed like ages of damp and dreariness. One of the things I love most about our neighborhood is that people are always out and about—kids playing on the green, mamas and papas walking their babies, and lots of other doggies taking their constitutionals. Everyone smiles; everyone waves. The world needs that.

My first Tana French
Faithful Place is a dark crime novel set in Dublin. Oh, my goodness, what skill with voice! This one is really hard to put down.

Strawberries
Our local berries, the real ones, bear no relationship to those big, tasteless California imports in the grocery stores. We’ve been devouring our local berries for over a week, both in biscuit shortcake mounded with real whipped cream and just out of the dish, unfettered.

Every now and then, I catch myself frustrated with how few tasks I’ve completed in the course of a day. Sometimes, I still feel unproductive or even a bit guilty. But really enjoying your #retired life isn’t about changing the sheets, is it?

Photo: In my history with azaleas, which goes back to childhood, this may be the fullest and most beautiful. I take no credit for planting or feeding it—that all goes to our “tree whisperer,” Don. I would have posted a photo of the strawberries, but they disappeared before I could say, “Cheese.” I did include a link to my favorite shortcake recipe, just in case you’re interested.

Adriana Trigiani’s Italian-Americans

I was thrilled to receive a pre-publication copy of Adriana Trigiani’s new book, Kiss Carlo, which goes on sale June 20. This post is more of an homage than a review. I’ve loved Trigiani’s books since my cousin Nina first handed me Lucia, Lucia in 2004. Since then,  I’ve read them all.

Suffice it to say that I can relate. Take those wedding reception sandwiches in wax paper bags that Trigiani describes in Queen of The Big Time, which is set in Roseto, in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. The only real memory I have of my grandmother is being in her kitchen in Maine, with  all the other Italian women from Smith Crossing, as they made and packaged sandwiches in wax paper bags for my Auntie Anna’s wedding.

Trigiani is a masterful storyteller. Over the years, I’ve followed the immigrants she writes about faithfully, as they left their tiny, impoverished villages to build new lives in the US, in locations as diverse as Minnesota, Manhattan, Hollywood, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Roseto, of course. You get to know Trigiani’s complicated characters through big screen-worthy dialogue, within a carefully honed historic and cultural context. Expect to laugh out loud at, fall in love with, get mad at, and cry over them. These are characters you miss when the book ends.

One of the things I love most about Adriana Trigiani’s books is that they have real-life inspirations. The Shoemaker’s Wife, for example, was based on her grandparents‘ story (the link is to a video trailer you will love). At the same time, her novels reveal the important mark that Italian-Americans have made on this country, what they endured, and the artistry and traditions they contributed (see her in the PBS tour de force, The Italian-Americans). The big, noisy Sunday dinners, the church at the center of family and community, the downright biblical family feuds may seem stereotypical to an outsider, but we insiders understand that they reflect what we grew up with… and, for good or ill, crawled out of.

Kiss Carlo is set largely in one of the nation’s most iconic Italian-American communities, South Philly. It’s a BIG story—a saga, in fact, through which Trigiani has wound what may seem an unlikely Shakespearean thread. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Apart from my humble opinion that everything you need to know about life can be found in Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, the play that figures in the plot, is a tale of masquerade and discovery. Throughout Kiss Carlo and all of Trigiani’s work, it seems to me, runs the theme of first and second-generation Italian-Americans struggling to find out who they really are and who they can become when they are finally confident and comfortable in their New World skin. As I said before, I can relate. I’m sure my parents could have, too.

Kiss Carlo was a great read. I think you’ll like it.

Photo: My paternal grandparents, Maria Grazia and Francesco, second and third from the left, were immigrants from the village of Centrache, in Calabria. They settled in the tiny paper mill town of Rumford, ME. They had 14 children—all but one born in this country—and many, many grandchildren. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar, mother, and those jelly jars

I’ve loved The Importance of Being Earnest, one of dear Oscar Wilde’s funniest, since we staged the show in high school. Many of its epigrammatic quips have stayed with me all these years.  It’s possible that I like this one best:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That’s his.

The value of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams cannot be underscored. Their essential truth, well cloaked in satire, sticks like chewing gum under the dairy bar counter. They grow with you. When I was 16, I thought this was just a funny line. When I was 21 and trying to assert my independence, being “like my mother” was the last thing on earth I wanted. When my own kids came along, I wondered if they’d be like me. By the time I was 40, I began to hope I was at least somewhat like her. And now, of course, I am—at least in one notable way.

Which is to say, my kitchen in fully of jelly jars. Specifically, Bonne Maman (“good mother”) jelly jars. Like Clark Griswold’s Christmas bonus, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. Whereas my mother saved commercial jelly jars for her own wondrous jams and preserves, I use the Bonne Maman jars for everything from baking soda to chopped onion to leftover sweet potatoes. I find they’re ideal not just because I’m a “brand loyalist,” but because the mouth is fairly wide, the lids are an adorable red-and-white check, you can easily see what’s in them, and they stack. More than that, Bonne Maman jams take me back to June in Provence, where Françoise, our charming hostess at Hôtel l’Hermitage, at breakfast served baskets of just picked strawberries and cherries from the orchards around Mt. Ventoux. Plus, as you’ve probably discovered, if it’s French or Italian, I’m in.

Recycling is always a good thing, and since many of us are trying to make the switch from plastic storage to glass, why not try some Bonne Maman—non-GMO, by the way—and put some of these great little jars to handy new uses?

Bon Maman

 

 

 

 

 

Islands in the laguna

For a daydreaming Pisces, a novel with a sense of place as strong as any of its characters is irresistible. Writers from the American south have always been very good at this—Gail Godwin, Pat Conroy, Flannery O’Connor, and the like.

Place is typically very important to ongoing mystery series are as well. My personal favorites are Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series, set in Venice, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels, which take place in and around Montreal, and the Commissario Montalbano series by Andrea Camillero, set in Sicily.  Each of these series is far beyond a collection of simple detective stories; they are highly literate, with both principle and supporting characters who are impeccably fleshed out, who grow and change as the series progress. You get to know, respect, and probably love them as you read one after another. Tip: If you are interested in any of these, do read them in order!

I’ve just finished Earthly Remains, the latest in the Commissario Brunetti series. The story, which takes place on Sant’Erasmo and Burano, islands in the Venetian lagoon, brought back some lovely memories of our 2012 excursion to Murano, Burano, and Torcello.  I’m sharing those memories for my own selfish pleasure as much as for yours.

Notes:
(1) If I were doing the trip again, I would skip Murano. If you read this book, you’ll find out why.

(2) Both Brunetti and Montalbano have been transformed into fabulously entertaining TV series—the first is, ironically, a German production and the second, an Italian one. You can enjoy them in the US, as well as many other European offerings, with a modestly priced subscription to the streaming service MHZ Choice.

 

Lipstick on your collar

I love lipstick. On those rare occasions when I leave the house without it, people ask if I’m okay because they think I look “a little pale.” That’s a pretty clear message.

And yet… I’m a behind-the-scenes, producer type. While I have the ability to work just about any kind of crowd, do a TV stand-up, or speak off-the-cuff to a giant audience, I still prefer to be backstage, making things happen. For this reason, I regretfully eschew red lipstick.

Some women—like Adriana Trigiani, one of my favorite writers, and “the other Angela,” my hair stylist—wear red exclusively and always look fabulous. It was Adriana’s recent Facebook live, as a matter of fact, that reminded me how much I love red lipstick—on other people. Whenever I try it—which I often do, hoping against hope—I feel as if my lips, like overdone gold jewelry, are walking into the room five minutes before I do.

Perhaps you’re too young to know that lipstick, until the 1960s, was always red. Revlon was responsible for two of the most smashing and popular reds of all time, “Fire and Ice,” “Love That Red,” and “Cherries in the Snow.” Make no mistake: this is the lipstick that Connie Francis sang about. Note in the photo that these shades are still available, more than half a century later.

“Cherries in the Snow,” a cool blue-red, has always been my personal favorite among the Revlon reds, all of which fairly scream glamour. My mother wore “Cherries in the Snow” for years, with the matching nail polish, until dusty rose took over the mainstream adult market in the mid-60s. (We kids, I’m sorry to say, were over-influenced first by the British Invasion, which gave us ghostly Julie Christie lips, and later by the Haight-Ashbury crowd, which gave us nude ones.)

I search incessantly for the perfect lip color. I can easily waste an hour in Ulta, going from deep pinks to peachy-keen to fuchsias, from crayons to glosses to matte, in a perennial frenzy of indecision. But part of me just longs to be that “lady in red” from the 50s, when things, including lipstick, didn’t seem quite so complicated.

Aside: One of my ongoing fantasies is to be The One Who Names The Lipstick, which is kind of like being The One Who Names the Crayola Colors, or the Sherwin-Williams paint swatches. Who are these geniuses, the objects of my eternal admiration? Who first said, “Cherries in the Snow”? This inquiring mind wants to know.

 

But it doesn’t taste like my mother’s…

Author Laura Schenone went to Italy in search of her ancestral ravioli recipe. Hold that thought while I digress a bit.

Ravioli is my favorite food in the world. Not the fancy kind, stuffed with lobster or  “kiwi infused pork” (no kidding!). Plain old cheese ravioli. Peasant food—la cucina povera— at its finest. It was my family’s signature dish for Christmas and Easter. Other special occasions might feature gnocchi or lasagna or “homemades,” but ravioli was always my mother’s pièce de résistance.

Mom didn’t use a recipe, of course—she did it all by feel. She rolled the dough and cut and filled the ravioli by hand, while the sauce was on the stove, in the last few hours before dinner. The ravioli were so tender they truly did almost melt in your mouth.

My mother eschewed shortcuts, possibly because the act of making the ravioli was so important to her. Daddy bought her one of those special rolling pins with the die-cut squares—a ravioli cutter—but she never used it. The ravioli it produced were too small, she said. When he brought home an Italian macaroni machine (that’s what we called it), she used it once, to make spaghetti as a first course for Thanksgiving, then retired it to the basement, saying it required too much flour, which made the dough tough. She never made the ravioli in advance and froze them, as many people do. Mom learned most of what she knew about cooking from her two older sisters—my grandmother had died in the flu epidemic when my mother was only eight. My guess is that Mom’s attachment to “hand made” ravioli was a way of staying connected to her earliest, and probably fondest, childhood memories.

When I was about nine, she patiently trained me to help her. I marveled at the way she whipped that dough around the long, smooth macaroni stick Daddy had made her. She didn’t fold the pasta dough in half, drop the filling at intervals, and then fold it over and cut around it—she cut out every single top and bottom and filled them one-at-a-time. I learned to make the filling—ricotta mixed with egg, fresh parsley, a bit of pecorino, and black pepper—drop a dollop onto the cut-out square of dough, top it with another, and crimp the edges together with a wet fork. And then race to get those delicate little packets into the pot of boiling water, with her chiding  me to handle them with care.

I should add that Mom was a working mother. That she didn’t start cooking till after 8:15 Mass. And that she accomplished all of this in a tiny rectangle of a 1958 kitchen, on a tiny rectangle of turquoise enamel kitchen table partly  covered with a well floured, old cotton  tablecloth I still have. It’s there, in the photo.

When my kids were old enough, Mom enlisted their help. My son, Chris, could whip that macaroni stick around like a pro when he was only eight. My daughter, Emily, picked up hand rolling as well and, inspired to a large extent by my mother, subsequently received her professional chef’s certification from the Culinary Institute of America.

These are glorious memories. One of my great regrets is that we have no photos of Mom in the kitchen, doing these ordinary-but-extraordinary things that made our lives so rich.

But back to Laura Schenone. Given my love of ravioli, how could I have passed up, on a Saturday stroll through Barnes and Noble, a book with the irresistible title, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken? Her family’s Genoese ravioli are different than our Southern Italian version—she uses a meat and cheese filling you’ll hear about in the video. Her quest to duplicate the taste and texture of her childhood, told within the context of a soul-searching memoir, is a satisfying detective story on multiple levels, beautifully told. And it’s an eye-opener for all of you who’ve said a thousand times, “It’s good, but it doesn’t taste like my mother’s.”

I’ve bought the book as a gift for friends and family maybe half a dozen times. You should read it, too. With Laura’s permission, I’m including her engaging and wonderfully instructive video; you’ll hear a short version of her story as she demonstrates how to hand roll pasta dough.

Laura Schenone’s first book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, is a James Beard Award winner and a fascinating history of women “in the kitchen.” I highly recommend it, as well. Her newest book is due out later this year.

 

.Video used with permission.