Our Sundays with Dad go like this: at about 5:15 Dad arrives carrying a cloth grocery bag that contains two cans of lemon lime soda. He will mix the soda with red table wine that he has funneled into a plastic bottle from a large glass jug at home. He might also have a tomato, a cantaloupe or a wedge of watermelon. These he has bought at his favorite vegetable stand where he goes to unleash his enthusiasm for fresh food, beauty and a bargain. Look at this tomato! That color! he’ll exclaim. Just take a whiff of this cantaloupe! Isn’t that gorgeous? At 89, Dad’s gusto for life is more robust now than it was for most of his previous years. When I was growing up, he was a grouch, but as he’s aged, he’s become an effervescent cheerleader for all the simple pleasures, especially good food. A family friend still imitates his almost orgasmic response to the fresh figs she sent years ago for Christmas. AAAH, she shakes her head and moans, thoooose figs!
Dad sits at the little round table in our kitchen while I get him the short glass I bought at a garage sale stenciled in gold with “V.I.P.” As I finish the last of the preparations, Dad munches slices of ricotta salata, roasted olives or sautéed peppers. Sometimes I just set out store-bought dip and crackers. No matter—he’ll gobble these snacks and make his first proclamation of the day that the food is just wonderful! For a special treat, I sometimes recreate my grandma’s zucchini fritters, frying and serving them on the spot. By the time my grown sons and their girlfriends arrive, I am tossing arugula and pecorino in a bowl from Little Italy or shingling mozzarella, basil and one of those tomatoes he brought on a big white platter. The wine is now flowing.
If the weather is nice—meaning it’s not summer in Florida—we’ll move to the table on our backyard deck. There we’ll dig into that salad, family gossip, news of the week (though not politics or religion, since that could give us agita) and when Dad wipes up the last of the balsamic vinaigrette with a dab of crusty bread, I scurry to put on the pasta water.
Like most Italian-Americans of his generation, Dad grew up eating pasta, which they called macaroni, regardless of the shape, every Sunday. Because our Sunday dinners are all about tradition and old school favorites, of course we have pasta. There might also be Italian sausage (both sweet and hot) or garlic chicken (any kind of chicken is a huge favorite). In spring we’ll have roasted baby asparagus with a squirt of lemon. In fall, butternut squash baked with a delicate swipe of honey. Fried eggplant sprinkled with cheese or young green beans glistening with butter. White beans simmered with carmelized fennel or potatoes roasted with rosemary from my garden. Dad consumes them all with zest. I mean it, these are some of the best green beans I’ve ever eaten!
The pasta is done. I’ve been simmering the homemade marinara for hours—just the aroma is mouthwatering. I put a little bit of sauce in the bottom of the serving bowl, like Dad taught me, but the drained pasta goes into the sauce pan like the food shows taught me. Once the spaghetti or linguini or rigatoni or –yes—macaroni is nestled in the bowl, I crown it with just a spot of sauce and a handful of parsley or basil. Then, with all courses on deck –Mangiammo! Buon appetito! We eat!
Finally, Dad pushes away his plate, turning his hands into stop signs. But I’ve got ice cream and cones. I’ve got peach cobbler or apple crisp. That cantaloupe is cooling and there’s still a little wine left. Usually Dad finds room for “just a tad,” but as night comes on and the work day beckons the rest of us, Dad gathers up his grocery bag and the now-empty wine/plastic bottle. I pack containers of leftovers that will see him through Monday. Then, since he no longer drives at night, I walk with him to his car, my husband jumps into ours, and together we begin the slow, familiar drive to my parent’s house.
Since Mom died five years ago, Dad has had a standing reservation for Sunday family dinner at my house. Only illness, special occasions or vacations out of town have caused any of us to cancel. Since that first heartbroken year, I’ve been very aware of the shoes I’ve tried to fill. My mom, a Southern belle (named Belle), learned to cook Italian from her mother-in-law and considered herself an adopted “goombah.” Her mother-in-law, Grandma, had daily transformed the simple dishes of Neapolitan country folk into high art. Her cooking is legendary in the family and even though she set the bar high, I’ve tried hard to create meals that both honor Dad’s culinary nostalgia and wow him.
Don’t worry. We’ll take care of Dad. This is one of the last things I said to my mother. By take care, I meant and promised a whole host of things, from always celebrating his birthday on New Year’s Day to accompanying him to doctors’ appointments. And I meant that he would never spend Sunday afternoons alone. He’d always eat with us at home, Sundays at 5:30.
Categories: Gianna's Voice