Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Cooking that could bring the Lord to His knees"

It was October of 1999 and we were all worrying about Y2K. The newscasters were telling us that we would probably spend the first month of the new century in darkness. 1999 to 2000 wasn’t the transition to a new century, but somehow in the binary world of computers it was heralded as a defining moment for civilization. Or that’s how they were selling it, trying to make us stare in to the TV’s so they could sell us their Chevy’s and their Pepsi’s and their Tide.

Meanwhile my Aunt Amelia was in the hospital. She was born on November 11, 1911 at 11 in the morning. 11-11-11-11. She was the archetypical cook in the history of my family. And while both of my grandmothers could cook well and so could my mom, and my sister Tina was in the running for the title (in the future), my Aunt Amelia, or Aunt Mil as we called her, she had the magic.

What she could do with a little flour and butter and water and egg and olive oil was a big deal. But Aunt Mil made it look like breathing; simple, effortless. I swear she could fry up day old newspaper and make it taste good. Nothing frightened her in the kingdom of her kitchen.

Chicken? Let me count the ways. Fried? The Lord Jesus would prepare another sermon if He had ever tasted hers. Baked or pan sautéed, with bread crumbs and Pecorino? I still aspire to make mine as well as hers. Vegetables? She could make a little kid like spinach. Eggplant? To this day I cannot fathom her stuffed eggplant. Meat balls, the quintessential Italian American crossover dish? I still don’t know how she made them so bloody great. Yeah, I do.

And the peach cobbler and the fried pies? Jeesh, how many times did I want to drag one of the gang of five over there to show them how a real southwest cook did it?

I used to leave my son there when he was a little boy, between school and the end of work. She always had an extra plate, if it was late. And the food she put on it, to this day, I still look for it.

Tomatoes, what she did to a tomato, my God. Fresh, stuffed, you name it; she outdid Faust in whatever deal she made. But she even tricked the devil, ‘cause the only heat she is feeling is from a well tended stove.

Sometimes I’d just drop by in the middle of the day. There were a couple of Italian restaurants nearby where she lived in old East Dallas. I ask her if she wanted me to take her to lunch, and she’d just say, “Nah, baby, we ain’t gonna find any decent Eyetalian food in those places.” No, we’d play it safe and go get Tex-Mex. Or she’d go into her kitchen and within minutes, miraculously, lunch would appear.

She was my southern Italian trattoria, with the best wine list, 'cause I’d bring the wine.

Aunt Mil passed away 10 years ago on October 24, days short of her 88th birthday. She didn’t make it to see the new century or the new millennium or 9/11. I remember going to see her in the hospital. She wasn’t happy with the food. Here was a lady, who was like my second mother. I called her my Texas mom. She loved it when I'd bring over a bottle of Montepulciano or Chianti. She liked her some good earthy Italian wine.

Earlier, I wrote “I still don’t know how she made them so bloody great. Yeah, I do.” Let me tell you what she told me many times. We’d be sitting on her couch, the TV blaring, the screen door open, the world turning and attending to the many dramas unfolding outside her universe. “Baby, make it with love. Be patient. Take your time. Don’t get upset. If it don’t work out so well the first time, try it again. You know the egg breaks. What do you do? Heat up a pan and scramble them with some olive oil and grated cheese. They ain’t gonna taste so bad, baby, as long as you give it a pinch of love. And remember, call me, and I’ll walk you through it.”

She walked me through many a meal and a crisis of love. She was one of my best friends. And in my kitchen I have a little spatula that I filched from her kitchen after she was gone. And to this day, when I make scrambled eggs, I call on her, and her little spatula, to help make it taste heavenly.


Miss you, Aunt Mil. Love you...




9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful Uncle Al. You captured her completely. Every time I cook I think about Aunt Millie and Great Nona...both could do miracles in the kitchen. I am so blessed to have known her!

Angela

Timothy Mullner said...

This is the best mystagogia (reflection on the mysteries of life) that I've seen in some time. I could see the Messiah smiling as you described your dear Aunt for the blessing ("to give and to receive") that she was and is to your family and to all of us. Thank for taking the time to re-member her to us!

Anna Bevacqua said...

Al...that was the most wonderful thing you wrote. I am still crying even after reading it! I have many of the same memories of her....her cooking was the best but her heart was even better. She always had something positive to say to me. I remember her living with Nona and we would come see them when we were little. So many memories! I drove down Greenville the other day coming back from the fair and thought of her when I passed by her place near Knox/Henderson and going by Oram. I miss her too...I know my dad misses her so much...she was a second mom to him too. Thanks Al.
-anna

Juliette Becker said...

That was beatifully written, Al. It captured her essence. She was such a great Aunt. Whenever she was around, I felt at peace and safe. She had a great outlook on life that made you feel like everything would be right with the world, even if it wasn't. It seems hard to imagine that she's been gone ten years. The world has turned cold and reckless since her passing. She was one of a kind!

Joanne Wilson said...

Al, what a beautiful tribute to my mom. She was a GREAT cook. I remember one day she was at my home and I was making meatballs. I had my bread crumbs in a bowl and put some milk on them so they would be moist. She asked why I did that and I replied, "because that's how your mom taught me." She did the same from that point on. She also made the most delicious fried apricot pies. My Diane said, after her Nona was gone, that she guessed she would not have anymore of the pies. I said that I would try to make them and I did. Diane requests them every year on her birthday. I think one of the greatest compliments I ever received was when Danny told me my pies were as good as hers. Many, many happy memories that sustain me each day. Thanks again for the tribute.
Joanne

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks everyone

Joanne-cousin, we gotta talk-I'd love to try your fried pies sometime.

Anonymous said...

Al, Love was not just merely the essence of her cooking but of her whole being.We have been so blessed to have her in our lives. As a little girl I could not wait for her summer visits. As an adult, our time together was even more meaningful. We would share recipes and life's lessons. She is the reason I have a passion for cooking. While she is gone, she still guides my hand andand all of our lives. We love you, Aunt Mil. Tina

CEC said...

Al -

That was brilliant and commendable; you captured the essence of Nonie (as she was introduced to me) perfectly. Although she was not related except by marriage to her granddaughter Debbie, she became a very important force in my life. Part of the reason is that my grandmothers had long since left this life, one in 1964 and the other in 1970 so Nonie became special to me.

It is not possible to say all about her preparation of great food; I learned that even things that were never liked or appreciated before became culinary masterpieces at her place. The many dinners in her home remains some of my favorite memories with my wife Debbie and her great aunt JoJo. One memorable occasion she prepared Eggplant Parmesan and angel hair pasta with pesto, all made by hand in her kitchen. She even ground the pine nuts to make her pesto. As you might know, it was a meal of a lifetime. Many futile attempts followed to find anyone who could make something so grand.

On another occasion, after we had discussed biscuits, she told us that she made biscuits from scratch, later she spent the night at our home and the next morning she got up and prepared breakfast for us. The biscuits were heavenly and while some use the expression, “it melted in my mouth”, as an example of excellence; I can say unequivocally that her biscuits eaten while they were still hot from the oven, literally melted in the mouth!

She was far beyond any chef in any restaurant wherever I have eaten including some of the most well-known and expensive establishments both in USA and Europe. Most of my friends know about her because when the subject of great food is mentioned; I let them know that she was the best.

Of course, there was far more to Nonie than cooking although I particularly enjoyed that aspect of her talents. She told me when questioned that she was a perfectionist and was not satisfied to merely cook or make something that was good; it had to meet her extremely high standards or she would not do it. She said that her mother was also like that and taught her so much.

Another meaningful aspect of her personality is that unlike many others, if she did not like something or someone, she would not hide it. If she accepted someone and seemed to like them, it was not an act…it was real as was her reaction to something bad; they did not wonder at all. This blunt honesty was so refreshing compared to many others who always say or do things the politically correct way.

On another occasion, at our home I had made coffee for everyone one evening; it was a Kona coffee with macadamia nuts; Nonie had several sips and proclaimed, “That was the best damn coffee I ever had”. We all laughed since most of the time, she had the best at her place. This was a very high compliment and was to me, more meaningful than to have Julia Child compliment my coffee.

Al, Nonie was truly a great person and the DNA seems to follow her. Her daughter is also a fantastic person like her mother and my wife is much like them both. Your mother is delightful and of course, JoJo is a brilliant and very kind person. It is obvious that this you have a wonderful blessed family. Thanks for the memories.

Calogero said...

Nice photos, thanks.

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