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...