My cousin, Frank Carrano, invited me to join an Italian cooking group, “Wooster Square Cooks” on Facebook. Every day Cooks from all around New Haven, primarily Italians, post recipes, dinners, family histories and desserts that would capture a winning title on The Food Network. One of the things that struck me was how many “everyday” men enjoy cooking and honoring their family recipes. I have always loved to cook and truth be told was teased as a young boy in the 1960s for it.
“What are you, a girl,” the boys would taunt me. My other would come to my defense, as always, and offer consolation. “Don’t worry, when they’re single or old and alone and can’t cook won’t you be the lucky one.” I went underground and kept the secret love of the kitchen “in the closet”.
My father, having lost his mother when he was two years old, never knew the joy of watching her cook or passing down recipes. He was relegated to a life with little mothering and end3d up literally marrying a woman who did mother him. While brilliant in the world of woodworking, unlike many of the men here, my father wouldn’t know where to begin. If his skill set involved a toaster, coffee pot or a bowl of cereal he was all set. Recently, one of the members of our group, posted a fantastic meal made in a pressure cooker. Personally I’ve never used one, but my mother did. It never frightened me until a balmy summer day in the mid 1970s.
It seems Italian men have a penchant for cooking. My maternal grandfather, “Pop”, was always creating dishes indigenous to the Marche region where he grew up in the town of Fano. On Sundays he’d use the large wooden dowel my father had crafted for him to make pasta. The long bully stick served him well and if we’d get out of line it could have doubled as a disciplinary weapon, though that was never the case. Our kitchen, because of its flow, made the job easier for him. “Pop” would mix the simple ingredients of flour, eggs and water, then knead the supple dough into cylinders. Then, with his thick hands, he’d roll it out, sometimes so paper thin you felt you should see through it. With a bow and fine wire, he’d slice it into little diamonds for soup or longer strands, like pappardelle, for sauce. The table and counters would be covered in fresh pasta. My father gained no kitchen skills, other than the art of carving, from his father-in-law, which brings us to the pressure cooker.
One sultry Sunday, my family and our relatives sat by our swimming pool. It was common for our house to be a haven, you see, anyone who wanted a meal, to relax on a lazy afternoon or simply to talk were always welcome. There was no ceremony and no written invitation, it was just known. We’d had a ham the night before and my mother decided, on this steaming day, to make a Pea soup. Into the pressure cooker went the ingredients and the process began. As the pot began to heat, she latched the lid shut and placed the pressure gauge on top. The idea is to build up “pressure” inside then lift the gauge off and release it slowly. Any child could do it, except my father was an adult, not a child. She sought the coolness of the pool water as my father lingered behind to watch a ball game. “I just want to see the score,” he’d say but that wasn’t true, the game was his everything. A short time later my mother called up to the house.
“Henry, take the ‘top thing’ off and let the steam out of the cooker.” She’d said “the top thing”. Knowing to whom she was speaking her words should have been more carefully chosen.
Seconds later, blood curdling screams rose. From the kitchen window it sounded as if a cat, if we’d ownwed one, was fighting for its life. We all ran. Beyond the door our eyes witnessed devastation. There, on a kitchen bench, moaning, sat my father, his hands clinging to his chest, his hair and body covered with hot, green liquid and bits of meat. In his eyes were tears. “What did you do,” my mother shouted. He whispered between painful groans, “You told me to take the top off…”
Indeed that would make sense, how would he know? From the ceiling dripped fractured peas, falling like little radioactive raindrops on our heads. The telephone, a rotary dial, had bits of meat on it, matching my father’s body. The floor, once creamy white, was laden with a mushy green overlay. More shocking, the searing hambone, as if fired from a rifle, hit my father’s bare, hairless chest adhering to his skin. It resembled an eyebrow, an overly waxed one at that, above his nipple. My mother attempted to slowly strip it off but that came with screams. No one suspected on a seemingly benign summer day, a casualty would occur on Orchard Road.
After returning from the hospital my mother led him inside. The bare chest gleamed, slathered in ointment while his pectoral area hid behind bandages. My father, looking defeated, retired to the living room. Now the chore of cleaning the kitchen began. My mother, though concerned, seemed unsympathetic as she began to chuckle. “You know, I can’t believe it. He made it through World War II unscathed and now has a scar from a flying hambone.” And it was true. To the day he died a branding on his left pectoral was visible- a little curved scar shaped like a ham bone. Over the years that ensued she thought it wise to teach him elementary kitchen skills.
“This is for when I die,” she’d say, “Otherwise he’ll starve.”
I was always grateful I’d learned so much from my mother. When i think of my grandfather, his skill and love of rustic foods I revel in it. So cooking is in our soul. There were many Sundays when I’d actually take over the kitchen, feed the family and my mother was ecstatic. As for my father, you see, though he learned the basics, he was never comfortable within a foot of the stove. He’d toast his raisin bread, make his coffee and moisten his cereal with milk. I think in the end he was happier as a spectator. At Thanksgiving he carved a mean turkey and on Sunday a pot roast. Now though, in thinking about it, when push came to shove my father would, when served, distance himself from the bone-in ham.