This is one week early but my mother, Edith, lived by a code: “If you can’t honor us every day then don’t bother on one day.” I wrote it with my father, Henry, in mind and decided, “Why wait until Father’s Day?”….So “Happy Day” to all the great dads out there…and thank you for being the men you are….Love, Keith
Some did, some didn’t. We didn’t. My friends and schoolmates would speak of spaghetti and meatballs but I hadn’t a clue. Of course I knew meatballs. I actually had an affair with them once, if not twice a week. If we could have rented a hotel room, my mother’s meatballs and I, it would be used wisely for making love to them, as they deserved. But spaghetti? That was not on the menu. I never twirled the long strands of pasta, like Lucy Ricardo at “The Brown Derby”, until later in life. My mother’s “go to” choices were either Rigatoni or Mostaccioli. Occasionally, as a treat, she would slip in Perciatelli or Bucatini, but it was rare. With its length it bore a strong resemblance to its cousin and was therefore banned from her kitchen.
Perhaps I was six, perhaps seven, the day I blasphemed. On bended knee, most likely with tears, my favorite tool, I pleaded for Franco-American SpaghettiOs. The canned pasta was advertised on television during my favorite shows. Exuberant children scooped up the saucy little “Os” as the catchy jingle, “The neat little pasta you can eat with a spoon. Uh-oh! SpaghettiO’s” played in the background. Campbell’s was catfishing. They drew youngsters like me in, hook, line and sinker.
“Can I have SpaghettiOs? They look really good!” It took three men to lift my mother off the floor after fainting.
“Are you kidding? You want to bring THAT into my house?” When anything challenged her rules or cooking she took full ownership of the property, omitting my father.
“It’s on TV….kids love it. Please, please, pleeease?”
“Not happening. Let’s go.”
We left, the wheels clacking, as I gazed back toward my loss. It was a Film Noir moment.
There were three more attempts. After shedding my last tear and furrowing my brows for the final time, the wall tumbled. Against her will my mother, with no love, placed the red and white can with the little orange circles in the cart. I thought I’d won. She knew she had.
“Can I get the one with the meatballs?” Kudos to a little boy who was pressing his luck.
The label sported a picture of tiny round balls of meat resembling rabbit turds lying among the pasta and sauce.
“Absolutely not. You’ll have diarrhea for a week.”
At home she set a pan on the counter and opened the metal can. The slightly coagulated contents slid out as my mother winced. On the stove it began to bubble up as did my excitement. My lunch came in a ceramic pasta bowl, as it would any other time. She was clear about pasta propriety. My mother sat across the table, staring and waiting, a defendant on trial. The first spoonful held a vaguely familiar taste. Ketchup? Perhaps. Sweetness? Definitely. Tomato soup? Without question. It was tomato soup with pasta in it. This bore no resemblance to the hours long cooked meat sauce my mother and grandfather prepared. My curiosity was over.
“Should I run out and buy more cans?” Sarcasm. Her favorite.
I hated it when she was right.
But what of spaghetti? Why was one pasta foreign to us, an Italian-American family, yet so familiar to the rest of the world? I needed the answer.
“Your father’s mother died when he was barely three. His father married a woman who didn’t like daddy. She fed him spaghetti everyday of his life until he moved out.”
As I grew older, the details of my father’s early life emerged. It became more transparent and painful but I had my answer. It seemed inconceivable to me, a little boy, that anyone could eat one thing every day of their life. Beyond that, how could anyone not like my father, a gentle man, especially as a little boy?
“So when we got married he had one rule. No spaghetti. Understand now?”
I did. Each strand reminded him of a time he left unspoken. A time we, his sons, would never know. My father would never allow his past to be repeated, more so, resembled, in any way.
Years later, in New York, with my friend Marti, I broke the Cardinal rule. As we dined at an elegant Italian restaurant, I studied the menu.
“This place is known for their Spaghetti a la Puttanesca. It’s amazing.”
I trusted her recommendation and it did not disappoint. The first twirl of the long, thin pasta felt exciting as it entered my mouth then passed over my tastebuds. It was an unforgettable moment. Why? I don’t know. Was it peer pressure all those years or had spaghetti simply been against the law so it was more desirable? It may as well have been cocaine. The briny, acidic sauce played perfectly off the pasta and sang an aria. When finished, like anything kept from you, I wanted more. But the compassion and loyalty for my father felt tested. All this over flour, water and eggs. It was a conundrum.
With the passing years, and recipes such as Puttanesca, Aglio Oglio, and a la Vongole, Capellini found its way into my mother’s kitchen. It wasn’t a complete healing of the soul for my father but it was a step in the right direction. I understood, as my life grew in knowledge, the symbolism and pain spaghetti had caused. He was not one to speak negatively nor wear his past hurt on his sleeve. He was not the kind of man who issued ultimatums or insisted we obey him lest corporal punishment await us. He was sensitive, generous and kind. He would never be the one to deprive us or or make us feel deprived. If need be he left that to our mother. He loved and was loved in return. He broke a potential cycle.
So when Henry Proto asked that spaghetti not sit at the dinner table with those he protected and loved, it was for a very deep reason. And his wife obliged. Spaghetti can be the perfect accompaniment to a perfect sauce. It can bring people together as the vessel to which things, even emotions, adhere. Like my father, my experience with spaghetti has lasted a lifetime. It’s embedded. That’s the thing about spaghetti. It doesn’t claim much on its own, but once twirled it may, mentally, emotionally or gastronomically, never let go of you.