My grandfather’s name was Louie. Or “Big Lou.” He would pull into our driveway in his “Caddy,” beeping his horn to announce his arrival. He’d get out of the car with some loaves of bread and cans of tomatoes he had gotten on sale at Pathmark. Crouching down in the grass at the end of the driveway, he’d soon stand up, triumphantly holding up a bunch of dandelion weeds that he would later use to make soup. He horrified my father by picking mushrooms off our lawn and eating them. But he knew what was safe to eat. I wish I’d learned about these things from him before he died.
Grampa’s father Joseph sold produce in North Haven, Connecticut, so my grandfather grew up surrounded by abundant fruits and vegetables, even during the Depression. In World War II, he was based in the South Pacific and was introduced to the tropical fruits he continued to love throughout his life. His favorite fruit -the mango- became mine. He would return from frequent trips to Florida not with Mickey Mouse t-shirts and souvenir shot glasses, but with suitcases stuffed full of ripe mangoes and tomatoes. Classic Big Lou Story: One time his suitcase opened in the airplane and dozens of tomatoes rolled down the aisles.
But it was my grandfather’s sister, my Aunt Phil, who cooked the food that was the heart of my family and my childhood. When I remember her, I smell her sauce as I walked through her front door and taste the fresh asparagus omelets she used to make especially for me.
My Aunt Phil and Uncle George shared a duplex in New Haven with my grandfather and my grandmother Annette; their front doors were side by side and their children grew up like siblings. Phyllis was intensely warm and loving. When my 21-year old mother entered and fell in love with my father’s family, it was my Aunt Phil, not my grandmother, who taught her to cook. My grandmother died the year before I was born, so when I was growing up the smell of Sunday dinner always came from my Aunt Phil’s side of the house, not my grandfather’s.
Holidays were predictable. Phyllis would give each arriving guest a warm hug and kiss and then turn to more pressing matters- impatiently turning her sauce on high, worrying about whether four loaves of Italian bread was enough. Cursing in English and Italian because her oven wasn’t working, or her dessert was ruined (she forgot the sugar again). Putting a few stuffed mushrooms on a plate as a treat for my father. Scolding the rest of us not to pick at the food before it was served.
Phyllis welcomed everyone to her dining table; there was always an eclectic assortment of family members, close friends and “strays” who didn’t have a place to go. A few minutes before the meal began, someone would be sent next door to get my grandfather. Very often there would have been some minor disagreement between him and my aunt’s husband George earlier in the day. But “not speaking” didn’t last very long in that house. When it came time to eat, everyone sat down at the table together. Elbow to elbow, we were all family. And at that table we laughed, cried, fought, and told stories. To me, it was and still is the best food in the world.