As I continue editing my book (I’m a tiny bit behind schedule), I am adding more food references. Food has always had a hold on me. Growing up in both Italian and Polish traditions, the fabric of my childhood was knitted with gustatory delights. Food meant comfort and caring.
One repast I’ll never forget was the first time my husband-to-be visited my Italian Grandma’s second floor apartment in Jersey City. At our traditional Sunday mid-afternoon meal, the men ate first. After the men, the children were served. Lastly, the women sat, ate and then washed the dishes—a paternalist, ethnic ritual I rebelled against at the time, only now to look back with pure nostalgia.
Grandma and my aunts, Ann, Jennie, Pam and Anna and their sister-in-law Chris, served. That day, I sat with the men beside Ernie, American hot-dog and hamburger aficionado, at the table in the cramped, hot kitchen. There wasn’t a dining room. He had seconds of the bean soup and the pasta with tomato sauce and slathered butter on Grandma’s freshly baked bread. He had an awakening when the meat course arrived. I remember Uncle Mickey commenting on Ernie’s voracious appetite. Salad and cheese followed. Ernie’s intake dwindled.
After espresso, my uncles left to smoke cigars in the front parlor. Ernie staggered behind them as Grandma smiled with delight over how much he had eaten. A good appetite was paramount to sainthood.
My book covers a time in the early ‘80s when I worked as a nurse practitioner in a clinic on the west side of Chicago. I could walk to a Polish deli for the foods of my childhood on my mother’s side: kielbasa, pierogi and babka. (A good appetite at a Polish table also ranked next to godliness.)
I found a hole-in-the-wall Mexican Restaurant. There I fell in love with a soup crammed with a hunk of corn and a whole chicken breast. In that blue-collar neighborhood, I often stopped at a take-out stand specializing in greasy fries and Chicago red hots. All part of my immersion into community nursing. I was eating my way into appreciation of my clientele’s way of life.
Now as I write, I’m relishing the memories.