Food, Coffee, And More Growing Up In The Woods
November 09, 2021
I wasn’t sure for a while, but I took a 23andMe genetic test and sure enough this blonde haired blue eyed ginger is most definitely Sicilian. I also found out I have a half brother but that is another story.
No, this is mostly about food. Food. Fooooooooood.
I love food. Who doesn’t love food? Being Italian (ahem , “Sicilian”) food is lifeblood. We don’t just enjoy dinner. We judge people on their dinner choices. I make friends based on whether they’ve eaten artichokes before and really enjoy them. I cringe if you call red sauce “gravy” and don’t get it if you don’t appreciate a really good olive oil.
I am currently reading Stanley Tuccis book on food and I find myself nodding in agreement to what he says. Cutting your pasta when you eat it? Who the fuck does that? What is wrong with you?
Growing up in a small town in Massachusetts where most of my friends were Irish or german and their parents remained married, I had no basis of comparison. I just knew when I ate at my friends house I physically cringed at their food offerings. Already at age eight I had developed a “holier than thou” Italian attitude towards food. It was embedded in my DNA, passed down through centuries of Sicilian masons.
The german/english family always served some bland brown meat thing. The Irish family: traditional meat and potatoes. The Portuguese came the closest to what my already snobby palette could consume: Something red and full of vegetables and spicy.
The Red Sauce
My mother makes a Red Sauce (yes, capitalized) that will make you want to smack a stranger it’s so good. I took it for granted when i was growing up. I thought everybody’s mom labored over a ceramic (never teflon) pot. This woman drove an extra half hour to the Italian deli to get the real sausage and the real, good, fatty ground red meat.
There was no “organic” labels back in the 70s, but my palette know the difference between processed garbage and good healthy food.
Damn, my mouth is watering just writing this. Coming home from school and walking into a kitchen smelling of that amalgamation of love. Later that day having the obligatory meatball sandwich on Italian bread that night while she puts the Red Sauce in glass containers that my brothers and I would devour within two days.
We never had risotto or fish based Italian dishes. I didn’t like fish except maybe a tuna salad sandwich that I enjoyed with so much mayo it didn’t matter. We didn’t do the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. Risotto was just a word. I didn’t even know what it was when i was young.
Our Italian dishes were based around The Red Sauce: The Mother of Italian Food Sauces (to me at least). When we had money we had chicken parm or lasagna. Raviolis were always a treat and I could eat a whole box of frozen cheese ravioli in one sitting. I don’t remember the brand, it was some Italian woman’s name like Regina or Margie with a basic blue and white label. There are so many frozen raviolis on the market today it’s hard to find it with the Googles (and i tried).
Even during a stint of bodybuilding in my early 20’s and being on a ridiculously strict diet of boiled fish and yams, I could not give up the red sauce at least once a week.
I tried and still try to duplicate moms. She sends me the ingredients and tells me how and it still just doesn’t taste…right. Organic fatty meat (“none of that lean shit!” I can hear her saying), good mild hand made italian sausage, organic canned tomatoes, italian breadcrumbs, oregano, basil, salt n pepper. That’s pretty much it. Yet I still can’t get it. My Johnson and Wales trained chef of a brother can’t get it. Nobody can.
The red sauce was the glue that bound my childhood food experience and the gold standard to which all other sauces and dishes were compared.
Artichokes: The Aristocratic Vegetable
I learned at a very young age that our food was somehow superior. I kept it hidden. Nobody likes a snob. Although it did pop out every once in a while, like when I introduced my childhood friends to artichokes and they didn’t get it.
friend: “So, i eat the leaf?”
me: “no, you scrape about half of the leaf into your mouth and you throw the rest into another bowl”
friend: “Seems like alot of work. Ok so then what do I do with these middle leaves?”
me: “You throw them out, along with the really hot, hairy fungus part that you pick off to get to the heart. Then you soak the heart in the butter and eat it. Then you see the face of God.”
me: “try dipping the leaves into vinegar or melted butter”
me : looking at their faces, waiting for the moment they see the light.
This lead to a few fisticuffs. I took it very seriously.
Growing Up A Savage In The Woods Of Massachusetts
My mother had to raise three savages in the woods of Massachusetts by herself. A single mother with no high school diploma keeping her kids in Levis and Nikes, working two jobs with no assistance from a man more concerned with motorcycle life and yet she still made really really REALLY good food.
I lived in a constantly busy house full of my teenage brothers and their friends smoking pot and drinking beer in bedrooms and basements. My friends and I would crowd around the living room tv playing Atari and fighting over who got next. My mother cleaning up behind us all or getting ready for one of her two jobs. We also had a drum set that the three of us shared and taught ourselves how to play at different hours of the day to the accompaniment of Kiss or Aerosmith albums.
Food would be served behind the drum set and the empty plates and cups placed on the shelf behind the drum throne would pile up until one of us brought them upstairs (usually me, more usually my poor mother who had no ear plugs that i knew of). Bologna and Cheese on white bread, Howard Johnsons Mac n Cheese in a tin foil case or pasta were the foods of choice.
During this time I would randomly paint my face like Peter Criss or one of the Baseball Furies from the Warriors movie and run down the street threatening squirrels and local dogs because they were the guys who killed Cyrus.
Granted, the Furies got their asses kicked in the movie, and they wore Yankees pinstripes which as a Red Sox fan I hated, but I was eight and they looked cool and menacing but I digress.
Side note: One of the most memorable lines from the movie (and there were several), was uttered by Ajax and adopted and shouted for years between my friends during baseball season any time one of them came up to bat: “Im gonna shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.”
Another side note: Being an impressionable eight year old and watching movies with no supervision like The Warriors, All That Jazz, and soft core porn on pre-cable packages like Star Case, affected my world view in such a way that it took years to shed the belief that this was Normal.
My brothers were the resident baby sitters for me since Kenny, the oldest was around 15, Chris was 13 and I was around eight or nine years old. The rules were simple with my brothers: Shut the fuck up if Ma asks about anything. You were asleep. Right?
The following is how it usually went down:
The scene: Friday night, around 8pm. Me in my pajamas. Brothers in Timberland work boots and jeans, obligatory Rock Concert shirt (3/4 white sleeves, the rest black, Name Of Band on the front, concert dates on the back), long hair. They are sitting on the couch with their friends listening to 70’s rock or watching Monty Python on PBS, deseeding horrible brown weed using a double album (preferably Kiss Alive or Alive 2) to catch the seeds and a rolling paper package to sift.
Kenny: “Hey Core, When Ma gets home and she asks if we had anyone over, was anyone here tonight?”, he would inquire through his marijuana haze, friends staring at me with hope that I would not ruin their weekend party scene in the boring town I grew up in.
I felt suddenly very powerful. Even in my eight year old mind I saw opportunity. I controlled their future.
My brother waited for my answer, proudly smiling at me in front of his friends at how he was training me to be his patsy, and knowing the answer I would give, with the lingering threat of a beating if incorrect. Dance monkey, dance.
Of course during all of this I was surrounded by drunk teenagers: some passed out in my bathroom, some smoking pot in my bedroom, the prom queen passed out in my bed after sharing her life story with me. This was the Norm in my family of savages.
me: “Nope. nobody here that i can see.”
Brothers friends give nods of approval, “you’re a cool little kid.”
Me: basking in the glow of approval.
Brothers: “Now shut the fuck up and go to your room.”
Me; Sulks. Goes to room, cranks AC/DC Back in Black album. Jumps on bed until tired.
So, what does this have to do with food? Well, Because in my younger years when we lived like savages in a house in the middle of the woods, infested with fleas and carpenter ants, food was currency. I was easily bribed by hot dogs grilled to perfection by Chris on our backyard grill at around six pm, or carbonara pasta, or mac n cheese, with the knowledge that their friends will be showing up around eight, keg around 8:30.
I was a cheap patsy, I was Fredo for hot dogs, and I learned after a few beatings to keep my mouth shut. I found out later on in life that my mother knew about the parties anyways but what could she do? It was Lord of the Flies in my house and I think she was afraid to Take the Conche with fear of ending up like poor Piggie. Savages. Every one of us.
Breakfast was either “fishies” (two soft boiled eggs cracked open at the top and two pieces of toast cut into strips to dip into the egg), cinnamon toast with loads of butter and sugar, apple n cinnamon oatmeal, or any amount of cereals (whichever had the Star Wars toy in it that week). It was usually quick, if anything. Mom was usually on the landline phone, with the coiled cable stretched all over the kitchen as she talked with her sister or neighbors about the gossip of the day. I sat in front of the TV with either an Atari or ColecoVision joystick in my hand, trying to dominate Yars Revenge, Adventure, Smurf or Zaxxon. Taking bites of my food between dead players. My mom said I was so addicted my hands would move like i was playing games in my sleep.
When I got older I was indoctrinated into the coffee world with the most horrible instant coffee known to man: Tasters Choice.
At fifteen this “coffee” was what I thought coffee was supposed to be. This highly sophisticated freeze dried wonder would be sitting in my cup with some sugar waiting for the water to boil by my ever-attentive mother.
My parents drank it so I thought to be an adult you needed to drink coffee. Preferably out of tiny styrofoam cups in smoke filled break rooms (this was the 1970s after all, smoking was still allowed everywhere). Coffee was not sitting in a Parisian cafe sipping latte and discussing philosophy. Coffee was GoGo juice that allowed a Bostonian to get through his day.
The earliest memories of coffee was going to work with my MBTA bus driving father in Mattapan or Dorchester and waiting for him to get his brown liquid before his first drive: a quick non-stop through his line. Five AM: The smell of the engine oil of the subway cars in the rail yard, the diesel of the busses and his Carlton cigarettes mingled with the cold Boston air is still reminiscent to me half way through my life.
Later, as any self respecting New Englander would discover, I became a member of the Cult of Dunkin Donuts. I would drink an extra large Double Double Dunkys (two cream, two sugars) on the daily.
This was all I knew of coffee. Coffee was a tool, not a delicacy. It wasn’t to be enjoyed and sipped like an aristocrat. No no, it was to be chugged like Gatorade on the way to work sitting on Route 95 in bumper to bumper traffic after sitting in a drive up window line for a half hour and usually accompanied by a cream cheese slathered cinnamon raisin bagel or blueberry muffin. If your teeth weren’t singing from the sting of bad acidic coffee and you weren’t wearing it somewhere on your clothes then you didn’t get a good cup of joe.
It wasn’t until a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark with a layover in Germany did I embark on the coffee journey I am still on today. A bored German man in the airport made me a small cup of coffee out of a french press. Little did he know the effect he would have on a simple small town blue collar boy from Massachusetts. I wondered at the simplicity of the device. I have never seen anything like it. Beautiful in it’s elegance, I studied how he stirred then pressed the handle down and produced the finest cup of coffee my 28 year old taste buds have ever experienced. I was forever a changed man.
After Denmark we went to Italy and experienced the beauty of Lake Como, the art of Florence, the gondolas of Venice, the glass of Moreno. The food. The fucking food. In retrospect I could not appreciate it. I didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t. I followed the tourists, got food poisoning in Florence, suckered into buying glass champagne flutes in Moreno, and ate bland pizza that I thought was inferior to Boston or NYC pies.
Yet, the food I experienced in Italy was amazing. The culture of Copenhagen and the kindness of the Danes, the beautiful gondolas of Venice, the glass blowing of Moreno. Yes, yes, all that was amazing…But, that stupid fucking cup of coffee I had in Germany is what I took home with me. It caused me to chase this dragon that I am still chasing today after purchasing one of these:
Finding the right bean, the right roast, the right grind size, the proper amount of ground and then the right amount of pressure is a ritual I now do daily and it all started with that tired man in a busy German airport.
Yes, we still ate American Food growing up. My brother Chris was an aspiring chef (and became a chef) and worked at a hot dog place and took home the foot long dogs that I would be bribed with to avoid Telling Mom. We would grill them up with buns slathered in butter and grilled onions. This became a daily thing for me as I got older and it wasn’t until I got into fitness and bodybuilding that I realized the damage I was doing to my colon and belly fat with this daily indulgence.
I grew up just like every American kid in school: A brown bagged lunch with my name and a smiley face on it. Bologna and cheese on white bread, ho-hos or ding dongs or cupcakes for dessert, a banana or an apple. Fridays was pizza day and I loved the tater tots. Who didn’t?
Yet, at the end of the day after shit school food, or food from my Star Wars lunch box that gave off a vociferous odor after a month or so, we had the best dinner just before my mother was whisking off to work a shift as a bartender till 2am.
This was life growing up.
Written by Corey Smaller Follow me on Instagram