March 31, 2012

Blog the Eleventh: Easter Lamb

“Christ our pasch has been sacrificed.
Therefore let us keep the feast …”

The featured meat of Easter dinner is lamb. This is the case not only for most Italians, but for most Mediterranean Christians. The reason for it traces back millennia to Jewish Passover rites that ceased with the destruction of the Temple, but live on both in Christian sacramental rites and Christian culinary traditions.

In the New Testament, Jesus is identified with the pasch, the sacrificial lamb that Mosaic law commands be offered up each year in commemoration of the one sacrificed on the eve of God’s liberating the Hebrews from their Egyptian slave-masters.  Because the Hebrews had marked the thresholds of their houses with the blood of the paschal lamb, their firstborn sons were spared, the angel of death passing over them when striking down the firstborn sons of Egypt.  The New Testament takes the extraordinary step of using this Passover redemption to interpret the political execution of Jesus as a paschal sacrifice:  Jesus is the true Lamb of God, and his crucifixion the perfect self-sacrifice that once and for all liberates all humankind from their enslavement to sin.

The rites commemorating the Hebrews' redemption from Egyptian slavery are seen by Christian faith as symbolic types of the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus and so the Christian sacraments that celebrate this paschal sacrifice are embellished with many ritual symbols appropriated from sacrificial prescriptions in the Law of Moses.  It is in the spirit of such embellishing symbolism that Christian cooks took inspiration for Easter dinner from the Mosaic command to sacrifice to the Lord, in memory of his redeeming the Hebrews from Egyption slavery, the firstborn male of every animal.

These sacrifices were pretty joyous events, since eating of roasted firstlings before the Lord amounts to a sacred barbeque: God was commanding them to party before him.  Romans are famous for their abbachio, or suckling lamb (i.e., unweaned), but in my mother’s hometown it is always a kid-goat, a capretto.  When my mother and aunt came to visit me while I was living in Rome, we took a trip back to their hometown, where one remaining sister continues to live.  As the crow flies, it’s probably only an hour east of Salerno, but the mountain roads are so winding, it takes two hours to drive there.  The town itself is so hilly that its ancient streets are steps; there’s only one paved road down the middle, to accommodate the incursion of the automobile.  The town today is only a shell of its former self, as many a house, once overflowing with children even in the midst of postwar poverty, now lies empty most of the year, except during the great festival of the Madonna in August, when modern-day heirs of these ancient stone houses return to them for a summer holiday.

March 24, 2012

Blog the Tenth: Sunday Gravy

Tomato Sauce Gravied by A Medley of Meats

A Sunday morning in Brooklyn had a smell all its own.  The hefty aroma of fatty meats sizzling in oil hung sweet in the air, and floating above it, the yet raw vapors of simmering tomato puree.  Your mother had to get it started early, maybe even before you made it out of bed, in order to have dinner more or less cooked before going off to Mass, so that we could sit down to eat soon after coming back, in the early afternoon.  A Sunday afternoon was blessedly long, lazy, and boring, and Sunday dinner lingered on leisurely into late afternoon, when your aunt and cousins might show up with pastries, or maybe just an Entenmanns coffee cake, and the evening would fill with chatter and laughter, perhaps a squabble among the kids, no doubt avuncular disputes, and then, when you least expected it, a private joy would come to light, or a suppressed sorrow unchoked, because there was time and room and hearts for it to do so.

March 18, 2012

Blog the Ninth: Artichokes ‘n Potatoes

Stuffed with Love or Braised with Ease:  You Choose.

Today I will present you with dueling recipes, as in that cookbook that Jacques Pepin and Julia Child did together with contrasting recipes on facing pages of the book, except that it will be me facing off with my mother.  Let me concede from the start that her artichokes are more delicious than mine.  So what’s the contest?  Well, hers require the indefatigable patience of maternal self-oblation, while mine are easy enough for you to do even on a worknight.  If you’re not a self-oblating Italian mother, gourmet mania might perhaps substitute for maternal kenosis to carry you through my mother’s recipe, but I doubt it (however tendentiously).

My mother lovingly stuffs each leaf of each artichoke, one by one, with a delicious little breading, so that each time you pull off one of the leaves of your artichoke and scrape it with your front teeth, you get a little savory breading together with your little bit of artichoke flesh—yes, every single leaf.  These stuffed artichokes are such a favorite in my family, especially with kids, that it is beyond numbering how many my mother has made over the years.  She’ll complacently make as many as a dozen at a time, so they’ll be extra for the kids to take home.  (This amazes me in a woman who tells me that stripping broccoli di rape stalks one by one is playing house!)  In any case, I personally don’t know of any modern kids deserving of such a labor of love, and I maintain that it rises to the level of the spiritual virtue of charity if done for unworthy ones, so this can count for your Lenten mitvah of the day.

March 10, 2012

Blog the Eighth: Asparagus 'n Eggs

A Match Made in Heaven for Meatless Fridays

Asparagus is perfect for Lent, coming in season just in time as it does, and loving eggs as much as it does.  Asparagus and eggs are a match made in heaven, so I say, Let no man divide what God has joined in a union as loving as it is holy.  Of course, leave it to the French.  The sophists flatter aversion to vegetables by pulverizing the poor thing and giving it over to be swallowed up by a bowl of cream surfeited with a dollop of butter, with only floating fragments surviving, as bits of limb did in the Cyclops’s bowl of milk after he washed down the companions of Odysseus whom he had chewed up.  The French are ready to do this to any vegetable you don’t like, and it always satisfies, because it’s the same taste satisfaction over and over again, namely hot buttered cream.  If not for the nutritive value of the vegetable doomed for the day, they might just as well hand out bowls of heated cream, a spoon, and the salt and pepper shakers.

My people so venerate asparagus that I won’t even call what they make of it a soup.  Soup implies a liquified mélange.  We, rather, cook the asparagus in a minimum of water so that it makes its own broth for itself, and then we drop eggs beaten with a little grated cheese into its broth, to add buttressing substance and complementary savoriness.  This soup is for the sake of the asparagus, not the asparagus for the soup, so in Italian one would call it in brodo, its own broth, in fact.

March 3, 2012

Blog the Seventh: Lentils or Pintos ‘n Pasta

Vegan Fare for Fridays in Lent

I was not reared to do penance.  I really cannot be faulted for it.  On one hand, my religious education took place in the milieu of liberalizing enthusiasm that followed upon the Second Vatican Council, and what I most remember of my 8 years of C.C.D. classes (Catholic Sunday school for public school kids) was the drumming into me, between stanzas of Kumbaya, of one principal doctrine, namely, that God loves me so unconditionally that he forgives any sin I commit.  Well, even taking cognizance of the pre-condition that I repent and mean it, that done, what was all the to-do about doing penance after absolution, given he was so set on being so unconditional about it, wondered I, ingenuous child that I was, untutored in the distinction between the will’s need of conversion and nature’s need of reparation.

On the other hand, it’s hard to repair habits of excess by means of abstinence when you like penitential food.  I can’t help it if I like my people’s Lenten dishes.  I get concupiscent yearnings for them even outside Lent.  We actually ate these meatless dishes on all Fridays of the year when I was growing up, and usually Wednesdays too, no doubt harkening back to a time when these were days of abstinence all year long, and not just in Lent.  It’s a testimony to the insuppressibility of my people’s culinary genius that their penitential dishes become a species of gustatory pleasure that waxes even as religious practice wanes. 

But when you’re a little Italian kid, this stuff seems like hell.  My sister once broke out into a tantrum when the smell of cooking lentils greeted us in the hallway of our house as we came home from school.  And I remember more than one evening when she held a protest at the dinner table, which standoffs with my father provided diversionary cover for my mother to spoon much of mine into her dish.  But almost all Italian kids eventually undergo the conversion.  Even my younger brother, who for the duration of his youth was unwilling to eat but six things, and got away with it because he was such a skinny-belink that my poor Italian mother was grateful to be permitted to feed him whatever it was he was willing to eat (I often say that I was the favorite when I was growing up only because I had no competition), even this begrudging eater by his 20’s began not only to eat pasta ‘n lentils but even to find comfort in it.  And so to this day.