Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Red Sauce

Note: This essay was written for a workshop I took at Chautauqua with writer Ann Hood and read before a live audience at the Friday Brown Bag Lunch presentation that Ann gave on August 20. It's not my usual light and whimsical writing, but the point of art is that it pushes you to expose parts of yourself you don't normally want to expose--especially in front of strangers. My hope is that by pushing I become a better writer. --Elaine

For an Italian, my father exhibited uncharacteristic restraint except for two occasions: any time he was watching football and when he cooked. Then, my father’s full emotional range would burst open like roasted garlic smashed under a knife to extract its pungent pulp. Nothing unleashed his vocal chords more than a referee making a bad call against our local team, the Buffalo Bills, and nothing expressed love like a perfectly developed pot of red sauce, slowly simmered all afternoon until it reached a consistency where you could nearly stand a spoon upright. The way other fathers opened their arms to relieve the shame incurred by playground bullies or the rejection of dismissive boyfriends, my father encircled the people he cared for with lasagna and meatballs. Where words failed him, food never did.

For most of my life, my father’s cooking served as our means of communication: when he cooked, he loved. When I ate, I loved him back. Our symbolic system of tortellini for heartbreak and eggplant parmesan for encouragement meant that we could avoid the messier use of language or, messier still, physical demonstrations of feelings. For me, it had become a habit; for my father, I think it was simply familiar.

My father inherited his vocabulary of food from a family that included nine brothers and sisters and 41 cousins. They shared not only blood, but soil, having their roots is the same impoverished Italian village carved out of the rocky Calabrian hillside, and the common language of food—as sustenance, tradition, family glue.

Home was a crowded three bedroom rowhouse nestled beneath a coal hill in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. My grandmother reigned over three stoves--one electric, one gas, one coal burning--and a garden that would make Mario Batali weep with joy, where she grew peppers, oregano, tomatoes, and zucchini. A chicken coop sat in the middle of the garden, and it was on the concrete patio, shaded by a leafy grape arbor, that I learned my grandmother’s skill at slaughtering her own poultry.

Whenever my father talked about his childhood, he said times were hard, but they always ate well. On Sundays, tables were laid end to end on the patio to accommodate caldrons of thick Italian wedding soup dotted with tiny meatballs and bread dumplings; platters overflowing with pasta and roasted chicken or spicy sausage; and the whole Verano clan sitting shoulder to shoulder, arguing over who made the best homemade wine.

My father revered the meaningfulness of sharing food so much that after he retired, he assumed the role of coordinator of family reunions where the central—and primal—purpose was to eat from early in the morning until sunset.

At the end of May, my father suddenly and unexpectedly passed away, seemingly drifting off as he took an afternoon nap in his loungechair. My youngest brother and I stood vigil outside his house waiting for the undertaker to arrive. Sitting on the front porch steps, I caught the delicate, familiar scent of red sauce laced with fresh basil, garlic and romano cheese. I said to my brother, “I smell dad’s sauce.” My brother believed it was the neighbor who, in an act of sympathy and shared grief, put a pot of sauce on the stove that my father most likely had given to her. I realized as I breathed in the rich fragrance, so filled with memories and unformed words, that the language my father had spoken all along was as direct and comforting as a longed for embrace. Maybe, in my father’s vocabulary, you could even say goodbye.        


Laurie Blair said...

My father bakes. Pound cakes with real butter, Jewish cinnamon coffee cakes, apple pie. He is a non-huggy/kissy first generation Scottish American (and in doing genealogical research we found out, interestingly enough, that one of his grandfathers was a baker in Scotland). Almost always I walk into my parents' house and smell the sugary, yeasty sweet smell of some savory concoction cooling on a rack. Hard to lose weight in that house, though he's a fidgety devil and manages to stay very slim. He is 88 years old. Thank you for this beautifully evoked essay. I can see the relatives gathered at the table, and smell the sauce simmering on the stove. You may have made my night.

Elaine Harrigan said...

Laurie--Thanks you so much for the comment. I actually wrote--and read this live!--during a writer's workshop at the Chautauqua Institution this summer. I couldn't even finish reading it in class--simply got too choked up. Then when our instructor (author Ann Hood) asked me to read it before her presentation at the end of the week, I didn't know how I'd get through it. I did it by scribbling funny pictures at the bottom of the page, so when I got to the end, I could look them, and distract myself. It worked! (Except that my mother was sitting in the audience--I made her sit far enough back so I couldn't see her.) We all believed my father would make it well into his 80s, but he was only 78 when he passed away. The memories of his food keep him very much a part of our lives, and I'm sure it will be true of your father, as well.