The Literate Chef


In General Articles on March 20, 2012 at 1:15 PM

Anndemma, or as correctly pronounced, Aunt Emma, was a real character. Big Mike’s older sister, who in 1910 at the age of 4, crossed the Atlantic with her mother, sister and older brother, stood an inch or two under five feet. However, what she lacked in height she more than made up for in the size of her heart. Emma had a wonderful laugh and smile that filled her face. She and her husband, Uncle Eddie, were building superintendents in New York and supported my grandparents who lived with them. Most of my Sundays as a child were spent visiting them, surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins, enjoying a three hour dinner accompanied by family stories and jokes.

There were a lot of dishes on that Sunday dinner table which most of the adults relished, but which were much too weird or exotic for me; things like snails, scungilli salad, baccalà, capozella and tripe were not for my childish palate. At that age, I was not too enthralled with anything that swam in the ocean, stared me in the eye, or came from the innards of some animal. I was very content with lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken and roasted potatoes.

Shortly after Betty and I were married, she took Emma on a food shopping trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Visiting her favorite butcher, Betty bought the usual cuts of beef, veal, chicken and pork that we liked to eat. Emma, however wasn’t interested in such ordinary fare and instead ordered calves brains, tripe and pig’s feet, much to Betty’s horror. In the fish market next door, it was flounder fillet for Betty and snails and eel for Emma.

When it came to vegetables, one of Aunt Emma’s mainstays was, as she pronounced it in a Sicilian dialect, ‘galdoons’, which she picked from the city parks, and on which I couldn’t help wonder how many dogs had made their mark. Of course she rinsed and dried them before cooking, but I still would have nothing to do with them until I was much older. Actually, by that time, I had discovered that their real name was cardoons, not ‘galdoons‘, and that breaded or floured and then fried, they were delicious. The problem is trying to find them! But one vegetable dish that she always made, and for which the main ingredient is readily available in any supermarket, is sautéed mushrooms.

Yesterday being a beautiful and sunny 68 degrees, I decided to fire up the gas grill and cook some shell steaks for dinner. To accompany them, I made a batch of Aunt Emma’s Sautéed Mushrooms and Betty prepared a delicious mixed green salad with spiced walnuts, dried cranberries and a bleu cheese/champagne vinegar dressing. With that meal we bid adieu to Winter on its last day, and today we welcome Spring!

  1. Until after she died, I thought her name was Demma.

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