When my husband and I were engaged, I remember him saying to me that the first time he sat down to supper with the family, he thought we were all going to kill one another. He’s Irish, where supper is eaten in relative silence, or at the very least in a low-key manner. No doubt eating with a bunch of Italians felt like feeding time in the monkey exhibit.
Growing up, the family would wait for suppertime to discuss and debate topics. Nothing was off the table. Which meant while cutlery scraped against plates, and wine glasses were drained and refilled everything from current events to my brother’s constipation issues were examined in minute detail while we passed around the sausage and rigatoni.
I can still remember my dad at one end of the table and my uncle at the other having the same conversation, but with different outcomes depending on which kids they were speaking with. My sister, cousin Chrissy and I were getting life lessons on career choices from my uncle, (Chrissy’s dad). Evidently, Stripping and the Monastic life were out. In my uncle’s mind they posed the same evils. Now, listening to the convo on the other end was enlightening too. Dad was speaking with the male cousins as well as my brother. Apparently, if you lie down with dogs, you'll get up with fleas. I have to say, at the time, that little gem escaped me. However, some arguments stay with you through a lifetime, especially if they’re replayed every few months or so.
“Go upstairs and get the Heinz.”
Although the request was directed at me, dad’s attention remained riveted on his mother. Unblinking, he glared, a steely-eyed look... waiting. All eyes turned to Eva, who looked keyed up and ready to pounce.
Yup, the war was on.
“What in the hell is wrong with the catsup I already have on the table?” She challenged.
Dad sighed. We all felt it. He could have stripped paint with that sigh. Nevertheless, rising to the bait he planted a hand on the table, bent forward and enunciated to the point of being insulting and said, “No… one… likes… Hunts.”
Then he turned to me, pointed at the ceiling and whistled. “Upstairs, Heinz.”
I jumped up and took off. Even though the dining table in Gram’s apartment was a short hallway, twelve steps up the stairs and ten feet from our refrigerator, I ran like Bigfoot was after me, whipped open the fridge door, grabbed the Heinz and clutched it to my chest. I bolted back down the stairs almost tripping and landing in a broken heap. Truly, it wouldn’t have hindered me in the least. No broken ankle or sprained neck would keep me from witnessing this cage match. The pasty war was an old one and manifested every time we sat down to a pasty supper. I’m not embarrassed to say I enjoyed the argument since I’m basically blood thirsty. However, in my defense, I come by it honestly. Eva picked a fight daily and it didn’t matter who with, or why. The old gal was never happier when in the thick of an argument she started. I figured it was the old Italian lady equivalent of cardio since it seemed to get her blood pumping.
Now, for those of you clueless to this iconic, culinary delight known as Pasty (pronounced, Pass-tee) check out this link: absolutemichigan.com/michigan/real-michigan-food-the-pasty/
As I set the Heinz on the table Grams grabbed the Hunts and shoved it at Mumsie motioning her to pass it around. That bottle circled the table like we were passing off a hot potato without anyone cracking the seal. Aggravated, Grams threw her hands in the air. “Cristo, (Christ) Hunts tastes the same as Heinz!”
Tension hung over the table like a shroud.
With slow, deliberate movement dad twisted off the Heinz cap and without looking down at his plate or breaking his mother's stare, managed to douse his pasty with the perfect amount of catsup. Now, despite anticipating the same argument every time Eva trotted out the pasties, my sister loathed the confrontation and at that point tried to blend in with the wall behind her in the hopes of going unnoticed. On the other hand, my brother dug into his salad continually biting the tines of his fork, which produced an annoying clicking noise. (Honestly, how hard is it to avoid biting the silverware?) It would stop soon enough, as a blast from dad would be forthcoming for the offense.
“I cook all day and now you’re going to sit there and make my ass tired. Dio! (God) Hunts tastes the same as Heinz." By this time, she’s pointing to her temple with her gnarled forefinger rotating her wrist. I waited for the insult. It wasn’t long in coming. “You’re pazzo (crazy) you know that? Wrong in the head.”
With a scowl that could raise a welt, dad shoved the Heinz at my sister, thumped an elbow on the table, leaned forward and addressed Grams as one would a dim-witted child.
“Listen to me, Eva,” (he rarely referred to her as ma). “Heinz is thicker, tangier and sticks to the G*d d**n pasty. Now just... DROP IT.”
“Well, someone's going to eat it,” she announced moments before dousing my pasty with Hunts. I glared at my plate pissed off. I’m a ‘dunker’ not a ‘douser’. And despite loathing the acidic taste of Hunts, I ate the damn thing anyway.
To this day, I have no idea why Grams made such a stink over the brand of catsup we liked. Especially since she never ate catsup with her pasty.
Until I made friends beyond my Italian neighborhood, I had no idea Crème de Cocoa liqueur wasn’t actually a topping for ice cream—Gnocchi never made it on the menu at the first Thanksgiving dinner—or that the end of a loaf of bread is only known as the 'Culo' in an Italian household. Intrigued? Then kick back with a glass of vino and take a glimpse into my life growing up Nort’ side.