After a Thanksgiving Feast

image-10I carry my failure with me. My embarrassment. My shame. It grows.

It sets me apart from men in my life, the hard man with the violin, the thin man with the flask. See them in the photo. They have enough, more than enough. If one day they leave a little, the next they put less on their plate.

My life? Apparently, the sustaining belief is this: never enough. Never enough sweetness. Never enough love. Never enough, so I surround myself with more. More than I’ll ever consume. Not enough hours in life to read as many pages as are packed onto floor-to-ceiling shelves. And if there were, what then? [Read more…]

Rules for Celebrating: An Observation from the Way of Saint James, Part 1

cornMy son graduated from college this past June. It took him seven years, due to a hiatus, a transfer, and several changes of major, and there were times I thought I’d never see the day. So when the moment finally arrived, it was time to celebrate.

Now, I grew up in the sixties in New York in an Italian American family, and for us celebrating always meant one thing: inviting family and friends and cooking a meal for them. These meals invariably came in two varieties—formal dinner or cookout—and the circumstances dictated the choice.

The following obliged a formal dinner: all religious holidays; birthdays and other events that took place after Labor Day and before Memorial Day; functions to which clergy, wealthy people, politicians, lawyers, doctors, dentists, business associates, current clients, potential clients, current Anglo in-laws, or any future in-laws were to be invited.

Cookouts were never required but were permissible for celebrations that did not demand a formal dinner and took place from Memorial through Labor Day.

Whether the verdict was formal dinner or cookout, there were rules and procedures to follow, and the women in my family taught me them when I was young. These rules and procedures were immutable. They could not be broken or bent. Never. Not once. [Read more…]

Fast-Food Funeral Procession

The line lurched forward one vehicle at a time, halogen halos radiating from headlights. Although it was eleven o’clock at night, I could not help but think of the funeral processions I saw as a boy, cars coursing through town in the daytime with lights aglow.

As I sat in the drive-thru lane at Taco Bell that night in 2008, I began to think of that line of cars as a fast-food funeral procession. But who—or what—were all of us in that line mourning?

I had seen Morgan Spurlock’s film, Super Size Me, so I had come to think of all fast food restaurants as merchants of death. In denial, I frequented them anyway. Surely I would not be the one for whom the Taco Bell would toll, I reasoned.

The headlights of the car behind me glared in my rearview mirror, stabbing my retinas. I tilted the mirror, dimming the light, and soon found myself able to make out the backlit, black silhouette of the driver behind me.

That week at work had been blinding, too. I entered data all day, and although my errors always seemed insubstantial to me, my employer maintained spreadsheets listing them all—a practice that applied to my coworkers, too. By the time the spreadsheet made the rounds that week, reaching everyone in my department, I could see nothing but my blunders. [Read more…]

Traditional New Year’s Food

At the end of December I talked to a friend of mine who lives in Seattle. He was going to a New Year’s Eve dinner and was having trouble deciding what to contribute to the meal. “It’s strange,” he said, “that Americans don’t have any traditional New Year’s foods. We have Thanksgiving food, and Christmas, but not New Year’s.”

What I found strange was that he’d grown up without a food tradition on this holiday, because my family always ate black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread on the first of January, and although I knew it had originated in the South, I’d thought the tradition was now widely known, if not widely practiced.

Each year my parents, brother and sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, and I would gather in my grandmother’s kitchen.

“The black-eyed peas are coin money,” Grandma told me, stirring the big, black pot where the beans floated in a bubbling liquid, a smoky chunk of fatback bobbing in the middle like a buoy. [Read more…]

Loaves and Fishes

As a child, I was a finicky eater, pushing around on my plate those items that didn’t appeal—too mushy, too mealy, too pulpy—and concentrating on the eccentricities I favored.

Sauteed mushrooms on toast. Black-olive and cream cheese sandwiches. A casserole my mother made from canned clams, crushed Saltines, and lots and lots of butter.

I ate artichokes and asparagus happily enough, but peas and I had an on-again-off-again love affair, although my mother always fixed them the same way—out of the frozen Bird’s Eye package, boiled and served with butter and garlic.

I dreaded being served stews, pit fruit, and that staple of American childhood, the PBJ. [Read more…]