Mangia!

The man who is, was, most responsible for my love of cooking and eating, and more significantly, who made me my first cup of coffee of my life, has died.  Admittedly I had not seen him in more than two years, it could be closer to four, but the impact he had on the young me, significantly shaped the woman and the “foodie” I grew up to be.

I started working for his wife when I was 17 and a senior in high school.  He was retired from a job in design and engineering and had recently gone to culinary school for the sheer delight of food.  He could not believe it when I told him about my parents and my sister; how they just had no interest in trying anything new or different or prepared in a way that they had not had before, that my father ate the same packed lunch every single day, that my sister would not eat anything green, that my mother had not ever tried broccoli…these things were anathema to him…an Italian who loved food…and I think it intrigued him, how me, the member of this bland and boring eating family, so dearly loved to try new things.  I clearly remember telling him about my Mimom; how I liked to help her to prepare food and how she loved to entertain, and that I enjoyed food in a way my immediate family did not.  I think he liked that I was young enough to be molded.

He and my boss lived above the shop they owned where I worked, and on nights when I was on the schedule, the aroma that often wafted through the joists would make anybody in the shop salivate…the week in the summer of 1985 that I had to announce to them my upsetting news, that I had gotten myself pregnant and through tears admitted that I had also been too late with setting up an appointment at the clinic to get myself un-pregnant, he barely blinked before he said, “well that’s it for Suzi-Q’s and Tab for dinner” (which honestly I did often bring to work FOR dinner) and proceeded that night to bring me a plate of dinner before he and his wife sat down to their meal. That summer I ate very well. Almost every night of the week and he introduced me to things I had never seen nor heard of.  He made me eat capers at least a dozen times, in a variety of dishes, before he accepted that I in fact hated capers.  He made this pasta sauce called sun sauce, literally out on the deck, that tasted like nothing I had ever enjoyed in my life.  He made another pasta sauce with itty-bitty chopped carrots and served with a hard-boiled egg that was so odd to me but oh so wonderfully delicious, and his bolognese sauce was honestly something that I could eat two bowls of and still say, “sure, I’ll have more.”  He taught me how to make gnocchi from scratch, which I tried to do many times and for me they always sunk like bricks in the pot but when he made them they were luscious and light.  I could go on and on for paragraphs…I tasted spanakopita, caponata, piccata…night after night and week after week, he fed me.  He loved food and loved to cook and I think, looking back, that he loved that he could introduce me to so much that I had not before experienced.  I often think it was because of him, and only him, that I gave birth that winter to the biggest baby in the nursery.

8 weeks later I went back to work and one afternoon when I felt really drained and really tired, and frankly overwhelmed with the life I now had,  he asked me if I wanted afternoon coffee.  I had never had afternoon coffee with my boss.  She loved afternoon coffee and in fact, in all of my 18 and a half years on the planet, had not ever had coffee ever.  I said “yes” or maybe I said “sure” and frankly, none of that matters because he brought downstairs from their apartment at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon two mugs (high fired, artisan hand crafted stoneware mugs to be exact) and I took my first sip, of what was to become my be-all-end-all-beverage-of-choice, of coffee.  It was wonderful that he introduced coffee to me, because the following year when my baby was one I started college at night after work, and anybody who knows me knows that coffee became a much needed part of my life.

I worked for them for more than 21 years; full-time at that shop for 14 years and then part-time for another 8. My boss and her husband let me sort out my work schedule with college so that some semesters I worked four days a week and went to school three, some semesters I left work at 4 so I could make it to school for night classes, they did not mind that during slow days in the winter, after all my work was done, that I did homework at the counter.  They encouraged me to go to college and were two of my biggest cheerleaders for achieving high marks.  They also both knew the value of a good cup of a coffee and a really delicious meal.  I could write about him for paragraphs, but I think instead, in his honor, I am going to go downstairs now and make a shopping list, from one of the cookbooks he wrote, and be a foodie this weekend.

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