Meatballs of love

The wooing of a kosher vegetarian.

Published February 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Rick courted me with the seductions to which I was particularly vulnerable: good food, stories and a rich ethnic heritage. When we met in Washington in the early '70s, we discovered that we had both grown up in Chicago in what could be described as ethnic households.

My upbringing was overwhelmingly Jewish, so the kosher kitchen -- with its strict rules against certain foods or food combinations, and its dual sets of plates, silverware and cooking utensils -- dominated my idea of cooking until I left home and replaced this elaborate cooking system with the healthful but often lifeless dishes of the hippie era. Stir-fried vegetables with brown rice was the standard of the day, made in such a way that no genuine culture would claim it.

Then Rick came along and started cooking for me. Dinner. The aroma of garlic and basil filled the cabin where we lived, and steam from the big pots of boiling water and simmering sauce left its fragrant breath on the windows. Rick moved between the pots with a kind of fluency -- salting, tasting, stirring and adding herbs, pausing to sip from a glass of red wine -- a slow dance. He lifted ribbons of glistening fettuccine from the colander and lowered them gracefully onto our mismatched rummage-sale plates. He sprinkled freshly grated Romano cheese over the al dente pasta as if he were sowing seeds, then ladled on the savory garnet-colored sauce, redolent with herbs and wine.

It was a world apart from what was then widely considered Italian food in the United States: overcooked spaghetti covered with a thick porridge of bland raw-red tomato sauce with lumps of ground beef and topped with a yellow crust of Kraft Parmesan. Until I tasted Rick's fettuccine, I didn't know Italian food could be so good.

"You've got to taste the Micucci family meatballs," Rick said one day, invoking the name of his maternal family. He knew that I'd protest -- I was a vegetarian. If I could live for two years without eating chicken soup or the wonderful sticks of salami that my parents sent from the Rumanian Deli in Chicago (Rick ate them with great pleasure), why would I suddenly cave to meatballs? Meatballs placed low on the list of carnivore enticements; my mother had never made them, and I could only recall some unappealing version of "Swedish" meatballs I ate at a smorgasbord when I was a child.

But Rick's passion for the meatballs began to wear down my resistance. "Just try them once," he insisted. "They're really an essential food -- my grandmother makes these every Sunday for the family gatherings."

He knew that this tactic would work eventually: I have always been a sucker for good stories, and Rick's tales of his Italian-American upbringing were as attractive as the food itself.

"When I lived in Chicago, Grandpa and I used to go out and walk along the railroad tracks and fields collecting mushrooms for Grandma to put in the sauce," Rick told me, softening me with vegetable talk. This idyllic rural image startled me; it was so unlike my urban upbringing of the same era, just miles away on Chicago's South Side.

"And dandelion greens," Rick went on. "My grandmother used to cook a lot of dandelion greens, so my job was to go out and get the greens from the dandelions in our yard and in the surrounding fields. The greens are best when the dandelions are young, but if they had turned bitter, she boiled them first and drained off the water before she added them to a dish."

"You should really meet my grandmother. You'd like her," he added. "She lives for food."

Rick's memories of his maternal grandparents were so vivid because his family lived with them in the '50s, when Rick was a child. And since both his parents worked full time, Rick was left in his grandparents' care during the day. His grandmother, Isabelle, was born in Chicago in 1902. Her parents had left "the old country" just before the turn of the century and they lived in a tenement whose occupants had come from the same region in southern Italy. So when Rick's grandfather, Frank Micucci, immigrated from Italy to the United States, he came to that very Chicago tenement and met Isabelle.

Soon after Frank and Isabelle married they moved to a house near Midway Airport in South Chicago, but in many ways they continued to live as if they were still in an Italian village. Rick's grandfather grew grapes and made his own wine with a barrel and press he kept in the basement and brought out each fall. Rick's grandmother tended a bountiful garden, canned her own tomato sauce, fruit and vegetables, made her own pasta and cooked everything from scratch.

Even their work involved food. They owned a deli on Cicero Avenue in Chicago. Rick walked there after school every day and sat on the pickle barrel, content with a delectable chocolate-covered frozen banana, his daily treat. When the deli closed, after dark, they all went home for dinner, but Isabelle's work wasn't over. She stayed up until midnight every night making fresh pasta to sell at the deli the next day.

All of this was intriguing, but still I resisted the meatballs -- until Rick began to wax euphoric about the Sunday dinners. They were incredible, Rick said. "All the relatives came, usually at least 20 people, and Grandma made all the food herself."

He described how she'd pour a mountain of flour on her huge wooden cutting board and indent the top of the mound so it looked like a model of a volcano. Then she'd break a dozen or more eggs into the hollow and mix and knead the dough together. A yard-long dowel served as her rolling pin, and after she'd rolled out the dough, stretching and pushing it with the dowel, she'd cut it into strips or, more often, shape little bits of dough with her thumb into tiny shallow bowls that everyone called "little hats." These were set out to dry on the dining room table, which she'd covered with a sheet. The table filled the whole room --"the biggest oval table you've ever seen -- at least 20 chairs fit around it," Rick said.

After hearing these stories, I imagined a snowy field planted with tiny cream-colored hats. Edible hats. And the next time Rick cooked pasta with sauce and meatballs, I gave in and ate a meatball. It was light and tender, delicately seasoned with basil and garlic, saturated in the flavorful sauce, with just a tinge of heat from the red pepper. My vegetarian days were over.

In Florida, where Rick's grandparents had moved, his grandmother met us at the doorway of her house and greeted us both with warm hugs. This was followed by a harangue. "Ricky, how come you never write to us? What kind of work are you doing now?" When Rick told her we had come to Florida to pick oranges, she wrung her hands. "When are you going to do something with your life? You need to get a good job, have a family!"

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Isabelle took to me right away. I baked bread and was interested in her recipes -- so I must be OK. I should call her Grandma. We talked about the differences in kneading bread dough and pasta dough, and she was only too glad to demonstrate. I watched her intuitively measure the ingredients -- about a teacup of flour and an egg for each person, she said -- and skillfully knead, roll and shape the pasta dough.

In "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking," Marcella Hazan devotes five pages of detailed instructions to the hand rolling of pasta, prefaced by the caution that the hand rolling method "is not a matter of following instructions but rather of learning a craft." Certainly Grandma was an expert craftsperson. She tried to teach me to shape the "little hats" with a twist of my thumb, but my clumsy efforts only emphasized her easy skill. Fortunately, she was generous. "You're good at other things," she said. "You can bake bread."

Still, bit by bit, I was learning from her. I'd follow her around the garden, where she'd actually planted dandelions, and accompany her on trips to the nearby farmer's market to watch her select the freshest greens, broccoli, and other vegetables. On Sunday afternoons, I watched as she and Grandpa went out to the driveway and threw a white sheet over their Dodge Dart, then covered the car with hundreds of the little pasta hats set out to dry. I stood by as she cooked the tomato sauce, formed the meatballs loosely with her hands and fried them in enormous skillets. Some of them she put in the simmering sauce, while others she fried longer.

As the smell of the frying meatballs floated through the house, the children (and some of the adults as well) gathered around Grandma, licking their lips and begging for a sample. She put a few of the meatballs on a plate, cut them into quarters and dispensed them to her fans. They disappeared instantly, and the children (adults, too) pleaded for more. "No more before dinner!" she admonished, as she lowered the pasta into the gigantic pot of boiling water.

Sunday dinner at the Micucci's was very definitely Italian: lots of relatives with a good proportion of children, lots of wine in pitchers on the table and poured into water glasses, lots of food passed around on enormous platters, lots of arguing, loud conversing and scolding of children. First, always, there was pasta, Grandma's pride. Grandpa ate slowly, savoring every mouthful; Grandma yelled at him in Italian to eat faster. He shrugged, tilted his head, and lifted his empty glass until someone poured him more vino. Grandma, exasperated, went back to the kitchen to get the next course.

A meat dish usually followed the pasta course: roast chicken, braciole (a stuffed beef roast) or, on Thanksgiving, a small turkey -- but the pasta and meatballs were central. After the pasta and meat, but before the dessert, there was a big lettuce salad served with a vinegary dressing, and a plate of the crisp-fried meatballs.

Grandma watched everyone, especially the children, with an eagle eye to see how much they ate. She seemed to have a meatball calculator in her head, for she could remember exactly how many meatballs (those served with the sauce and those served alongside the salad course) each person had eaten, and she judged their character accordingly. Had I still been a vegetarian, I'm certain I would have quickly fallen out of favor.

According to Grandma, a child who ate only one meatball not only lacked appetite and appreciation for good food but also was not destined for success. On the other hand, those children who gorged on as many meatballs as they were allowed were sure to go far in life -- they had good taste and knew how to behave. "That Little Frankie is a good boy, he's gonna amount to something," she'd say. "He ate four of my meatballs."

After my marriage broke apart, many years later, I experienced a long period of alienation from pasta. I had reached my saturation point. Pasta was quick and easy and my children loved it -- but so many dinners of it in the waning years of marriage had left me bored, glutted, simply tired of it. I made soups and baked breads, pizzas and quiches; cooked rice and couscous; roasted, baked, boiled and mashed potatoes. Anything but pasta.

And then slowly, imperceptibly, this began to change. One day, a couple of years after Rick and I split up, I realized that I was no longer enjoying my liberation from pasta, but was actually longing for it. I remembered our family Sundays of making pasta with the silvery Atlas pasta machine, draping the long ribbons of fettucine over the rungs of the wooden clothes dryer, the kitchen floor powdery with flour, and Rick stirring a simmering pot of tomato sauce and meatballs.

How could one not feel nostalgia? I restocked my kitchen cupboards with various pasta shapes, including the orecchiette or "little ears" that reminded me of Grandma's little hats. She had died by then, the result of terrible burns she'd suffered when her nightgown caught fire one morning as she reached over to stir the spaghetti sauce she was making for a big holiday dinner. I missed her, perhaps as much as her own grandchildren did -- and I needed her back in my kitchen.

I wasn't the first one to reach for the phone. Rick had called me just weeks before to ask for my recipe for pizza dough, and I had given it. I'd always been the one to make the pizza and the pasta dough, while he made the sauce and the meatballs. But we each had to carry the food traditions on our own now, the way our children would, picking and choosing what to keep and what to let go.

I already knew how to make the spaghetti sauce, and Rick had let me take the little Italian pasta machine, which had been a wedding present from one of my friends -- so now I could make pasta at home too. But the meatballs? I didn't know the recipe, and I hesitated to ask.

Our son, then 18, had become a vegetarian, and excelled at baking bread and cooking vegetarian Italian food. Our daughter, then 11, had only recently realized that the meat she was eating was once a cow -- and she wrestled with the concept, considering and reconsidering becoming a vegetarian, yet always coming back to the same conundrum: "I can't become a vegetarian!" she'd exclaim in frustration. "What about Dad's meatballs?"

Finally, I did ask Rick for the recipe. He put me off for a couple of weeks with mumbled excuses, but one day he tentatively handed me a piece of scratch paper with "Micucci Meatballs" scrawled across the top. Since that day, two years ago, I've made the recipe only a few times, but I've looked at it many more times, each time reflecting on how this scrap of paper, written in Rick's spidery handwriting and given reluctantly yet generously, has become both a part of my recipe collection and a part of me. I had married into a rich and lively food culture and bound it to my own cultural heritage. Even divorce wasn't strong enough -- not nearly strong enough! -- to sever that bond.

By Toby Sonneman

Toby Sonneman is a freelance writer in Bellingham, WA. She is the author of "Fruit Fields in My Blood: Okie Migrants in the West" (University of Idaho, 1992).

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