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Stories are Recipes, Recipes are Stories

Two weekends ago, my mom was here with us in Brooklyn to hang out and celebrate her birthday. On Saturday, we took her back to one of our favorite restaurants to enjoy an amazing meal, stellar service from friends of ours and a leisurely night of conversation. This particular spring menu was ridiculous. Every single course was phenomenal. I’m now on a mission to play around with beef carpaccio, scallop crudo and lobster salad. I may also never make spaghetti and clams again, because Chef Anthony’s version was that good. Naturally, we then cabbed it further downtown, meeting up with our friends on Mulberry Street to make fools of ourselves, as we do on any given Saturday night.

On Sunday, we got together with a few of Frank’s relatives. Although he and I have both ended up with small families due to varying circumstances, the end result is the same: we each have a couple of people in our lives who have not only known us for a long time, but know the family histories (truths? psychoses?) as well. This is an incredible gift, because for me, unless we’re seeing his uncle and cousins, I only get to hear stories from Frank. And since Frank only had a few short years with my dad, the natural storyteller of the Zecca family, he usually has to listen to my rambling. Tales of yesteryear from others, however, can open up a new door into each other's lives.

For whatever reason, this past Sunday happened to be one of those instances. The air was sunny and warm with a nice cool breeze. We sat down to a light meal in the late afternoon, and as the conversation progressed from one topic to another, it eventually landed back on life in Brooklyn when Frank’s uncle – another Frank - was still sporting a mustache, and cousin Allison was just a wee bit of a girl. (A crash course in lineage now: the Coluccio parents emigrated from Italy and set up home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, raising Frank, Allison’s father Nicky, and my Frank’s dad, Larry.)

I’m not sure how the conversation about food began, but I think it quickly followed the story Allison recanted about her grandfather and his boat of a Cadillac hitting a boy on a bike in the neighborhood, only to blame the boy and not his own glass eye, all with a thick Italian accent. “You tell me-a, where-a this boy come from!” (Don’t worry, the Cadillac was fine.)

Soon enough, Frank’s uncle Frank (got that?) and Allison had me salivating over a method of making chicken cutlets that involved the added bonus of using up not only the chicken scraps, but the egg and breadcrumb stations as well. Roll the fatty little chicken ends into whatever is leftover from dredging, shape into a nice ball, fry. You got it!

Then Frank’s partner, John, chimed in. This lovely Englishman made his way to New York via Memphis, of all places. Growing up with hearty staples in the UK, he then spent some years in our South, which I can only assume included much of that heavy good cookin’ we all love to devour when below the Mason-Dixon line. Yet, it was charming to listen to John animate just how much food one would be expected to endure at a Coluccio family dinner in Bensonhurst. “There’s more?”

My mom told the story about her first Thanksgiving with my dad’s family, where she was pregnant with my brother and hosting a slew of the DiFabio side, also immigrants from Italy. After making the “voyage” from where they had settled in South Philly up to our house (also in Philly, real driving time about 25 minutes), each bite was carefully examined by my dad’s grandmother, and then followed by the same question to him, in that same thick accent. “You make-a these meatballs, Nicky?” “No, Peggy did.” “Tell me something, Nicky. You make-a this lasagne?” “No, Peggy did.” After that First Thanksgiving, there was a general consensus that maybe this Irish in-law could cook after all.

I told the story about the first night Frank spent in Brooklyn at my place, where I was taking dinner to a friend’s apartment. I timidly mentioned that I’d be happy to leave him a plate, but it was something weird he’d probably ever heard of, although my girlfriend had it before at my parents’ house. I began to explain, only to watch his eyes grow wide in shock and cut me off with, “I’ve never met anyone else who had heard of spaghetti and zucchini before...” It would be much later when he’d tell me that as he watched in amazement while I cranked out pasta from scratch that night, it was then he decided that he was going to try his damn hardest to marry me.

Allison piped up about her grandmother’s pasta with string beans, and of course it was common knowledge that we’ve all had peas with bacon, another southern Italian standard. We heard Coluccio tales from dinners at Gargiulo's with the giant octopus on the ceiling, plus other comical Zecca stories that my Frank had missed out on as well. My mom and I talked about funny things my dad would say, exasperated that he wasn’t as WOP-ish as others might think, only to imply the direct opposite: “EVERYONE in America starts dinner with olive oil and garlic! Every night! What the hell else would you use?!”

A couple of travel stories were told, mostly revolving around food, and how to reinvent meals at home. Between the six of us at the table, there have been many flights taken to many distant destinations, and many meals remembered from those trips. As much as I loved Greece, and the amazing food that I continue to put my own spin on at home, I am almost positive that once I eventually land on Italian soil, I will never return to Brooklyn!

Later on, the homemade lemon bars I had made from the pages of Bon Appétit were rationed off, and the larger-than-life cheesecake uncle Frank and John brought from Rimini’s was sliced up. We traded more stories about other family members, silly habits and who learned which recipes from older generations, be it parents, in-laws or friends. It occurred to me that the majority of these recipes are just like any other family legend – rarely written down, and not always exactly the same. Rather, they are passed on by spending quality time together in the kitchen, repeating those dishes over and over again, and most importantly, sharing those moments as a family.

Our meal together was one of those great family moments. Did it consist of the traditional old-school pasta and meatballs, with Sunday red sauce? It didn’t. Nor did the six of us span from the same boat, the same city, or even the same country. None of these things matter, though. Like anything else in life, family changes. It evolves. It takes the circumstances you are given and twists it into new ones. Family remains not just the nuclear set you are given, but it morphs into a stronger set of people that come into your life who actually want to be there. Sometimes they’re related, sometimes they’re not. As Frank and I near our fifth wedding anniversary, we’ve really come to cherish the people we can count on as family. Behind the scenes, (ie without the fanfare of Facebook, that passive-aggressive complaint board) the two of us have been fighting tooth and nail to make peace of the life we’ve been handed. People - even blood relatives - can be ruthless, mean and willfully hurtful. We’ll continue to aim for happiness and to “see the words,” as it’s written on my husband’s arm.

On a lighter note, something I find so wonderful about the people we engage with is, where there’s a story, there’s a recipe. Last weekend happened to centralize around two great meals – one completely high end, extra fancy yet extra genuine, and one that was completely casual, extra warm and just as genuine as the other. We spent time with both friends that count as family, and family that counts as family. And if you’re lucky enough to have both of those options to choose from, combine and blend together, well, then you’ve got a killer set of stories and recipes.

*Black and white photos retrieved from & The Historical Society of Philadelphia.

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