Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Papa's Day

Someday, I will hit the road as a one-women show with funny stories about being thre first American Alvaro and growing up in my Italian immigrant home. My problem is I have a bad memory as I can't usually remember where I put my keys much less being 9 years old. But today I reflect on little on my dad, Giuseppe.

When I was a pain in the neck teenager I didn't appreciate the uniqueness of my family.

I mean no one else had homemade sausages curing and hanging from the ceiling of their garage? And most kid's dads come home with chocolate Easter bunnies on Easter whereas my dad came home from a farm with a butchered baby lamb in a garbage bag (hey, its a tradition...)

My dad grew up in in a small town in Southern Italy in the 40's and 50's. He was only a toddler when American and German soldiers marched thru his town. He was the oldest of 4 boys when his mother died. Nonno remarried making him the oldest of 5 boys bestowing a lot of responsibility to help support the family on him. He was 29 when he packed up mom and and two little kids onto a boat and moved to this country.

I only found out in recent years that before he came to the US - my quiet, law abiding father, who consistently drives BELOW the speed limit as a general practice, was quite the hell raiser. Maybe he is trying to stay under the radar of the law...

First, he spent a few years in Germany working in factories with my uncles in the 60's as their were no jobs in the village. Then he stowed away on a ship for Australia! He hid on the ship but fortunately for me, my brother, sister and 5 nieces and nephews he was caught and spent 7 days locked up before getting a one way ticket back to Italy and subsequently married my mother.

When he moved to the US (also by boat) he brought as many traditions as he could with him.

If you are in Liverpool and drive by the house where my parents live and look around back you will see his "farm". He manages, in his tiny backyard to take up almost every square inch with a huge vegetable garden - basil, garlic, tomatoes, a small grape vine, zucchini, various types of lettuces, pole beans, rosemary, a pear tree, a fig tree and I am sure I am missing a few others. My parents eat from this garden for most of the year.

Of course, in my older and wiser years I appreciate and admire this sustainable and homemade way of eating...I didn't quite get it when I was growing up (Why cant I go to MacDonald's?!).

A few stories...
Dad would grudgingly drop me off at soccer practice after he finally conceded to his hard headed American-born daughter that she be allowed to play sports in high school. One day, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked "Um, what's your dad doing?". To my 14 year old horror - there was dad - bucket and knife in hand on a little hill behind the soccer field at Liverpool High School harvesting dandelion leaves for dinner. At the time, I was mortified as I vaguely recall someone asking "Can't your family afford to eat?" (teenagers are cruel). Of course, now Whole Foods sells this delicacy for $5.00 a pound. So there.

Every October fruit flies would buzz in my ear. In my house. It used to be, back when I was growing up and there were a lot more Italian immigrants of dad's generation in Syracuse, you knew where all the Italians lived because every fall there would be a pile of purple stained grape crates on the curb for the garbage men to take. All the Italians would ship in cases of Zinfandel grapes from California to make their own wine.

Now many of you probably have visited a winery. Well, those giant warehouses with gleaming stainless steel tanks is not how you make home brew. Imagine a barrel that has come apart at its planks. Now put a screw like mechanism on top that when turned slowly by pushing a pole around it in a circle over and over tightens the barrel together squishing the juice out of the grapes. That's an old fashioned wine press. My dad has a little 10 x 10 foot room in the basement and he would make a red and white barrel of wine each year. Before every lunch and dinner dad would go down to the basement and bring up a bottle of wine. It tastes great though sometimes I have to mix it with ginger ale as its a little strong! It will also fuel a car in an emergency if you run out of gas. Once I was old enough, Dad would supply me my wine rations in empty vodka or soda bottles for me to take to Colgate or DC.

One time, while making said sausages mentioned above - my dad decided he wanted to smoke them for more flavor. So he brought down the gas grill to the 10 x 10 room with one tiny 1 foot by 1 foot window and fired up the grill to smoke the sausages...One visit to the hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning later he decided not to smoke the homemade sausages anymore.

All these memories have to do with food. Well, we are Italian.

My parents are the typical American immigrant success story. My dad mowed a rich guy's giant lawn (it took days to mow the whole thing) as one of his jobs for a few years. Said rich guy found himself on the wrong end of his mistresses gun and took a bullet in the head. That job went away. Then in the mid-80's, he got the coveted factory job at GM. Then that factory closed. So he commuted from Syracuse to Rochester in the dark for years to work the night shift. Then that plant closed. So he got a bachelor pad in Buffalo and commuted each week from Syracuse to Buffalo to work at the GM plant in Tonawanda. Needless to say I didn't see Dad much when I was growing up because he was either sleeping during the day to work the night shift or driving all over NY to work.

A few years go, he retired. And since he packed about 5 lifetimes of work into his life to support us all, I hope he gets 5 more lifetimes to enjoy his retirement and continue to bring a little piece of Sinopoli, Italy to Upstate NY - making his wine every fall, and making his homemade sausages (unsmoked), and tending to his beloved garden out back.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

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