COME ON-A MY HOUSE!


Rosemary Clooney set my heart racing when she sang about all the food she would have ready for me if I came to her house. I had never had any of the stuff she offered, but if she had thrown in a bit of Italian pasta or Mexican enchiladas I would have hopped a freight to go right over.

I grew up on plain American cooking; nothing fancy or exotic. I ate what my New England forebears had eaten, and was glad to get it most of the time. My Grandmother leaned toward casseroles; today we would call her the Casserole Queen. My Dad was a meat and potato man, and the dinner plate always contained two vegetables as well. No salad as we describe it today. Perhaps a slab of iceberg lettuce with a splash of Thousand Island dressing on top. No garlic, olive oil or wine, and salt and pepper were sufficient.

In 1890, about 100,000 Italian immigrants lived in New York. Italians in America were fiercely loyal to the food of their country and its various regions. Unlike eastern European Jews, Poles, or other European immigrants, whose children and grandchildren adopted generic American food as a way of assimilation, Italians saw to it that succeeding generations continued to cook Italian food. Even being teased in school about what you brought for lunch, which is still today a powerful inducement to culinary conformity, failed to force Italian kids to reject their parents cooking.

Nevertheless, immigrant families made a number of adaptations, in many cases all to the good. Food was plentiful, and instead of eating meat on rare occasions, families were able to eat meat whenever they chose. When one woman went back home, her neighbors had difficulty believing that people could eat so much white bread and butter and that she ate meat every day.

Americans began eating what were marketed as ‘Italian’ sausages, while in Italy each region had a different way of making them, and people could rarely afford to eat them. Macaroni (pasta) eaten by the well-to-do in southern Italy, became the emblem of Italian cooking, and meatballs and spaghetti became almost humdrum. Rather like thinking that ‘chop suey’ or ‘tacos’ represented the whole of their particular ethnic cooking.

By 1890, Italian restaurants were the most popular foreign restaurants, and a substantial portion of their patrons were non-Italian. For Italian and other ethnic restaurants, moving out of the enclave of immigrant patronage and catering to the majority of the population was irresistible, both because there were millions of people of all nations in New York, and because the non-Italians were less critical about the food.

The huge variety of Italian food is mind-boggling, as is found in all sorts of ethnic cooking. How many times have you heard someone swear that what they were making was the ONLY way to cook that dish? Recipes even vary wildly between families.

My late son-in-law, of Italian extraction, was a great cook period, but I heard his mother complain that he never put enough water in the pasta water. “I taught him better”, she told me once. A story circulated through the family for years about the time a young man came courting her daughter. After consuming a large plateful of homemade gnocci, he asked for seconds, not realizing that it was a first course before presenting the meat dish. She did make marvelous gnocci, a dish I worked on for a few years and then gave up as a lost cause; I even went so far as to purchase a heavy potato ricer. I envision light fluffy balls of potato and flour, but mine sink to the bottom and stay there in the cooking water. The commercial ones are not much better so I take heart.

Advertisements

JOHNSON’S DICTIONARY


dr-johnson Dr. Johnson At The Cheshire Cheese

To be honest, the first time I saw this plate hanging on the wall of my mother-in-law’s breakfast room, I thought what a glutton Dr. Johnson must have been, whoever he was. After all, how much cheese could anyone eat? And everyone knows that Cheshire, of course, was a cat.

As years passed, I became intimately acquainted with Dr. Johnson, in a literary way that is, and learned that Cheshire was the cheese we Americans call cheddar. Traipsing around the streets of London later on with Dr. A. , it all came clear; and further investigation showed that Johnson spent a good deal of time writing his dictionary whilst sitting comfortably inside the pub named Cheshire Cheese. And we found it a cozy pub to this day.

Now Johnson’s was not the first dictionary by any means, but it became his crowning achievement; it is more famous than his one novel Rasselas and, although he was also a gicfted poet, it is for his lexicography above all else that Samuel Johnson is remembered. First published in two large volumes in 1755, the book’s full title was A dictionary of the English Language; in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different English grammar. It’s no surprise that it is usually just known as ‘Johnson’s Dictionary”.

Johnson’s wasn’t the first English dictionary; before his, there had been several such works. Richard Mulcaster had compiled a list of English words in the sixteenth century, but without definitions. Lexicography was as much about borrowing and improving as about creating from scratch. Johnson’s dictionary drew heavily from Nathan Bailey’s which in turn had relied on John Kersey’s Dictionary, which had borrowed generously from John Harris’s 1704 dictionary. But none of these were on the scale of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. A far greater size and scope would be what Johnson, in 1755 brought to the table. It would take him nine years to complete, working with several assistants.

Johnson was the first lexicographer to use quotations from Shakespeare, Spencer, and other literary sources. In fact, his intention in writing the dictionary was partly to acquaint people with the language of the literary greats.

Johnson included no words beginning with X, on the bases that no words in the English language began with ‘X’. Xylophone, in case you were wondering, has only been in print since since 1866, and X-rays were another 30 years away from xylophones. Still, this was an improvement over Cawdrey’s dictionary of 150 years earlier, which had failed to include any words beginning with W, X or Y.

The famous definition supplied by Johnson for ‘oats—a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’–may have been borrowed from Pliny, who made a similar remark about the ancient Germans.

The oft-repeated exchange between Johnson and the ladies searching for improper or indecent words in Johnson’s dictionary says that when several cultivated ladies of English society congratulated him for leaving out such words he replied “Ah ladies, you were searching for them?” For one thing, Johnson did include a number of words which would have offended the proprieties of prim eighteenth century ladies, among them bum,fart, arse, piss, and turd although sexually suggestive words were left out, including penis and vagina. He defined a boghouse as a house of office, and ‘to lie with’ as ‘to converse in bed’.

He also left out aardvark, something which Blackadder would later observe. But, in fairness to Johnson, he could hardly be blamed for this either; the earliest defination for the word is 1785, the year after Johnson died.

One of Johnson’s more confusing suggestions: Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

SWIMMING IN YOUR HEAD


Amy Tan, writer of such memorable works as “The Joy Luck Club” as well as so many other insightful books, once advised us to write what’s swimming in our head. The mind is never a complete blank, though the ability to transcribe the void can be difficult.

My mind is usually so crowded, it’s hard to separate the ridiculous from the sublime, which is why I occasionally walk into another room and wonder why I went there. I would feel bad about it, but my daughter says she does it too. There is too much information out there to remember it all. A friend excused the sensation by imagining a little man bustling about trying to organize a roomful of feral cats. Obviously it can’t be done, so why worry?

We entertained yesterday with a late lunch, and Charlie behaved himself grandly with friends who had known him from a tiny puppy. Only once did I hear someone say “Charlie, stop eating your bed”. Charlie, like many humans, seems to get energized when company arrives, and while some people are propelled into talking mode, Charlie, in an obvious effort to extend a welcome, drags out all the toys in the toybox to see if he can encourage someone to pay attention to him. It’s sad really.

I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. The people who make them in hopes of improving themselves, usually don’t need much improvement. The monthly lunch with my high school girl friends, has gained a couple more ladies, who decided to join us when they heard about it. We used to meet every 6 weeks or so, but as we get closer to decrepitude, it seems wise to meet more often. One friend has moved into a retirement home, and another cannot drive the distance required. A third who until a year ago, drove to Reno often to see family, no longer drives the freeway. In our case, the resolution to come together more often is imperative.

We make the decision to stop driving at different ages and for different reasons. One friend and neighbor will be 95 in a few weeks and is still driving, though no longer on the freeway. The traffic has become horrendous at any time of day, and accidents and road rage intimidate the most intrepid drivers. I gave up driving this past year when I realized my AMD had progressed to the point of danger. Now, several months later, I have limited vision, finding certain things simply disappear. I can’t believe it, but it’s another interesting part of growing older, and more people than we know suffer from the condition. It’s somewhat like the roomful of feral cats, so why worry?

I am reminded of a cousin, who is 99 this year, had a relationship with a gentleman friend a few years ago. When they were both widowed, they decided to marry, and planned a wedding aboard the USS Hornet, a wartime aircraft carrier moored in Alameda, which had some meaning for them. The gentleman’s adult children however, disapproved of the marriage, casting a pall on the affair which ended shortly thereafter, due to the prospective bride and groom living in different cities, and unable to drive any longer. The ability to drive in their case was crucial. It was obviously before Uber.