The Italians in My Garden

My father had more square feet of garden space on his property than he had of lawn. This was not an unusual sight when I was growing up in Blue Island, Illinois. Many Italian immigrants had huge, beautiful gardens overflowing with all manner of fruits and vegetables. Gardening was to my father what motorcycling and writing have become for me. Working in that yard was his pastime, his passion, his outlet. He tried to pass that along to me—not only his knowledge but his passion. Alas, only some of it stuck, mainly because yard work interferes with my motorcycling and travel hobby.

But as I said, some of it stuck. And now that my father has been gone for six years, my feeble attempts at keeping a garden are one way I stay spiritually connected to the old man. Yeah, sometimes when I’m toiling away on my rocky, weed-choked soil, I can hear my father admonishing me, half in Italian and half in English.

“Michele, che fai??? That’s not the way I showed you!”

“I know, Pop, I know.”

If he were still here, I’d get frustrated but now I only smile, glad to recall the sound of his voice, and I keep working, the sweat raining off of me in buckets.

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It took three years of trying before I was able to keep a fig tree alive by my house. My father kept sending me home with shoots from one of his large trees, which are not easy to keep alive in the midwest, and I kept losing them over the winter. Either my burial technique (a subject for another time) wasn’t quite right or the sapling hadn’t taken sufficiently to overwinter beneath the ground. But on that third year, my little tree survived and I practically broke my back door down running for the phone to tell the old man.

“Pop! Pop! The little sonofabitch is still alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My little fig tree is alive! I did it!”

“No shit! See? I told you…”

And so the conversation went. The following month, while at my father’s house, he handed me another shoot, to start a second tree. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But for a good ten years or so, I had two fig trees growing in my back yard and they produced enough figs to be able to give some away (see my 2015 article, “The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois“). Then two years ago, one of the trees perished due to a cracked base below the soil line. And last year, something happened to my second tree over the winter and it, too, perished. I felt terrible, not only because I would no longer have figs, but because my trees had begun as shoots from my father’s trees, which like him, are no more. I vowed to start over.

Last winter I began looking into fig varieties, hoping to come as close as possible to replicating the Italian dark fig variety that I got from my father. Without going into any details or the legality thereof, it is highly unlikely that my father’s trees came from an American nursery. But I digress. My brother-in-law advised me to check out a variety called the Chicago Hardy Fig. As I understand it, this is a hybrid developed from a Sicilian variety and bred for hardiness against the harsh winters of the Midwest. As luck would have it, the Chicago Hardy is now sold at local nurseries. This last fact amazes me, as most of the non-Italians I know have never even seen a fresh fig.

Well, like I implied earlier, yard work at my house takes a back seat to my motorcycling and writing endeavors, and it shows. Most of my seedlings did not survive long enough to get transplanted. But for a couple of Italian squash varieties, which I will get to in a moment, and my cucumbers, which can be started outdoors almost any time, I have no garden this year. Yeah, but I still managed to keep one promise to myself.

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On the afternoon of July 4, 2017, while walking the garden center at a local Home Depot, I spotted a handful of Chicago Hardy Fig trees that, along with all other trees and shrubs, were being offered at 50% off. The trees were quite small, but also very much alive and for six bucks apiece, I figured I could afford to take a chance on two of the healthiest specimens. Trees are generally installed in springtime, not July (thus the low price), but I decided to take a chance. And so with temps near 90 and the humidity making it feel warmer than that, I installed those two fig trees. Again my father’s words came to me.

“Michele, if you do it right, they’ll live. Don’t leave any air down by the roots, but give the roots good soil to grow in. Put some fertilizer and give them a drink every few days. You’ll see.”

“I will. Thanks, Pop.”

One day later, my little trees showed no signs of stress. That’s good, but we still have a long way to go. So we wait, cultivate as needed, and pray a little.

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I promised to tell you about the other Italians that made it into my garden this season. Besides cucumbers, which anybody can grow if you can just keep the rabbits away for a while, I have the ever-prolific zucchini and a newcomer to my yard this year, cucuzza.

I know, I know, what’s a cucuzza. My parents, along with many of the other old Italians, used to regularly grow these things in their gardens. In simplest terms, cucuzza is a type of gourd that is grown and prepared like a squash. The plant is a climbing vine. The fruits can grow as long as softball bats. The outer skin is not edible. The flesh is light in color and quite mild. When cooked it tends to hold its shape and texture well. You can saute it, bake it, grill it, etc.

In all candor, I do not have any experience growing these things and since I wasn’t much for vegetables in my younger years, I haven’t had much experience eating them, either. A couple of years ago, I grilled a cucuzza that my brother-in-law had grown and it turned out okay. This year, if all goes well, I will have quite a few with which to experiment. This could be good or bad as just one cucuzza is enough to feed several people. I’ve got four to six vines growing out there. Pray for me.

Gardening has been and will always be a love/hate thing for me. I derive much satisfaction from eating foods that I grew myself. Furthermore, gardening is one of several ways in which I honor my father. At the same time, I detest every minute I give up working in that yard that could have been spent plying great roads on a pleasant, sunny day—the very same type of day that is ideal for yard work. But you see, some people say that having balance in life is not about either/or; it’s about and. I guess that’s why I devote at least some of my time and energy to my garden, even if I am not fanatical about it.

Anybody got any good cucuzza recipes? Just asking. Thanks for hanging with me.

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A Father’s Day Contemplation

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This photo of my father was taken in Blue Island, Illinois roughly four years before I was born. Ermelindo D’Aversa was born in 1922 in Montella, a small town in the mountains of southern Italy. My mother, Teresa Iuliano, had been born there, too, in the same year. My mother came to the United States as a young teenager. She married the man who would become my father in 1948, during a lengthy visit with family in Italy. Teresa then went home to America, as scheduled, and Ermelindo followed later, after he obtained the necessary funding and approvals.

In 1949, this man flew to the United States, arriving as he described it, “$200 in debt and with nothing but the clothes on my back and the suitcase in my hand.” While growing up in Italy, he had completed the then-required five years of formal education, but spoke little to no English, other than what he might have picked up while assigned to a company of British soldiers after the end of World War II. His role, as they moved from village to village across Italy, was to inform the frightened citizens that the war was over and that these English soldiers were not going to kill them. Go ahead, try to imagine what that job must have been like.

Prior to the war, my dad had been a policeman, a member of the Carabinieri. When the war broke out, he immediately became what can best be described in our understanding as military police. He spent most of his time patrolling an island where political prisoners, at least those who were not killed outright, were sent. The residents of that island could pretty much come and go as they pleased, but they were confined to that island.

My dad did not talk about the war much, not until the final years of his life, which is when I learned most of what I am sharing here. He had nothing good to say about war and he absolutely despised any movies or television shows that glamorized war, but it wasn’t until near the very end of his life that he spoke to me about why. In terms of all the carnage and destruction, he summed it up saying, “You can’t come back from that and be the same young, innocent man you were before you went.” He was in his late eighties and dying when we finally had these conversations. Until then, he had just kept it all inside.

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My father was not a highly educated man, but he made the most of what he had been given. He had a very keen sense of right and wrong, which he considered fundamental and irrefutable. Indeed, he would laugh out loud at arguments that actions that were wrong yesterday could somehow be okay now. “Two and two cannot become five,” he would offer, shaking his head in amusement. He also possessed a very strong sense of respect for age and experience, even before he became the oldest… and even if the elder person were wrong. Once during a heated discussion about his own father, who had been very strict in raising his seven children, my father assured me, “Back then, if our father said two and two are six, we said yes!” Then I was the one shaking my head.

In 1992 I became a father myself. Not understanding what I was getting myself into, I did it again in 1993. Even then I think I understood that I could never be the same father to my children that my father had been to me, no more than my dad could have copied his father. It just doesn’t work that way. Still, I wish I could have done better. And when I look back at how much my father accomplished with so little, I feel downright ashamed.

  • Despite never having achieved a higher role than that of a non-union laborer, he put his three children through parochial grade schools, me through a Catholic high school, and darned near paid for all three of us to complete at least four years of college.
  • I’m guessing that he never made more than $30,000 a year, if that much, yet at his passing, following twenty years of retirement, one-third (my share) of his savings was still far more than my wife’s and my savings at the time, despite our dual incomes (and we couldn’t maintain the level of savings we had taken on).
  • Despite having been far less educated and far less articulate than me, he demanded more from his wife and children than I ever could—and he got it, period.

Yeah, so in view of all that and more, I tend to get a little down on myself as a dad. I’ve always been softer on my kids, more lenient, more willing to let them go see what they can accomplish rather than attach values to their desires. But I’ve also always been more of a free spender, a pleasure seeker, more willing to have fun today than put away for tomorrow. And my children, who are now adults themselves, have both examples to consider.

In the end, we reap what we sow. While there can be no doubt that I am my father’s son, I have clearly taken things in a different direction than he would have. That’s on me and while I may have some regrets, I make no apologies for the choices I have made. Those choices were mine to make.

And I’ll go you one better. I am grateful to my father for having made those choices possible for me, good or bad. I am proud of my parents, proud of my Italian heritage. And as a dad myself, I am proud of my children. Despite our own shortcomings, somehow my wife and I have given them a decent foundation upon which to build. The chapters they will write going forward hold many possibilities. Wait and see.

The Pizza That Ann and Michael Built

ingredients

The culinary exercise I am about to describe will undoubtedly end up in my book, the working title of which is What Recipe.  It’s sort of a cookbook, but also a celebration of intuitive cooking, a collection of humorous anecdotes and more. I think you’ll like it, but right now I want to tell you about this pizza, if only because we received a lot of positive feedback when my friend Ann and I began sharing some of our photos on facebook last weekend. Neither Ann nor I had ever made pizza quite like this before, which made everything seem sort of tentative, but we laughed our way through this intuitive experiment, from start to finish and ended up with a couple of large, tasty pizzas.

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I have made many pizzas before, most of them in the tradition taught to me by my mother.This one, however, was a little bit unique. For openers, we made the crust from scratch, using a “Tipo 00” flour imported from Italy. I had never used this extra fine flour before but had read that it was excellent for making pizza crusts. This turned out to be quite true. Double zero is a grade of Italian-milled flour that is ground very fine and is also highly refined. I believe it is lower in protein, starch, and gluten than standard flour, although what’s left in there I have no idea. Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, with eight locations in suburban Chicagoland, carries a few different brands of Tipo 00 flour. I selected their house brand, which is labeled as a pizza flour and it worked fabulously for us in that capacity.

We double-raised our dough before dividing and stretching it out into two pizza crusts. We didn’t use a thermometer, just a little warm water in which to proof the yeast, and a lot of room temperature water to make the dough. And salt. When I would ask how much salt I needed to use for making bread, my late mother used to tell me, “If you don’t put enough salt, your bread isn’t gonna’ taste of anything, but if you put too much, you’ll ruin it just the same.” It ultimately came down to trial and error, but a half palmful of kosher or sea salt mixed into a 2.2 lb bag of flour (roughly six cups) will put you in the ballpark.

fresh-slices

We used sliced fresh mozzarella, also from Caputo’s, instead of the low-moisture, part skim variety, which I usually buy pre-shredded. The cheese was so fresh, we had to dry the one-ounce slices with paper towels before using them. Otherwise, the bread crust would get wet and mushy from all the moisture. Fresh mozzarella has a creamier texture than does it’s dry counterpart, and also a very mild flavor. Ann and I had used fresh mozzarella on a Caprese-style garlic bread with stellar results, so we expected this to work okay on our pizza, too.

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The bulk mild Italian sausage that we used came from, you guessed it, Caputo’s. As good as their standard recipe is, I augmented it with some extra fennel seeds and a dash or two of red pepper flakes—not enough to make it hot, but just enough to impart some additional flavor. We formed little bite-size chunks and browned them up to add even more flavor while removing some of the fat. The result was magnificent!

tomatoes

fresco-sauce

Rather than use a canned product—some of which are just fine— or even my family’s homemade jarred sauce, Ann and I opted to make a fresco pizza sauce. I went shopping for the best tomatoes I could find in late February and brought them with me. Then Ann and I proceeded to peel, seed, and dice those babies just for this occasion.

The detailed guidelines for this sauce have already been written for the book, but in a nutshell, you need hot oil, the proper seasoning, and just enough time to lose the excess moisture, which just like the water in our fresh mozzarella, would have wrecked the heavenly crust we created.

ready-to-bake

We had been at this for a few hours. After all, double-raised homemade bread dough takes time. Let me be the first to admit, this was not fast food. A frozen pizza could have been heated up and ready to eat within 20 minutes. Ordering from a pizzeria normally yields results in 20 to 50 minutes, depending on the establishment and on what you order. Ann and I both buy frozen, from time to time, and we each have our favorite pizzerias in our respective markets, which happen to be over 100 miles apart. 

Now believe what I tell you next: What we created that day cannot be found in your grocer’s frozen food section, nor will you likely find it on the menu at your local pizzeria. What Ann and I set out to create was heads above all that. This hand-crafted pizza involved four different kinds of cheese, a fresco sauce, a sausage blend that cannot be found in any store, and a homemade crust made from triple-raised Italian milled flour. You can’t buy this! But you can make it yourself, with the right ingredients, a little time, and a bit of guidance, say from a book that describes all the ingredients and the various steps involved in bringing them all together.

cooked

 Yeah, that’s right. We took our sweet time, debated our choices, and cooked the best pizza pies we could possibly create together—two really big rectangular ones, in fact, way more than three people could ever have eaten. So much food that I was able to take an entire pie home with me.My apologies to Ann and her son for the overage, but I produced no more food than any good Italian would have brought forth. This I learned from my mother.

And you know what? I have no regrets. None. Ann and I laughed all day while working on this, ate our fill afterward, and it was epic.The flavors and textures all came together in a way that mere words cannot fully capture. To learn more about this culinary adventure and others like it, please keep an eye out for my book, which with any luck will be out before the end of this year.

Thanks for hanging with me!

My Unfortunate Baking Misadventure

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As I continue compiling material for my first cookbook, I am reminded of the best and worst of my bread baking endeavors. I don’t bake bread often and what little I do, I learned from my mother, an Italian immigrant who make almost everything from scratch—and made it very well, I might add.

What I usually bake can best be described as a rustic Italian loaf. Long and somewhat oval in shape, it’s a somewhat hearty bread with a substantial crust, very well suited to dipping or eating with soups and salads. I tend to use unbleached and/or whole wheat flour, which makes for a more dense product than one would get by using bread-specific flour, which tends to contain more glutens. When it turns out right, my bread is a nice addition to the dinner table.

But alas, things do not always turn out as planned. Some years ago, when my parents were still alive, we were planning to have the family over to celebrate my young son’s birthday. In the tradition of my mother’s kitchen, where I learned so much about cooking, I had planned an abundant meal involving way more food than even this group of eleven people would ever be able to eat. I thought it might be nice to have a fresh-baked loaf of my homemade bread, but I would not have enough time to prepare and raise the dough. So I got this great idea to make up some dough, raise it once, then freeze it. On the day of our celebration, I would defrost the dough, let it rise one more time, and then bake it in time to serve fresh, warm bread for dinner.

To put it mildly, something went wrong. My guess would be that I hadn’t allowed nearly enough time for defrosting, so when I expected my loaf to be rising, some colder parts were still struggling just to reach room temperature. At some point, time had run out for rising because I needed to bake the loaf and let it cool a little prior to serving. My loaf looked okay on the outside, if a bit smaller than I’d hoped for. So into the oven it went.

I waited. I watched. The bread looked okay as far as the color and general appearance of the crust, but it was too small. That should have been my first clue. The second clue came when I picked up the loaf, wearing oven mitts, to place it on a cooling rack. Though slim, almost like a baguette, my bread loaf weighed as much as a loaf twice its size would weigh.

All the other foods we had prepared—grilled meats, pasta, veggies, salad, etc.—came off as planned. But when I set that loaf of bread down on the table, it looked and sounded like a wooden club landing. When my father first picked it up, he immediately looked over at me with his eyebrows raised, gently raising and lowering the loaf as if he were judging its weight. He cut off a hunk and set the loaf back down. Then it was my brother-in-law’s turn. He hoisted my loaf of bread, holding it at one end with both hands, and took a few practice swings, smiling at me as he did so, before slicing off another few pieces. I got the message.

Eventually, the bread came around to me. With only half a loaf remaining, the thing still felt heavy for its size. I turned the end cut toward me and examined the cross-section. Amidst the usual internals, I saw darker portions with none of the usual holes one expects to find in a slice of bread. Solids in my bread? Apparently so!

Some of the more dedicated eaters in my family took a few bites out of sheer courtesy. Others just passed. I was embarrassed, to say the least. But I learned a valuable lesson about cooking: No matter what your schedule says, every dish you prepare takes exactly as much time as it needs to be properly finished. If you need it sooner, begin sooner.

Nowadays I look back on these culinary setbacks and laugh, even though I assure you I wasn’t laughing at the time. You’ll learn more about these endeavors when this book becomes available. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.

Likes to Play with Food

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I like to cook, but sometimes I can’t leave well enough alone. I like foods a certain way and seldom follow a recipe to the letter. Most of what I learned about cooking, putting certain foods together, etc., I learned by watching my mother. She seldom followed a recipe, either. I don’t go crazy yet ordinary often isn’t quite good enough. My arena, therefore, falls somewhere between the two.

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About a year ago, I began toying with the idea for an unconventional cookbook that, despite having no conventional recipes per se, explores my approach to a variety of dishes, including creative uses for the leftovers. All of this would be interspersed with anecdotes relating to the food and the people who caused them to happen, whether directly or indirectly. The working title of this book continues to be What Recipe?

During most of 2016, What Recipe? remained essentially an idea and nothing more. I developed a preliminary outline and penned a chapter or two, but that was it… until last December. Since then, thanks to the constant encouragement (okay, pestering) of a close friend, this book is actually taking shape.

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I can’t say how soon What Recipe? will become available for order, but it’s a safe bet that my online followers will be among the first to hear about it. Wish me luck, and thanks for hanging with me.

Pizza and Me

I love pizza. Always have. When I was quite young, the only kind of pizza I ever ate was homemade. My mother, grandmother, aunts, etc. all baked their own bread and made extra dough in order to make pizza. My grandmother made traditional pizza, with nothing more than tomatoes, herbs and grated cheese on top. My mom and aunts probably did the same thing at first, but then adapted to the American style, adding sausage and mozzarella.


My introduction to pizzeria pizza came in 1968, in the city of Clinton, Iowa. This is where we sometimes stayed overnight when visiting my eldest sister, who attended Shimer College, which was located in Mt. Carroll, Illinois at the time. We stayed at a Holiday Inn and had supper at a nearby Pizza Hut, which was nowhere near as prevalent then as it is now. I still remember the experience. We had gotten a cheese pizza—probably the only kind of pizza I’d eaten thus far—and I marveled at how thin the crust was, compared to the bread crust that I had been used to (these days they call that a pan pizza). I also marveled at the different flavor of this new and unusual pizza—bear in mind, I was only  seven years old at the time—and I begged my mother to make pizza like Pizza Hut. Forgive me, Ma! I was so young, and had no idea what I was suggesting. In retrospect, I have to believe that I only liked that pizza because it was so different from what I had been accustomed to eating.


Just the same, I’ve always loved pizza, although as the years went on, I became more cognizant of pizza, of what makes some pizzas great and others, well, not so great. After I got married, my wife became aware of this and would encourage me to critique any new pizza we tried, also adding her own observations. We even established some basic criteria by which any pizza could be evaluated, albeit subjectively. That is, regardless of the criteria being used, personal preference still plays a big part. Let me share our criteria with you, along with what I, personally look for in a pizza. We’ll go from the bottom up.

  1. Crust – I look for flavor and consistency, but of the two, consistency is king. Why? Because you can overcome a bland crust with flavorful ingredients, but there is just no way to make up for a wimpy crust. It make no difference what type of crust we are talking about; consistency matters. A thin crust should be crisp, and not just at the edges. Don’t give me a limp thin crust. That’s how it was before you cooked it. Now a bread (or pan pizza) crust should still be crisp on the very bottom, as well as the edges, but should be bread-like within. Now here it becomes very subjective. How do you like your bread? I like mine light and airy. Some people like theirs moist and spongy. My point is, how you like your bread will largely determine how you like your pan pizza crust. As far as flavor goes, the key ingredients at play here are flour and salt. Cheap flour will remind you of grade school paste. A lack of salt will remind you of nothing at all, and that my friends, is a dirty shame.
  2. Sauce – When I publish my book on the subject, I’ll have a lot more to say about this. But for now, understand that nothing truly compensates for either a weak sauce or a bad sauce. I want just the right balance of sweet versus tang, I want optimal use of salt, and I expect to taste tomatoes.Where my family comes from, we don’t even use a sauce; we use fried whole, peeled tomatoes—a fresco sauce, if you will. But no matter, just understand this: if your sauce came from a five-gallon institutional can, the last thing I want to experience is sauce that tastes like it came from a five-gallon institutional can. And there is no excuse for that, because the proper seasoning can work wonders.
  3. Meat – I know all about artisan pizzas, I don’t often eat artisan pizzas. When I say meat, I mean Italian sausage. You like pepperoni? That’s cool, but it’s not Italian. Pepperoni is nothing more than an American variety of salami. If I get it on a pizza, I get it in addition to the Italian sausage. When it comes to pizza, what makes Italian sausage good Italian sausage? The same thing that makes it good off of a pizza, namely the fat content and the seasoning. Me, I want to taste fennel. No, more than that. When this stuff is cooking, I want to smell the fennel while I’m still halfway up the block. As for the fat, either start with lean sausage or else cook the stuff before you put it on a pizza. I don’t want to feel as though I should have to swallow half a dozen napkins to soak up all the grease I just ate.
  4. Cheese – Whatever you use, it had better be real. “Cheese food” has no place on any pizza I eat, nor does imitation cheese. I want it real and I want to taste it.. Now here we get subjective again. Where my family comes from, they don’t use Parmesan; they use Romano—and that’s strong mojo, a much more robust grating cheese. Similarly, my mother didn’t use mozzarella in the early days; she used scamorza, which is similar, but not quite the same. But I only offer this for informational purposes. That is, I highly doubt that you will find a local pizzeria using scamorza and Romano.
  5. Veggies – Again highly subjective with regard to what veggies belong on a pizza. I won’t get into that here. I will only insist that they be fresh and not canned.
  6. Generosity – I was born and raised in Chicagoland, where pizza comes with an abundance of ingredients on it. We don’t skimp on any of the above-mentioned items. If you skimp, I’ll notice, even if we are not in Chicagoland.


When I make my own pizza, which is not as often as I like, I observe the criteria that I mentioned here. The rectangular pan pizza that you see pictured above is a reasonable facsimile of what my mother used to make for me, but I am the first to admit that my pizza is not as good as my mother’s, nor will it likely ever be. Why? She made her own bread almost every week. I make my dough once in a blue moon. My mother made her sauce from tomatoes that she and my dad canned themselves, using tomatoes that either came from my dad’s garden or that my mom and dad hand picked from an area farm. My mother made her own sausage. I tried that once. I might try it again someday. You get the idea. As much as I would give almost anything to taste my mother’s pizza again—and not from Pizza Hut, not even a Pizza Hut from the 1960’s—I cannot recreate what she was able to produce just about any time she wanted.

My mother passed away in 2006 and I have missed her pizza ever since.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Grillin’ and Chillin’


Food and cooking have been an integral part of my family life for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a traditional Italian family, our kitchen was the heart of our home and I have many fond memories of life that took place around the family table. When planning to celebrate any special day, the first question out of my mother’s mouth would likely be, “What should we have to eat?” And if it was somebody’s birthday, “What do you want me to make for your birthday?” Good times…


Cooking outside was largely a team effort. My mother would prepare things inside and send the grillables out to my father via me or one of my sisters. She would continue to cook side dishes, additional courses, etc. inside, while my dad tended the grill(s) outside. Following tradition, I observed and helped my father outside, while my sisters helped our mother inside. This is how I first learned to grill. 


Mind you, we didn’t grill in silence, either. Pop and I would discuss all manner of things, catching up on each other’s lives, solving the problems of the world, observing the garden, and so forth. Sometimes there was wine, but my dad was never that big on drinking away from the table. That was a practice I cultivated on my own. 


To this day I derive great pleasure from hanging outside and grilling various meats and vegetables for friends and family, especially if I have somebody out there to keep me company, solve the problems of the world, etc. And there is usually ample wine or beer on hand (my house, my rules). 

Sometimes the simplest things in life are most enjoyable.