So I was sitting in this great kosher deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan one day, enjoying this incredible half-sour pickle, and the thought suddenly occurred to me: Did my Italian grandmother ever have a half-sour pickle?
It’s possible she never did. I think I ate eat pretty much every type of dish my Grandma ever made–pasta, veal, chicken, pizza, soup, cream cheese pie, pizzales, anise cookies. I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at her house hundreds of times. I left there with plates and bowls and platters of leftovers. I am close to 100% sure that nothing pickled was ever consumed there.
Why does this matter? Well, to begin with, it was an incredibly good pickle, and it got me thinking about how much pleasure there is in good, simple food. And I can’t think about good food without thinking of my Grandma. A lot of memories fade with time, but I have a million memories of my Grandma and food. In almost all of these memories she is cooking me something, serving me something, offering me more of something, cleaning up after something she has just made me, or asking me what I would like next. My grandma’s recipes and versions of things still dominate whole categories of food for me–pasta, sauce, veal, pizza, cookies, to name a few. Her tomato sauce alone had the whole world in it–tomatoes, paste, garlic, onions, seasoning, meatballs, sausage, chicken, pork. “Mangia,” she would say. “There’s plenty more. Mangia.”
Biting into that pickle the other day, I had the sudden specific realization that I was a million miles and light years from my Grandma. She’s been gone twenty years now, and the thought of my Grandma in a kosher deli on the Upper West Side makes as much sense as Khrushchev in Disneyland. Not that Grandma had any biases–I can honestly say she never had a harsh word for anyone–but that she would have been so completely out of context. I can picture my Grandma in precious few places–her kitchen, her dining room, her church. But New York City? Grandma came through Ellis Island on her way from Palermo to Boston, but I am pretty sure she didn’t stop on the Upper West Side.
Come to think of it, a more creative writer than me would put her there. It would be the 1970s. She would be a young, vibrant 80, with another decade to go before she is gone. Somehow, I have talked her into coming to New York with me to visit my brothers at Columbia. We are tired from the trip. It’s been a long day, but I convince Grandma to have dinner with me at this kosher deli, Barney Greengrass (The Sturgeon King!) while my brothers finish their studying. The menu might as well be Greek to her, but I pick a few things for us. “Let’s have the pastrami, Grandma. That sounds Italian.” She is unconvinced, but she lets me order. We sip our Cokes. In no time at all giant steaming sandwiches are in front of us. She looks carefully at the sandwich, the mustard, the assortment of pickles. I spread some mustard on her sandwich.
“Mangia, Grandma,” I tell her. “It’s been a long day. Mangia.”