Family soup

Grandma getting married
“If I didn’t marry him, it would have been someone else.”

Cousin Gina is in town. Yesterday she came for lunch and we talked a mile a minute like we always do, rushing to catch up before one of us has to leave. I was missing my dad enough to talk to him in the car the other night, and Gina is the answer to an awkwardly asked prayer. “Dad, I miss you. I just miss you. I want to see you. You know? Dad? Hey jerk, I got right of way! Merry effing Christmas to you too.”

Gina’s mother’s mother, Albina, and my father’s father, Jerry, were sister and brother. Whew. While Jerry was still in Italy working up the passage to get to Chicago, 15-year-old Albina met a girl on Taylor street named Mil, and they became best friends. When Albina’s big brother got to town, he liked Mil, too. “Everybody was after him, he was that good-looking,” Grandma would tell me, when I went to visit her and eat Salerno butter cookies. “For some reason he wanted me.”

“Oh Gram,” I was 10 and eager for all romantic details, “How did he ask you?”

“Ask? It was understood. After he decided, he would follow me around. He wouldn’t let me talk to nobody else.”

“What if you said no? Don’t you ever think about what might have happened?”

“If I didn’t marry him, so what? It would have been someone else.”

“Then you’re glad it was him?”

“Sure. He was Albina’s brother. He was good to me. So?”

Gina and I made a salad and had it with a soup I’d made a few days before. She kept calling me Martha Stewart, having no idea that I’ve always wanted to be someone who makes big batches of soup but have never managed it. I picture us eating soup all week, a quick meal that’s homemade. Finally, this week of all weeks, I made a pot only because I had beautiful leeks that needed using, and it’s been nothing but trouble. I worry about it constantly. Are we going to eat it all before it goes bad? When will it go bad? Three days? Two weeks? Should I warm up just a little each time, or the whole thing so I can boil out the bacteria each time? And what if I’m not in the mood for potato leek? Most of the time I’m in the mood for pad kee mao.

I don’t know what it is about Gina that brings my dad to me. Something in her eyes, and the way she can laugh even when she’s crying. And of course, because some of the same blood flows through our veins. We cried about our parents, just for a second, just when I cracked that my family is falling apart, and talked about bread, houses, Italy, work, writing, her kids, our dogs, aging, soup, figure skating, and I forget what else. Then she left to pick up her brother from the airport, and I went to get my hair cut, go Christmas shopping, and hustle to a Hanukkah party. 

There is never enough time to tell Gina everything and ask her everything from a year’s worth of living in different parts of the country, but I got my fix. Thanks Dad, or Santa, or maybe just Gina for making the drive to Chicago. And now she’s got me thinking about Grandma Mil, who knew when to spend six hours in the kitchen, and when to reach for a can of Campbell’s. 

Mil was a great cook, but she saved it for special occasions. Savoury fried smelt and garlicky olio uolio on Christmas eve, and other things I can’t spell but can hear her say in her high-pitched voice. She was one of ten kids. When she was four, her parents had their house moved from Taylor to Peoria Street. Mil’s mother wanted the kids to live in a better neighborhood, but also wanted to die in the family’s first American home. Mil always remembered the sight of her house rolling up the street and around the corner. “You don’t forget things like that,” she once told me. “It’s the little things you lose, like who was the youngest.”

A humidifier story

humidifier
We are still married.

It’s the time of year to wax nostalgic about old times and old loves and dear ones gone by. Every song, every scent, every email seems to pull at the heartstrings. Like this one from Marcello: “What kind of humidifier you had running in the living room? I need to find a good humidifier.” And suddenly I’m back in 1998.

Bemis Tabletop model, you were my first grownup humidifier and I’ll never forget you. You made me realize what was missing in the cheap Walgreens models I bought and discarded, only to re-buy and re-discard. I immediately connected with the wicking system, and when I opened my first bottle of bacteriostatic treatment, suddenly everything made sense.

But Bemis, though you changed me, or maybe because you changed me, I outgrew you. The upside down water tank thingy, it started to grate. I’m not accusing you of spills, but the whole idea of it, the slightly squishy experience of picking up the tank, turning it over quickly to avoid excessive drips, and then filling it and having that sinking feeling when I had to turn it upside down again, it started to outweigh the humidification highs. And no, the top never came off. But just knowing that it might, Bemis, just knowing that it might.

A dalliance with an April Air whole house solution forced the transition. We were living in a place with forced air heating, and April promised we’d never need silly room humidifiers again. We wanted to believe, and we set Bemis up with a friend. I hope they worked out. She never talks about it and I don’t ask. I like to think of Bemis still humidifying, cleanly, with bacteriostatically treated water. As the HVAC guy predicted, April Air was “kinda lame, but it’s your call.” Whole house systems only care about you when the heat is blowing. But it was invisible, and maintenance-free, and whenever anyone asked I said, “Our air is great, couldn’t be healthier.”

Then we moved into a house with the driest heating system of all: hot water radiators. I couldn’t appreciate the irony of all that hot water being so near, but completely closed off, until my first bloody nose. I briefly wished for steam radiators, but after one night with Essick 4-Speed Mini Console I was like, Steam who?

This time it’s forever. To fill Mini Console, you don’t deal with any upside down water tanks. You don’t worry about drips and spills. You just take the top off and fill. You can even use a bucket (a clean, new, dedicated bucket is only like four bucks at Matty K’s), to transport the water so you don’t even have to pick up Mini C and move it into the bathtub. If you just fill it with a bucket a day it never becomes a big chore. And I find this model also sort of fades into the room. It’s actually less noticeable than the Tower model.

Tower, also an Essick, was a huge mistake, but I’m living with it. Big brother to Mini Console, Tower seemed like it would be less noticeable and would humidify better, but no. It’s got upside down tanks, two of them, which are even more prone to spills and drips than Bemis Tabletop. So you’re paying more for something bigger that doesn’t last longer and is more of a pain.

Last thing: Make sure you purchase the bacteria treatment, and put in about half a capful every time you fill the humidifier or the bucket. This is crucial. Really important. And new filters every year. You can get both of those at Matty K’s too.

Oh, don’t be fooled by the Venta Air Washer humidifier. My mom gave them whole years of her life and they only caused her heartache. And backaches.

Say yes to pasta

Pasta maker, pasta and me.

I say yes.

 

Yesterday I made my first batch of pasta noodles. Kate was making linguini, and invited me to come get over my fear of the pasta maker.

I didn’t exactly want to go, because although Dave bought me a pasta maker for Christmas (by request), and the thing is set up and sitting on the counter, I haven’t been at all inclined to use it. Store bought is usually good enough. And if I need fresh I have an excuse to drive up to Pasta Fresh out on Harlem and Belmont, where I can see owners Tony and Tina and be handed a hot slice of focaccia while I wait for them to pack my order, and where I can enjoy the feeling in that little shop, which always reminds me of the eve of Christmas Eve years ago, when I went there for the first time. I’d moved out to that neighborhood after a breakup and was thoroughly depressed about life and dreading the holidays and wanting only to hide out in my hobbit hole of a basement flat in my cousin Lizzie’s building.

But Lizzie dragged me out on some cooking errands. She made me go to Caputo’s so she could get her produce. Then she made me go to Pasta Fresh so she could get noodles for the lasagna. Like a zombie without an appetite I trundled along, waiting til I could get back home to my two loyal mutts who would not annoy me by speaking English and expecting me to speak it back.

Then we got into Pasta Fresh and something happened. They greeted us so cheerfully, the white-haired man and his sexy wife, and started making up Liz’s order. Then they brought out a warm arancini, cut up and steaming, and tried to hand me a piece. “I don’t eat meat,” I said. So they returned with slices of calzone. To be polite, I took a bite, and then another. It was like the cheerful ghost of a calzone — impossibly light, with chunks of fresh tomato, not too much cheese, not too doughy.  To wash it down, they handed us flutes of champagne. I ate and drank, and felt cared for by people I’d never met.

Liz asked Tony how things were going and he said something slightly sad, maybe about missing people who were gone. But he was smiling and he raised his glass to us. I felt a rush of Christmas spirit, joy and nostalgia and some sort of fellowship you can only share with strangers. That moment picked me up and lifted me past my sadness, and the holidays went better after that.

Looking back, I don’t know what I had to be sad about. A breakup? So what. It wasn’t like I’d lost my parents yet. I hadn’t even lost a dog yet. But of course, your heart doesn’t grade on a curve. So anyway, I like going to Pasta Fresh. And I’m afraid of my pasta maker. It’s so shiny and silent.

But when my friend Kate cooks, I show up. She serves delicious food and always makes it look easy. So it’s not just good to eat, it’s fun to be around when she’s cooking. And having claimed I wanted to learn how she made noodles I figured I might as well do it on a night when she had a fresh Puttanesca sauce ready to top them. So off I went, accompanied only by dog Django since Dave had a rehearsal.

Kate let me do almost everything – add three eggs and two tablespoons of water to two cups of flour and a half-cup of semolina, mix them, knead them (Kate had to take over briefly because I didn’t knead hard enough), and divide into a couple of balls. Let sit a half-hour and then feed through the pasta machine, level by level until it’s thin enough. Then through the other part to split into noodles. Sort of amazingly easy. And heaped with the sauce, so so good. Django is not big on starches, but she kept her mouth open like a bird, waiting for each next delicious strip of saucy goodness.

I think the solution is not to go less to Pasta Fresh, but to have noodles more often, so I can fit in some of my own. Because I didn’t even mention the other thing about Pasta Fresh, how it’s right near Palermo Bakery, where the best cookies in the world can be purchased. But that’s another story.