My third cousin. Among those who testify against him in court in the late ‘80s is his nephew, Dominick. A fatal heart attack prevents him from leaving prison within five years of his conviction. At least that’s the way police reports and other public documents record his life. My family says everything happened a little differently, but it depends on who tells the story. Everyone agrees, though, that Nino is a nickname. The misnomer that means “worthy of praise” is something Anthony ”Nino” Gaggi and I share—even if for entirely different reasons.
Grandma Della always makes the same noise to show she’s in pain. When she grips the scalding hot handles of a pot of spaghetti as she drains out the water, she says, “Ooh-fah!” When she lifts a huge basket of laundry over her head, she says, “Ooh-fah!” When she’s uncomfortably perched in a small chair at the doctor’s office and they tell her she’s strained her shoulder so badly that she needs surgery, all she can say is, “Ooh-fah.”
Pancetta and Prosciutto
I have to thank America for allowing the tradition of men being the family cooks to survive generation after generation. The kitchen is the only place in the world where my father and I can bond. Other than that we just don’t seem to quite get each other. The two of us examine the meat as we cook Panini sandwiches for dinner one night, both trying to take as much time as possible. To make them appear less foreign, these meats have been assigned American counterparts. Pancetta is Italian bacon. Prosciutto is Italian ham. The only difference, really, is that pancetta and prosciutto taste better than bacon and ham. Something holds me back from asking my father, “Why can’t things be different?”
“Que Sera, Sera” by Doris Day
The backseat of my great-aunt’s small Honda sedan swallows my sister and me because we’re so small in those days. Our great-grandmother’s sandwiched between us when she shouts to my great-aunt and Grandma Della in the front seat. “Why don’t you play the lullaby?” she asks. Already we can sing it forwards and backwards from memory, but my grandmother still puts the cassette into the player. Doris Day’s voice sounds young, refreshing. The three old women in the car know they sound terrible as they coo along with the song. I think our voices could carry us all the way to Broadway. I pinch my sister to make her join in as we all belt out the chorus.
My older sister can’t stop crying, so we leave our grandparents’ house early. When we discussed the upcoming election over eggplant parmesan, she voiced the wrong opinion. My grandfather’s conservatism is relentless, unable to cope with my sister’s liberal thinking. My mother broods in the front seat of the car and takes an opportunity to talk about respect. She says it isn’t the undying obedience of a woman to her husband. It isn’t the clear cut gender-roles. It isn’t voicing the opinion that won’t offend the man of the house. “Modern society’s antiquated that bullshit,” she says. My mother explains that respect is, however, when people value other people’s feelings, make others feel important, and above everything else, don’t expect all women to wash the dishes after a meal while men lounge at the table. This is when I think everything’s going to turn out fine.
The meat sauce is traditionally prepared before sunrise—left to simmer while the family goes to mass. Four generations later, my family’s lucky if we make it to church once or twice a year. The Sunday Dinner has survived, though, and we never ignore the weekly devotion to food. The sauce cooks all day and deepens in redness each hour. My father rolls the meatballs and asks if I like any of the girls at school. I brown the sausage in a pan and put it in the sauce half-raw. It has the entire day to finish cooking.
In a few years, my family will have been in America for a century.
I’m sorry. With me, bloodline and tradition will wither away in this country in a matter of decades. I am not so worthy of praise.
I grow up in Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes where we discuss the differences between worship and veneration. Worship is distinguished as solely for God. Veneration, however, is a term used to mean “giving the highest level of respect” to the sacred, but not the divine. To venerate is to honor the important. In those classes, we’re taught to venerate the Virgin Mary and all of the saints. Students are told that veneration means holding something so close that it becomes part of your essence.
Both the sun and the dough in the bowl on our kitchen counter have risen for a while. This is the day I wake up to see my father looking over me, letting me see him cry for the first time. “She told me,” he says, “It doesn’t change much.” We creep down the stairs and go to work, not saying a word to each other. He touches every CD on our rack before he picks one to put in the DVD player while I take the pasty-colored bundle out of the bowl and begin to slice it into strips. My father then heats a pan full of oil until it has ripples that run over the golden surface. I get out a plate and cover it in the sugar we’ll put on the dough once it’s fried, and then I finally set the table.
That’s when I hear a familiar noise. Over the cackling of the hot oil, “Que Sera, Sera” starts to play. My father hums along as he places the first strip of dough into the pan. The sounds of cooking intensify, but so does the music. It isn’t until I flip the piece of dough over and cook the other side that I chime in with the chorus.