Saturday, October 12, 2013

More Than A Recipe
A Culinary Memoir from a Happy Family Life

I assure you that what is to follow is an authentic, perfectly legitimate account of how we used to live back in the 1940’s and early 50’s when most of the family still lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  The recipe for calamari, as Aunt Weesie made it, takes a lot of work, and it may be hard today to find fresh squid [the gutted, frozen, processed "rings" or denuded “carcasses” you may find at the supermarket have no flavor whatsoever -- take it from me], but anyway if done right, this recipe is a gourmet treat extraordinaire, IF you like the taste of MARINE life, that is. If you don’t, you really don’t belong in our family.

Back in those magical days of my childhood our Aunt Weesie staged an annual culinary ritual –– an event we frankly enjoyed more than Christmas. It centered on individual calamari (about 50 of varying lengths), each one gutted, skinned, debeaked, and thoroughly rinsed. The tentacles were reserved and set in a bowl of icy cold salted water along with the calamari "shells."  [We used to joke about the shells looking just like torpedoes, which they certainly did.] 

After each little squid and set of tentacles had been prepared thusly, they were taken out, patted dry on clean dish towelling, then stuffed with a mixture of bread, egg, grated Romano cheese, finely minced fresh parsley, the merest hint of puréed garlic, salt and fresh ground pepper. Each open end was then stitched shut with white thread to prevent the stuffing from escaping during the cooking, then lightly sautéed in imported olive oil for 2 or 3 minutes –– no more.

After the calamari had been sealed by the sautéeing process, the stitches were carefully removed.

Raw material from the fishmonger

MEANWHILE, we had, of course, prepared in advance an enormous quantity of homemade marinara sauce using a peck of fresh Italian plum tomatoes. 

First the bottom of the sauce pot was covered lightly in olive oil, then six or eight cloves of fresh garlic fully peeled and cut into coarse chunks were sautéed until they turned golden brown. 

The garlic was then REMOVED on a slotted spoon and discarded. [This is important. Overcooked or undercooked garlic is unpleasant to say the least. BURNED garlic is absolute HELL.]

Salt and Pepper were added to taste along with a tablespoon or two of chopped fresh basil, and maybe a teaspoon of sugar, but only if the tomatoes seemed too tart, and then the tomatoes, themselves, each cut into several pieces to ease cooking time. 

All this was simmered –– very gently –– for at least an hour and half, then cooled, and put in batches through a FOLEY MILL, a then-state-of-the-art device that made it possible to strain out all the seeds and skins without the bother of having to push the mixture through a sieve by hand using the back of a wooden spoon.

I neglected to tell you cooking calamari this way is a three-day affair. The marinara sauce, itself, could be prepared well in advance, of course, but the process of cleaning, stuffing, and sautéeing the squid took hours, and was usually done the day before the family festival was to take place. 

The rest is easy, but still time-consuming: 

The marinara sauce was reheated to the simmering point, but NOT BOILED, the calamari were then placed in the sauce along with their tentacles, covered loosely, and simmered for about 2 hours frequently stirred, of course at ten or fifteen minute intervals.

Meanwhile, Cousin Eddie and his wife Geraldine, or Uncle Bill and Auntie Anne always brought fresh loaves of crusty Italian bread and assorted pastries from a wonderful Old World Italian bakeshop on New York's lower east side, and we at home prepared a big salad with fresh greens that often included Belgian endive, baby spinach leaves, radicchio, a minced scallion or two, and possibly some arrugala along with whatever lettuce looked most appetizing at the greengrocer's at the time. This was dressed with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, pureed garlic, chopped basil, a tiny bit of Dijon mustard and a few anchovies mashed up and liquefied.

After the company arrived, a big pot of salted water was put to the boil, the linguine was cooked al dente, the calamari were removed from the gently simmering sauce one by one and placed on a platter, the sauce was ladled over individual servings of linguine. Extra sauce was brought to the table in a large gravy boat accompanied by a silver ladle.

Everyone sat down, the salad was served, then the piece de resistance was presented along with a basket of crusty, freshly baked Italian bread.

The grown ups drank red wine, the kids were given lemonade  prepared by Grandpa using his own secret method [He never did tell anyone how he did it, but it was very special].

Later on espresso, usually made by Uncle Bill in the beautifully crafted copper pot brought over from Italy so many years before, was served with the assorted pastries.

Afterward, we'd all gather around the piano and sing familiar songs –– or Uncle Joe, who among other things had accompanied Vaudeville acts at the Palace, –– would bring his ukelele and accompany Aunt Weesie as they went through their clownish antics complete with fake mustaches and paper Derbies which always left us all in stitches.

And then toward evening, if the weather was fine, we all went out and took a nice long walk to look at The Narrows, watch the sunset and see the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe's Island which was just visible from where we stood. 

After we got back to the apartment, everyone helped Aunt Weesie put the food away, though there were scarcely ever any leftovers, and do the dishes. All parted reluctantly, but went home contented eagerly looking forward to the next family get together.

And I can tell you this with absolute certainty:


These memories become increasingly precious with each passing year. I wish everyone had had the good fortune to have been blest with a family as wonderful as mine was then.

Aunt Weesie c. 1946
In gratitude and loving memory, 



  1. Often, dietary taste is something we learn early on -- if our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, etc., are excellent cooks. [No men in my family ever cooked until my generation! Go figure]

    My mother hated all fish except tuna and shrimp. Her hatred of fish stemmed from her growing up on the Tennessee River and from having to fry fish day after day for all the folk who descended on the homeplace so as to get fresh catch.

    Mom felt the same way about chicken because she slaughtered and ate so much of the fowl. For years, Mom got up every morning to kill 80 chickens, dress them out, then deliver them to a local restaurant here in Northern Virginia.

    We rarely had any kind of fish on our dinner plates when I was growing up -- with the exception of shad when the shad was running. Ah, that shad roe! Delicious!


  2. However, we did eat some "exotic" foods, the meat obtained via Dad's hunting skills: venison (Lots!), quail, rabbit, squirrel (never much cared to it), groundhog (only once -- couldn't get all the mud out), goose, duck, and bear (Delicious!).

    Mom drew the line at raccoon and opossum because both meats was so greasy. Too easy to catch fire!

    BTW, the childhood food that I miss the most is wild persimmons. Yummy!

  3. The older we get, the more precious those childhood memories become. As WWII wound down, for me
    it was the magic of being pulled on a sled through deep snow through Wisconsin's northwoods:
    a stopping place in a small clearing in the pines; warm campfire; hotdogs on a stick;
    cocoa..and the quiet of large snowflakes falling the entire time.
    (now days, would probably freeze my posterior!)

  4. That is so lovely. How reminiscent of days gone by. Yes the bygone era of the late 40s and early 50s. I was not born until 1956 so my memories are more of the late 50s and early 60s - but families even then made elaborate meals and got together as families, even if it was not Christmas. My Grandparents made the best lamb in the world. I never did get grandma's recipe or the one for her meat and cheese strudel that my grandfather made. Though I have found wonderful replacement recipes on my own with my research (aside from being a paralegal I am a researcher).

    What I found most appealing was the family unit, the love, the unity, something that is truly a bygone era. Now people and family are freaks, women are complete bimbots or looneytoons or worse b******. Men are and women both are lovers of themselves and see nowhere beyond their world.

    The picture is so lovely and reminds me on my family, once close knit, but now many gone to be with the Lord and the rest running round like the rest of this crazy world forgetting what it truly means to be compassionate, honest and decent people.

    We can have wonderful food but without good people to share it with it is better to eat alone.

  5. I appreciate those who caught the spirit of the article very much. Those who did not -- a majority so far, Alas! -- got deleted forthwith.

    We require more than sincerity here; we insist on relevancy. Not CONFORMITY --- RELEVANCY.

  6. This is a wonderful post on shared family traditions.

    I have several recipes for calamari handed down from my aunts and Nonna.

    I'm happy to add this one to my collection.

    One has to be careful when one cooks squid. I've found the best outcomes are when I use fresh calamari.

    A few of my non-Italian family members won't eat it because they claim it's bait.

    Delicious bait!

  7. Thank you, this is beautiful!


  8. Che meraviglia! Sei molto fortunato ad avere queste ricordi. Questo e Italiano!


  9. You ate very sophisticated food as a child. Probably because of the Italian part of your family? Most of those foods I didn't discover until I was an adult.

    An old friend from way back

  10. Wow! I married an Italian native. My husband's sister makes this exact same dish. And when we are in Italy his sister-in-law makes it too. I have gotten to like calamari in all of its forms. So, I really appreciated your description of the "festival."


  11. This sounds like A LOT OF WORK! Do you still DO this?

    My mom used to make baccala. It smelled terrible, I never got past that to taste it.

    PM in Jacksonville

  12. What a wonderful memory!

    Dinner sounds fantastic but waaaay to much work for me. Of course that's what makes it such a special occasion and so memorable. You are lucky to have had such a wonderful family to reflect back on.

    Linda from New Brunswick, Canada

  13. love calamari made by my Italian relatives, but the preparation was NOWHERE like this!

    Marvin M

  14. Oh God I'm craving squid now!!!! Darn you.


  15. Thank you FT! Proof yet again that these are the things we treasure as life goes on. It is never what we acquired or the titles we had, but rather the precious memories of families and the love they contain, however it was expressed that sustains us through the years. - Jan

  16. What a wonderful memory, thanks for sharing! Hugs,


  17. Great story, please tell us more about you Aunt Weenie

  18. Loved you blog and your current post.
    It’s rare for me to discover something on the internet that is as entertaining and fascinating as what you have got here. Your page is lovely, your graphics are great, and what’s more, you use source that are relevant to what you’re talking about. You’re definitely one in a million, well done!Invite you to my blog.

  19. All right, Kamryn.

    The picture I posted is not really one of my aunt, but the surrogate "Weesie" is a very similar "type," though by no means her double.

    Having been petite, rather chic, always beautifully dressed, and the owner and chief executive officer of a Moving and Storage business, if you would believe, my Aunt Weesie was anything but the stereotypical Italian Grandma.

    She was widowed young -- one of the family's many tragedies -- and left to raise a small child as a single mother. One of our older relatives, -- a distant cousin of my grandfather -- who had been born in Italy, and done very well for himself here, set her up in that unlikely business.

    Against all odds she really made a go of it. Much to her credit she ran that business with great efficiency and won the respect and affection of all who worked for her -- especially the big, tough, "moving men," who looked formidable, but were in fact tender-hearted and understanding. They were not educated, and murdered the language talking the true Brooklynese" of the day including the classic "dese," "dems" and "doze," and flushing the "terlet," going to "choitch" on Sunday, and putting "earl" in the "foinace" (!), but they were stout-hearted, loyal and true blue when it came to working for their "little boss" -- she was not five feet in height, and never weighed as much as a hundred pounds, but she had true tensile strength, abundant energy and a quality of character and determination few could comprehend today.

    If only we could really get to know each other, instead of dealing in assumptions and projected stereotypes, I'm sure most of us could love and appreciate each other a great deal more than we seem to these days.

    Most people are quietly heroic and deserve much more credit than they get. Aunt Luisa was certainly one of them, God bless her!

  20. What a wonderful experience to have! How much care it took to accomplish such a feast!!!

    And how delightful your reminiscence of it. I can practically taste it.

    Tryon Fiddler

  21. This is very evocative. You might be able to publish it, especially in some magazine aimed at the niche market of Italian-Americans in the Northeast—not just Brooklyn. There are lots of Italian-Americans, for example, in the North End of Boston. If you look, you may well find a readership.

    Big Food occasions were about the only times when my my mother’s relatives didn’t fight with each other. My father's family was still in Cuba then, but I assume their big family occasions were happy affairs. Certainly the ones I’ve experienced over the last 20 years or so have been.




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