I grew up in an Italian household. Food mattered.
All three of us boys would vie to join Dad on his weekend shopping trips, where the Japanese truck farmers would save prize tomatoes, onions and melons for his weekly visit.
I remember how Papa Vincenzo would break into his Neopolitan slang ordering prosciutto and capicola at the Italian delicatessen. How the butchers at our local Purity market, with its fresh sawdust on hardwood floors, would cut steaks extra thick for one of their best customers.
My mom once wrote out her recipe for Italian spaghetti sauce: six handwritten pages, both sides. It took most of a day – prepping, cooking, serving and cleaning up.
It was an Italian tradition to send the first son off for clerical training. As the oldest, when I was one year old, my mom had written in my baby book that I would make a great priest.
So it was I found myself, at 14, thrown into a boarding school setting at St. Joseph’s Catholic seminary in California. I was free of parental fights, sibling battles and the cloister of family life. Instead, I was a free agent in a class of peers, although carefully bound by the Rule, as they called the social contract of seminary life, with its built-in rigors of religious training.
The freedom was empowering. The Rule a little daunting. But the food was horrible.
At St. Joseph’s – a minor seminary covering four years of high school and two years of college – we ate in large refectories. There was a raised dais for the dozen or so priests, a giant crucifix with a realistically bloody corpus, and a high lectern at one end where a student would read a suitably educational novel during “silent meals” when speaking wasn’t allowed.
All six years of students sat at nine-person tables with seating assignments made hierarchically. The table head was a college student. And the descending order ended with the lowly six-latiners (freshman high schoolers) whose job it was to pile dirty dishes into two metal pans at the opposite end of the table. All silverware and food arrived at the “pilers.” However, it was distributed as ordered by the table head, and returned to the pilers for collection by the giant pushcart that was led up and down the hall and back into the kitchen. There, cloistered nuns provided the only oblique feminine contact by preparing and giving food to the servers who wheeled it out into the hall and on to the tables.
It wasn’t the formal setting or the prayers and enforced silences that grated on my sensibilities. It was what was served. Our vulgar names for recurring dishes spoke volumes on that account. Plums in a syrup sauce: “buzzard balls.” And there were worse.
It was institutional food at its most economical. I heard it once said that the cost of feeding us was something like 50 cents a person per day. I once cut open a “ravioli” – a chunky square of overcooked dough that bore only facsimile relationship to the hand-cut cuisine al dente that I was used to – swimming in a watery tomato gruel of utterly bland flavor. Inside was a dead fly.
But every hell has its heaven, and what saved my finely-tuned taste buds from gustatory collapse was the institution of a monthly “Visiting Sunday.” For those of us lucky enough to live close to our homes, our families were allowed to visit their sons one weekend a month.
It was a big deal. Families held huge picnics on the landscaped grounds of the seminary. Parents and siblings wanted to see their favored sons, and seminarians were treated like family royalty. That meant I was encouraged to request the choicest of dishes. Eggplant “Mulinyam” (in my Dad’s dialect) – a molinara rich in cheese, egg and a thick tomato paste bursting with spices. Gnocchi; breaded and fried baby artichokes; calamari; olive oil and vinegar salads; angel food cakes. And almost every weekend, there would be a ripe artichoke half that I would fill with French dressing and gorge on. A treat I enjoy to this day.
One can endure lots of hardship, if there’s a reward waiting in the wings. It perhaps doesn’t seem to balance out, thinking back on it. But those once-a-month gourmet feasts made up for the weeks of cheese and noodles, watered-down soups and loaves so white we pressed them into soft alabaster marbles to toss at each other when the priests and table heads weren’t watching.
Eating is one of life’s great pleasures. And, early in one’s life, having it reduced to a daily drudgery of the insipid and the tasteless was a burden for sure. But the bright light of one’s family coming to the rescue, with the best of personal vittles, taught me the importance of healthy, flavorful foods.
I left the seminary. I became a poet and a politician instead of a priest. And instead of institutional food, I’ve been a connoisseur of the delectable ever since.