Today for far too brief a moment within a three-day, 93 year old, Feast of the Three Saints in Lawrence MA, I strolled down one blocked off road to witness what I expected… FOOD.
If there is anything I remember about my Italian stepfather it was him saying after every pant busting, dozen course meal “Did you get enough to eat?” Like somehow I might have been wasting away in a corner. He also said quite regularly to me “You look good since you put on some weight” obviously proud of the fact that I had in fact had more than enough to eat.
From him I learned about the Feast of the Seven Fishes where lobsters were cooked with the shell on in a deep pot of (red) gravy, salted cod soaked for days for baccala salad, and smelts and shrimp were prepared any number of ways. I remember my aunt’s scrunched up face and comic book wide eyes when on Christmas Eve she commented on the wonderful stuffed shells only to be told they were calamari aka squid. Aunt Shirl is not an adventurous Italian eater, though she loves pasta and sauce dearly. It was I hope a well kept secret that my sister and I brought our lobsters into the kitchen sink and washed off the sauce that first time only, because the messy quotient outweighed the taste factor before our horizons were broadened.We were brought into an alien world of sambuca and espresso and camomile tea. Of dozens more pasta types than elbow macaroni, ziti (why weren’t all tubes called ziti), and spaghetti – now we had fusilli, and orechetti, farfalle, and vermicelli and conchiglie.
We were Yankees after all, with our cupboards filled with the most minimal spices and herbs. Our French Canadian heritage meant we regularly seasoned with butter and wine, oregano, salt and pepper, and only on Thanksgiving, Bells Seasoning powder for stuffing, onions were allowed, garlic no. But that was it.
When I worked in my stepfather’s office, his mother who lived upstairs would regularly bring me sandwiches (spuckies, is that the Italian word?) and if I’d say “Oh gee, I’ve already eaten lunch” she’d tell me it wasn’t lunch, it was just a sandwich….with some cookies…and chips. From her I learned about potatoes and eggs. Mangia, Mangia.
Since then I’ve followed my stomach to a variety of places where I’d be fed too much of that wonderful food. I worked in Italian-owned restaurants – Pierros, and The Line and learned about pizza gana, naughtily named Puttenesca sauce, and fried dough with Midori liqueur, and voiced my opinion in the regional Slush wars – was it Richies or Royals. My second job in advertising had a sweets-baking, live-in Italian grandmother so it was a regular occurrence to find, sitting on my desk sometimes on my keyboard, a surprise, full bundt cake-sized, breathalyzer-raising cake imbibed with rum. I always obeyed the open container law with those cakes and left them in the back seat and waited for the safety of home to indulge. More recently I helped convert a series of memories into a book and in the process learned to make 5 hour meatballs where the secret ingredient was pilfered celery leaves. I blogged about the meatball experience and got dozens of requests for the recipe from people willing to put in the work while living in an age of inexpensive, prepared meals at every grocery store and gas station. I myself made them twice before becoming a vegetarian for unrelated reasons.
So here I was at The Feast of the Three Saints, smelling the peppers and onions, and watching the scali bread baking lesson, strolling into the Tripoli Bakery for a sniff and a peek, not really to buy. I was among my people again so it should have all been familiar, but I witnessed something I’d never seen before…a cannoli eating competition. 10 cannolis, 3 minutes, 12 candidates. Tripoli’s Bakery supplied a mix of cannolis including ricotta the most traditional, vanilla, and chocolate and with a thickening crowd (in both meanings of the words), crushing in closer to view the densely rich treats as the authentic Italian woman in the jaunty pink hat brought exactly two boxes at a time gingerly through the crowd, careful not to crush each hefty treasure. She was greeted with massive applause from crowd and contestants alike.
A bottle of water for each nervous contestant, and the official timer said “Eat”.
I couldn’t believe it. They were shoving these things down their throats without savoring the cheese, with no concern for keeping the powdered sugar from their t-shirts. Things got ugly. The winner had a special technique bending low over the box and in the end smashing up cannolis in his hands to more quickly ingest the slimy mash. He had his children chanting “More, More, More” and “Faster, Faster, Faster”, rooting for him with an allegiance typically reserved for a polarizing presidential candidate. He couldn’t lose, not in front of his kids. And he didn’t. After 9 cannolis, I’m sure it will be tough to appreciate the prize for a while. I think it was a dinner gift certificate.
Ironically the guy who came in second had a t-shirt that read “I am literally the most awesome person in your universe.” I, replied in my most grammar Nazi way, “it’s second most awesome now” and he gleefully said he was fine with that.
One young contestant, upon learning he could take home any cannolis he didn’t eat during the contest, slowly consumed just one! He had his prize of – 9 cannolis – and left room in his stomach for more Feast fare. Kid’s got genius genes!
But seeing them gorge themselves on cannolis so soon after my healthy breakfast, meant I could not eat another thing. But I’ve said that before in the presence of Italians, and I’ve never been any good at that resolve. While I truly felt the last thing I wanted to do was eat, the chance to have a fresh cannoli in the middle of an Italian festival was not likely to happen again soon. So we headed back to Tripoli Bakery where the words jumped out of my mouth like I’d been ordering them weekly – “we’ll have 2 cannolis, large, ricotta with chocolate chips, hold the powdered sugar.” And the shell was fresh and crunchy, and the filling not too sweet, and after just that one, I knew I could answer, “Yup, I got enough to eat.”
(c) Alison Colby-Campbell