FOOD FOR THOUGHT
People will wisely eat most anything. Starvation stalks us like a vulture. Famine haunts the feast. Hunter, gatherer, scavenger, farmer; all have died of want. What we may hold in our genes or in the collective unconscious is no less real than our fear of hunger. I recall as a kid growing up in NYC going to different delicatessens and seeing what was up at the lunch counter. At first I thought it was only Italians that ate anything. I was fed tripe, snails, beef tongue, chicken gizzards, lamb heads, eels, clams, squid, and octopus. The household menu was in Sicilian or Italian. Everything had two names depending on if my mother or father was talking. Snails were either babbalucci or scungilli. My mom, so young and slender back then, all wavy brown hair and big brown eyes, sang in the kitchen while the pot boiled and snails clung to the inside lid desperate to escape. One would somehow get away and I got caught playing with it on the kitchen floor at my mother’s feet. She scooped it up and popped it back in the pot. Still singing mom stirred the little snail into the vat along with the others. Soon they would all be quite dead and added to the tomato sauce. There they would simmer for hours in the rich seasoning of garlic, olive oil, salt and black pepper. Snails and all were then ladled generously over linguine. It made for strong sauce, not so much as calamari, but flavorful. I never ate a snail, however, which to do so meant delicately extracting it from its shell with a toothpick and then adding it to a mouthful of pasta. After dinner I played with the empty shells.
Perhaps the most insolent form of ingratitude is the expectation that one will never go hungry. Those who have been granted abundance lose sight of this. They do not feel the hunger of others and rarely if ever feel hungry themselves. They get a sense of when it is time to eat but they suffer no pain in the belly, no desperation. They take what they put in their mouths for granted even if it really isn’t food, more or less, but something food like, near food, or a food by product just as long as it is cheap, convenient and fast. One buys a burger in a bag through a window and gobbles it up while driving, choking down a slithering side of fries and gulping soda. Even shit is food to a maggot. Fast food is the pornography of dining out.
My family sometimes ate out. Once when I was about seven we went to some joint in Little Italy. I no longer remember its name but it bordered on Chinatown somewhere around Doyer. The tangled streets of lower Manhattan are a labyrinth criss- crossing time and cultures. Even then I was impressed by the scale and congestion of the city. Doyer is short, narrow and twisting with a sharp turn at nearly a right angle. It runs between Pell and Bowery. A scant two hundred feet it is known as “The Bloody Angle”. My father told me it was the scene of ambushes in the Tong Wars, now long ago, when rival Chinese gangs fought each other with hatchets. Pop was not a big man but robust and mustachioed, light skinned for an Italian with hazel eyes. I told him that I thought only Italians were gangsters, but he was done talking.
The restaurant was a small plain room with picnic tables and mismatched table cloths. It was well lit from big storefront windows that clung to the sidewalk hugging the street. We were a large family. A mob of mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters all arrived at once filling the place up. The grandparents sat at the head of the table mostly quiet but the rest of the family was loud and happy. Wine and song flowed. There was a mix of Italian and English and somehow food was ordered. Bread and antipasto first and eventually waiters swept in carrying large trays over their heads. Testa di agnello or capozzelli depending on dialect, or lamb head in English, was served all around. Yes, the eyes were still staring out but with a flat expression and the thin skin of the skull was roasted dark brown. The treasure was inside the head as eyes, tongue and brains were broken out and spread on thick, crusty Italian bread. This I did not eat. I was told that I didn’t know what I was missing. I thought, yes I do, I am missing eating brains, eyes and tongue. I guess I was never hungry enough to appreciate how it came to be not only acceptable but desirable to eat lamb heads.
I noticed over time that other nationalities were just as quick to eat things that most Americans would get the shivers thinking about. The Germans and Eastern Europeans had blood soup, blood sausage, oxtails and head cheese. There were pig knuckles and pig ears in jars like lab specimens, dried fish with their heads attached, their eyeballs glossy and round. I ate none of this, but I saw how it was relished by the immigrant elders in the neighborhood. Except for the Jews, who managed to create an edible hot dog among other tastier, more nutritious and safe cuisine. After all eating shellfish simply isn’t Kosher. Among the gentiles, however, the human palate does not discriminate. As for blood soup, I leave that to the imagination. I hope never to be that hungry.
I remembered my cousin Lou Scurti from Jersey City and his wife Rosie. She, an Italian redhead who must have lived in an apron, him bald with a kind of Fred Flintstone look but imagine an Italian Fred Flintstone. Lou worked for the city using his hands doing I don’t know what. Rosie would mix up a bowl of leftovers at the kitchen table. It would be some pasta, and cold cuts, some salad, limp veggies and whatever which she would stir up altogether into a mush. I thought she was getting it ready for Mitzi the dog but Louey would come home from work and eat it. Years later as a young dad I would sometimes come home late from work and raid the fridge. I found myself, without thinking about the Scurtis, mixing up all the leftovers in bowl and chow down. Once my young daughters caught me mixing up a bowl of leftover macaroni and cheese and Campbell’s beans. They called it “blech”. I guess I was hungry enough for that. In imitation, they fed bowls of broken crayons to their dolls.
But it was as I found myself living in the midwest and many years away from my childhood that I got a sense of how America often bleaches out ethnicity. Although there are farm country mechanics who can tell you of their roots and migrations going back four generation on both sides of the family, there are also descendants of Italian immigrants who came to the coal country of Appalachia a hundred years ago and no longer have the imprint of Italy upon them. I know that my children and grandchildren still see the Italian in me, and my wife with wicked affection often calls me Prince Giuseppe. I wonder, however, if my ancestors, the Cirallo, Alaimo, the Bocchicchio and Magdaglia families would recognize me as one of their own. Their names are not death certificates, not evidence of extinction engraved on tombstones on two continents, but a poem, names as satisfying as a full belly after a good meal. For there are times, even when dining alone, that I light a candle and listen to Beniamino Gigli sing the songs of my ancestors in full throated Italian. I sit in my white shirt eating a plate of pasta and oil with anchovies, black olives, garlic and crushed red pepper which I myself cooked while half drunk on red wine. It is at the crescendo of Santa Lucia that I am most likely to be moved to tears.
Joseph Bocchicchio was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, NYC. He moved to Ohio and attended Kent State University where he studied History, Philosophy and Public Health. While in Ohio he met and married his wife Victoria. They have two children, now grown with kids of their own. Joseph worked for 24 years in Community Mental Health in Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. Joe is also an activist and community organizer having facilitated Poverty, Creative Writing and Theater of the Oppressed Workshops for the indigent and working poor. He also did grass roots organizing for opiate addiction treatment and suicide prevention for the Last Letter Project in Akron, Ohio. Joe is now retired and living in Boston, Massachusetts with Victoria. Joe works part time for The Old South Meeting House Museum and Historic Site where he researches and does presentations on various historical topics. His poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared in Ovunque Siamo, Cut-Throat, Up-street, Jawbone, Entropy, Panning for Poems, Enclave, and The Daily Clout. He also has an entry in a Wick Poetry Center’s Chap Book, River of Words, from the 2017 Edith Chase Symposium conducted at Kent State University. He also has poetry accepted for Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center’s Traveling Stanzas project.