The Italians say that if an unmarried woman were given a vision of all the dishes she'd have to wash during her married life, she'd stay single. Growing up in an Italian family, the only daughter between two sons, I was sure this was true. After all, wasn't it the Italians who invented the antipasto, that delectable excuse for pulling out all the dishes from the cupboard and filling them with tasty snippets? And wasn't it the females in the family who afterwards would wipe the olive oil from the plates and scrub them with suds, while the men folk drained their glasses of Chianti over a game of briscola?So I couldn't say that I hadn't been warned. But when I came of marriageable age - 14 in Calabrese years - I decided that the old-world wisdom wasn't worth the candied cherry in a St. Joseph's Day cream puff. I mean, how impressed could I be by a black-shawled old lady talking about dirty dishes? Anyway, that many dirty dishes happened only to other people so, at the spinsterish age of 25, I went ahead and married a perfect man who had it all.
All except a dishwasher. Well, I've since learned a few things that Nonna never taught me. For example, I've learned that children with Italian blood - unlike dinner guests on Italian-themed sitcoms, or real-life Sicilian widows in their umpteenth year of mournin - don't need any encouragement to "mangia." I've also learned that spouses with Italian blood don't need any encouragement to, um, propagate.
Couples have children. Children eat. These are two simple truths that, in my life, have meant more love, more joy, and more cooking and cleaning than the Godfather would mete out to his worst enemy.
But during my carefree childhood in the Bronx's Little Italy, cooking and cleaning were to me as unfamiliar as life below East 90th Street, and just about as relevant.
Unlike most of the girls in my neighbor-hood, I didn't know the first thing about housekeeping. For some reason my mom wasn't given the gene which drives Italian mammas to teach their daughters how to hang laundry, mend woolen stockings, cut ravioli and fetch papa's slippers - all before the age of five. I had only two chores, which I performed weekly. One was to polish the brass kick plate on the front door. The other was to tend the swan.
The swan, made of clear, hollow plastic, lived on our coffee table. It was filled with colored water which, every Saturday morning, I would pour out through a small opening in the swan's back. Then I'd tint a pint of water with my choice of McCormick food coloring, refill the swan, and place it back on the table. End of chores.
Needless to say, I had lots of time on my hands, especially during the summer months. But I was never bored. One reason for that was that there was almost always a celebration just around the corner - literally. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church, only three blocks from my house, held observances of holy days and holidays throughout the year. The street festivals, commonly called "the feasts," were the most popular of these. When a feast was in progress, East 183rd Street looked like an evacuation route: apartment buildings stood silent and empty, while their residents jammed the street in a noisy throng. The kids came for the midway games and trinkets, the teens came looking for romance, the older folks came to visit with the neighbors...and everyone came for the food. Everyone, that is, but my mother.
Mom scorned the food stands as places where inferior goods were prepared for visiting non-Italians who - poor souls! - didn't know what real Italian food tasted like. She had a particular contempt for the zeppole that were sold at the feast. Mom wouldn't be surprised, she said, to learn that they were fried in the same stuff that had kept our '53 Ford running smoothly for over a decade. Authentic zep-pole, she maintained, were cooked in pure olive oil, which is how she made them for her own family. At our house, no holiday meal was complete until these deep-fried delicacies appeared on the table:
1 cup water 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 jigger cognac or brandy 1 cup pastry flour 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup powdered sugar
Combine water, salt, and cognac in large saucepan; bring to a boil. Remove from heat, add flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. Place saucepan over low heat and continue mixing until dough is dry and stiff. Pour the two tablespoons of oil on a pastry board; place dough on board. When the dough is cool enough to handle, knead it until oil is absorbed and dough is elastic.
Roll dough into a long rope of finger-sized thickness. Cut rope into 12 sections, each about six inches long, and form each section into a ring. Prick rings with fork; heat remaining oil and fry zeppole a few at a time until crisp and golden. Sprinkle with powdered sugar; serve warm. Makes 12 zeppole.
Delicious morsels, these fresh "zeps," were loved by my older brother. But one had to be pre-pubescent in order to enjoy them, cooled-down and greasy, as breakfast food.
"Joe! Where's the zeps?" "It's eight in the morning! Whaddaya mean, 'zeps'? You're not gonna eat them for breakfast, are you?"
Well, yes, I was. And I did. So did Joe, for that matter.
And why not? The carbohydrate boost that kids get from eating cold pizza in the morning is nothing compared to the kick-start provided by dense, oily zeppole rings pressed into a saucer of granulated sugar and devoured with gusto.
Celeste L. Behe is a resident of Lower Saucon Township. She can be e-mailed at Celeste.L.Behe@gmail.com