Growing up in a Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in the 60’s and 70’s was never without its challenges.
I lived on a block with homes that had stoops and few trees in a neighborhood that was a huge melting pot of different cultures. The best part and fondest memories of this was sharing a family meal with one of your best bud’s neighbor families and learning about their cultures and their traditional foods.
As a young boy, I tried to compare sights and smells of the cooking pots in these different neighbor melting pot families to one another. They seemed to me then to be the size of a bathtub-sized oil drum, used to feed the entire gathered clan and each stove had multiple pots that size cooking all at once.
On my block there were a mixture of Jews, as well as Italians, French, Dutch, Germans, Irish, Scottish, and Chinese, of all ages and levels of generational decent. Each cooked a traditional home-style family meal, mostly on weekends, as eating out was a rarity.
I loved to try different things and always had an open mind and palate. Yet trying to explain to my matzoh-eating friends what others called calamad (loosely pronounced Kali-marry) was and why anyone would willingly eat squid, was never an easy thing. Having peanut butter and marshmallow fluff in school was considered an exotic meal in my day and so was drinking tang. My maternal grandfather would have tried to Spackle walls with fluff before thinking to eat it. And astronauts who walked on the moon loved tang.
There were these awkward moments during the summer weekend visits by my and the other kids’ immigrant grandmothers to the kitchens of their offspring to help cook the “family weekend meal” when schools were out. And these seasoned cooks seemed to relish the idea of when the friends of their grandchildren of other cultures came as guests. Their mantra seemed to be “cook to impress and be obsessed with their guests.”
However, as I learned later, it was just the pure joy of “the more, the merrier” instead. The food smells could make your mouth water and it would hours before it was ready. Plus the fact that we were generally playing outside near the stoop, and the smells of the kitchen were constantly wafting to us from open windows.
I found a communication and comprehension issue to be more magnified, especially when I visited my friend’s homes that served Italian food than others. My friends probably experienced the same when they came over my house and tried to deal with my Nana’s broken Yiddish/Hebrew/lower Manhattanese verbiage of explaining of having served “Hullup Chas” instead of stuffed cabbage or “Sha Main” instead of Chow Mein. I shudder to think what they thought she might have said was in her “Shabbat Chulant”, but my friends ate it with gusto anyway.
Italian Food seemed, to a young me, to be a language all its own without a learning curve. Ricotta was Ri-Gut, Bologna was Bal-o-ney, with no G sound at all. Prosciutto was Pro-shoot, cappicola was called Gabba-ghoul (don’t ask!) Mozzarella was Motts, gnocci was Gan-och, and Parmesan was simply Parm.
When all my buddies and I came over Joey’s house, you’d eventually hear an adult exclaim, "What do you mean you want more sauce on your chicken parm?" Henceforth, at an early age and through careful observation, I surmised that, if it is on pasta, it is called sauce and on meat, it is called gravy, regardless of color and even if it looks like Ragu tomato sauce. A good guest would call it by its proper name.
My friend Joey’s mom ran a pretty progressive Italian kitchen. His Gamma (grandmother) was more traditional and would hover over my 96 pound, 14-year-old frame and say,” Manga, manga, facho brute” to me, which when literally translated seemed to mean “eat, eat, stuff your ugly face,” but Joey’s mom assured me it was just figurative instead of literal translation of harmless encouragement to fatten up my skin and bones emaciated look and not a specific comment about my facial features. And boy, did I get made fun of by Joey’s relatives, when I asked for more raviolees or manicottees.
On the other hand, Eric’s family hardly stuck to serving only Italian food during the weekends, just like mine did not serve gefilte fish or Schav (a cold vegetable soup) unless it was the holidays. We made other dishes on weekends. Where as many Long Island families like to barbeque, so would Eric’s mom, which was unique back then. His grandmother would make other dishes too. Enchiladas, shish kabob, dumplings and more.
However she loved to make macaroni. Pasta was what fancy restaurants served. Macaroni was what it was called in my friends’ homes. And although it had other names like penne, ziti, spaghetti, bow ties, cavatelli, angel hair, lasagna, linguini, shells, elbows, etc. It was just noodles of different thickness and shapes. And all was really delicious.
It also seemed that always these dishes, in traditional Italian houses were served with meat. There would be sausage or meatballs, chicken, turkey or veal, and almost always a homemade sauce from scratch of some kind that simmered for hours and hours and hours. A later observation changed my original view, now Sauce was always, I mean ALWAYS called gravy in these super traditional homes, whatever it was on. Tomato sauce, Marinara sauce, red clam sauce, Alfredo sauce or Pesto sauce was still gravy
When Ms. Lincoln, the big Southern lunch matron at Cunningham JHS, my public school cafeteria lady, offered a spaghetti and meatball dish to me, and I asked for more gravy on it, her response was, “We’s ain’t gots no gravy today child. No turkey or meatloafs, which means you want sauce.” She was sweet and kind and I loved when she referred to me affectionately as “child.”
With Joey and Kenny snickering by my side, the light bulb went off and I finally figured it out, that where I was standing or sitting determined the name of certain foods. Just like when we were away upstate in the Catskill Mountains and people referred to soda as pop and heroes as subs. So I began a new chapter, to ask whether it was called gravy or sauce, before I ordered my meal.
Most recently, I have now once again realized that even asking this simple question from my childhood can lead to knockdown, vehement verbal arguments, particularly with certain Long Island clans that I am close friends with now, like the Polancos, Spallinas and Zummos, where a majority maintain that, “it is gravy, and never sauce and that people who even ask are pazzo (crazy).” Well we all live and learn.