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SO WHERE’S ALL THE COOKING STUFF?

In the “About Us” section of this web-site, I alleged you could look forward to some recipes and commentary on my hobby of cooking…but so far I’ve been indulging all my other interests and spewing prose as if I were on the lecture circuit and getting paid by the word. With that in mind, I will begin to make good on my threat (promise, whatever.)

Truth be told, I have already written my cookbook, entitled “Second Helpings” for which I am now seeking a publisher. As I have come to learn, even though I have made a quite decent living writing and speaking, from a lawyer’s platform, to get published, with any hope of a modicum of commercial success, you need a writer’s platform — thus this web-site and my blog.

While I’m not quite ready to peddle my book, I am prepared to demonstrate to any who will take the time to read my prose, I do have a literary voice and actually know how to cook. Today, I’ll offer my proof of the former. In my next post, I’ll tackle the latter.

Now, with no further ado, here is an excerpt from “Second Helpings” that speaks volumes about how I grew up.

The Pasta Rules

Every culture has its carbohydrate staple. In some, it’s rice, in others it’s potato and in mine, it’s pasta. Growing up, I had a pasta course with every dinner meal. For more than a few years, I could tell the day of the week by what the pasta was made with. If it was with beans (kidney, Roman, cannellini, lima, fava or pinto), it was Monday. If it was with peas (green, black eyed or chick) or lentils, it was Tuesday. If it was with spaghetti and red sauce, it was Wednesday. (Yes, if you are old enough to remember it, there was the T.V. commercial with momma hanging out the window, yelling, “Anthony…It’s Prince spaghetti day!” But I digress.) If it was with spaghetti and broccoli or cauliflower, it was Thursday. If it was with spaghetti and clams or mussels, it was Friday. If it was large macaroni and sauce, it was Sunday. If it was with anything else, it had to be Saturday.

You can laugh, but I’ll bet there are more than a few of you out there who told time the same way. These meals did not occur from spontaneous thought on the part of my mother. No sir, they were dictated to her by my father, who was taught pasta rotation by Grandpa B, under a strict protocol that I now lovingly refer to as the “Pasta Rules.”

Wait, it gets better. There was a shape of macaroni that Grandpa B designated as the official shape to go with each type of bean, vegetable or sauce. I kid you not. Here are the “Pasta Rules” as promulgated by Grandpa B.

Sunday sauce had to be served with a shaped macaroni. Rigatoni, Tubeti, Penne Rigate, Medium Shells, Rotini or Cavatelli were allowed. Whatever shape you used, had to have lines on it. That left out Ziti. On holidays or special occasions, Lasagna, Ravioli, Stuffed Jumbo Shells or Manicotti were permitted, for the guests — Grandpa B still had to have a shaped macaroni for himself.1

The weekday meals of beans and peas were served with Ditali, for large beans, and Ditalini for small beans — except for lentils, which were served with Baby Shells. If the lentils were made with spinach, you could use broken spaghetti instead of the Baby Shells.

Broccoli, cauliflower, clam sauce and Thursday’s pasta were served with spaghetti in my house and spaghettini at Grandpa B’s house. This is the only known example I have of my father varying from the Pasta Rules, because he didn’t like thin spaghetti. On Thursday, you could serve Capellini, Percatelli, Linguini or Fusilli instead of spaghetti, but only once in a while. On Friday you could use Linguini instead of spaghetti too.

In soups for adults, Orzo, Acine di Pepe and Tubetini were permitted. In soups for children, Pastina and Stars were permitted, and when Grandpa B wasn’t around, Alphabet pasta could be slipped in too. In pasta e fagiole, Grandma B was allowed to use the broken remnants of shaped macaroni and broken spaghetti, that she collected in a tall jar by the stove, instead of Ditalini.

If you are a connoisseur of macaroni, or are familiar with the National Pasta Association’s official pasta listing, you have perhaps noted there are an abundance of shapes that I didn’t mention in the Pasta Rules. That’s because they weren’t allowed.

Crazy though Grandpa B’s Pasta Rules may sound on first approach, they actually make sense for the most part, particularly when you ponder them a bit, against the attendant circumstance of life as it existed in the days of yore. The dietary rotation I described ensured that over the course of the week we had a supply of protein from the beans, vitamins and minerals from the green leafy vegetables, fish and meat, all served with the bulk and additional protein supplied by the pasta — all of which was needed to fuel the arduous, mostly manual work my father, uncles and grandparents did in those days.

The ban on macaroni without lines was because those with them hold the gravy better and the un-lined shapes tend to get slimy if not eaten quickly. Rotini was thus permissible because the spirals held the gravy, tu capite? True purists will know that any shape made “rigate” has lines on it. If you are lucky, you can find spaghetti, linguini and fettuccini made rigate, and if you do, buy it!

For similar reasons, beans made in oil and garlic work very well with Ditali or Ditalini, which can hold both the bean and the gravy to give you the right taste sensation when you suck them off your spoon. I also agree with Grandpa B regarding his preference for thin spaghetti to regular spaghetti, as there is a textural component to eating it, and the thinner shape just feels nicer on my tongue. Florets of broccoli or cauliflower, or pieces of clam or mussel, are easily stuck to the tines of your fork and twisted into the spaghetti so that you can taste both in a single bite.

The permitted pasta shapes in soups, believe it or don’t, actually had some thought behind it too. Shapes such as Orzo and Acine di Pepe are solid bits of pasta, patterned, respectively after barley and peppercorns, and thus will have an al dente texture when served fresh with the soup. Lest you doubt me, leave some in the left-over soup, over night, and the next morning you will find no soup and severely swollen macaroni. (At the risk of catching Hell in the hereafter from Grandpa B, I confess that once in a while, I actually like the taste of soup soaked macaroni, when it has taken on the consistency of noodle pie, but I digress again.) Children, having not yet developed discerning palates for the notion of al dente, could tolerate the moo shahd texture of pastina, stars and alphabet letters.

There are two corollaries to the Pasta Rules. The first was more a measure of passage into adulthood, and had to do with the size of your pasta plate. Simply put, when you could consume an entire plate of spaghetti or macaroni that held a half pound, and be ready for seconds, you were ready for manual labor and wine with your meal. The second wasn’t actually about pasta at all, but the prohibition of putting grated cheese on fish. Grandpa B died before I could interrogate him about this and the best I can come up with is that it was akin to Jewish dietary laws regarding the prohibition of mixing of dairy products with meat or fish. Since Grandpa B was born in Sicily in the late 1800’s, in a town that likely had no electricity, indoor plumbing or refrigeration, I suspect it just made good health sense to keep cheese and fish separate, because by the time the latter got to the dinner table, it was already well on its way to decomposing.

During hunting season, when my father, Grandpa B and my uncles were off hunting, mom actually dared to skip pasta altogether on some nights, and slipped in lamb chops, which were otherwise forbidden, because my father had been raised on mutton and didn’t allow any kind of lamb in his house. Grandma B would make us Rotelle (wagon wheels) and Farfalle (bow ties) which were otherwise forbidden. You’d think they were getting away with murder by violating the Pasta Rules — and they were…their own, if Grandpa B ever found out what was going on!

And now you too know the Pasta Rules. Disobey them at your own peril!

1.   God Bless Grandma B. When the Bonfiglio family was making the transition from the historic “football wedding” (where the dinner guests were feted with sandwich heroes made out of small loaves of Italian bread, tossed to each other like, well, footballs) such as my parents had, to the catered affairs that are the present standard in New York City for wedding feasts, such as my Uncle Will and Aunt Virginia had, Grandpa B wasn’t buying in to the notion of catered food as dinner, so Grandma B had to make him his dish of macaroni, before he would go to the catered affair. That, my friends, is quintessentially  “Sicilian,” and explains, perhaps to some extent, the existence of the “Pasta Rules.”

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