Giant pumpkins. Carnival rides. Livestock with blue ribbons. The food.
Oh, the food. Everything fried and battered and candied, with a tongue-in-cheek wink at the wackiness of it all.
It’s the time of year when many Midwestern states are holding their fairs. For a week or so, grounds fill with people and animals and produce and the smells of deliciously unhealthy food. Last year, my husband and I figured our daughter was old enough to enjoy the fair without getting exhausted and having to be carried around all day, so we made the trek to the fairgrounds. Since there’s more to see and do than you could possibly cover in a day, we looked through the fair guide and each picked two things we really wanted to do.
Little Miss R wanted to see rabbits and go on a skyride.
Mr. R wanted to take a train ride and eat a giant corn dog.
I wanted to watch a chicken get a bath (hey, I’d never heard of such a thing) and eat fried Nutella.
As it turned out, we fit in all of these things. And since we’re headed to the fair again this weekend, here’s my past self’s advice for my future self—and for any of you who might be going to a fair soon.
1. The skyride isn’t kidding around. You will be hoisted on a cable dozens of feet up in the air and dragged through the sky over the entire breadth of the fairgrounds. Some people think this is really fun. If you’re afraid of heights (waves hand), it’s really, really not. Save yourself the white knuckles. Grab some fried Nutella and wait for your family on the ground.
2. Fried Nutella is everything you dreamed it would be. Eat it whenever you get the chance.
3. You should definitely go watch a chicken get a bath. In the hands of a certified chicken bather (this is a real thing) (I’m not even kidding), the whole process is fascinatingly smooth. I remember giving baby Little Miss R a bath. It didn’t go nearly that well.
If you live outside the Midwest, does your state have a fair? Does it have the same feel as what I’m describing—all rides and produce and animals and folksy fun? And what’s the most amazing (either delicious or ridiculous) state fair food you’ve come across?
Over the weekend, I was cleaning out my kitchen cabinets. My stepson and his wife are moving from his mother’s place into their own apartment–which means they’ll need lots of stuff for their kitchen. Since I have an over-abundance of dishes, cups, glasses, casserole dishes, etc…I thought I’d noodle around and see what I could give them.
Oh boy, did my cupboards and shelves need a good clean-out. It’s been *cough-cough* years since the last time that activity took place. I did, however, discover a treasure I’d completely forgotten about–the recipe box my mom made up for me when I moved to Canada for good back in the 90′s. That’s it at the top of the page.
Now, Mom had her own recipe box–a big wooden thing that held hundreds of recipes created, refined, or adapted by her over the years. Let me tell you, it was a treasure trove. My mom was the best cook I’ve ever known. She grew up in an Italian household but she had a talent for taking ANY recipe and making it better. Within the family, Mom had the reputation for being the best “American” cook. Trust me, her pies and cookies were legendary.
When she died, my sister inherited the box. That was as it should be, since she’s the oldest and also the best cook among my siblings (I did photocopy all the recipes for my sibs, though).
The recipe box that I re-discovered holds a selection of Mom’s greatest hits and the recipes that I most loved.
I have to say, I got a little teary eyed when I started going through them. I really loved seeing her handwriting again. Recipe from the kitchen of Mom. What could be better?
Naturally, as an Italian-American raised in a first generation household, she did lots of pasta recipes, all learned in her mother’s kitchen. I grew up with hand-made ravioli, manicotti, and lasagne (simply called “home-mades”), and also the best pasta sauces you could imagine (referred to as “gravy” in my southern Italian family). When I was a kid, it was the basic spaghetti and meatballs that I loved best. But as I got older, this one became one of my faves.
Eggplant and black olive sauce on ziti or rigatoni. Yum! So, in honor of my dear mom, here’s her recipe:
2 eggplants 1/4 cup olive oil 1 onion chopped
1 clove garlic minced 1/2 teaspoon rosemary 1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 large ripe tomatoes peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste 1/4 chopped Italian black olives
1/2 cup of fresh parsley minced 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
Peel eggplant and cut in 1/2 inch cubes. Put in colander and salt the cubes, set in a sink to drain (do NOT skip this step or you will have a bitter tasting sauce). Rinse eggplant and dry with paper towels. Heat oil in large skillet, add eggplant, onion, and garlic and saute over medium heat. Cook till lightly browned. Add rosemary and pepper – stir for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and paste and simmer partly covered for 15 minutes (add a little water or broth if it gets too dry). Add olives and simmer for 5 minutes more.
Cook pasta and top with sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and cheese.
**note from my mom: “I very often use canned tomatoes instead of fresh tomatoes.”
Thanks, Mom – love you!
Do you have any treasured recipes from your mother or another family member? Are you passing those recipes on to your children? What are you some of your favorites?
Earlier this year, my husband daughter and I spent three weeks in Italy. It was a fabulous trip – part research trip for my book The Billionaire’s Betrayal and mostly family vacation and definitely the fulfillment of a dream. I took 6,000 pictures. I’m not kidding – 6,000. I was looking through them the other day, reminiscing about our trip. I’ll spare you 5,994 of my most beloved moments and share with you the Top Six Things I Loved About Italy:
1. Venice – I think it’s the most romantic place in the world. I left a little piece of my heart there. Sister JQs Kathleen O’Brien, Kathy Garbera and I are part of a five-book series called Amalfi Night Billionaires. I set a good portion of my book, The Billionaire’s Betrayal, which is available August 31, in Venice. It was such fun revisiting the places I fell in love with. Kathy’s book, The Billionaire’s Temptation, launches the series on August 17. Mimi Wells’ The Billionaire’s Deception, will be available on August 24. Kathleen’s The Billionaire’s Secret releases on September 14, and Eve Gaddy’s The Billionaire’s Charade wraps up the series on September 21. Just to clarify, most of the Amalfi Billionaire books take place on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. I couldn’t resist having my hero and heroine sojourn to Venice.
2. The cooking class we took in Florence – I learned how to make ravioli from scratch and I also discovered that sage butter is my favorite pasta sauce ever.
3. The way the men look at women – There’s a reverence in the way they look at women. It’s as if they’re beholding a work of art or They’ve just seen the face of the Madonna. There is no place on earth to feel more adored – or attractive – no matter your age, size or shape. That picture over there is some random graffiti in Florence. It says, I love you.
4. The food and wine – the gelato, bistecca, truffles, pesto, pasta, Chianti… I could go on and on.
5. The art – You name it, we saw it: da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Titian. All the masters were there.
6. Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Brownings’ Florence apartment, Casa Guidi - It’s truly a hidden treasure. It took a while for us to find the place, even after we’d arrived at the building. For a while the lovely docent, the Norwegian and I were the only ones in the place (College Girl opted out of this one). When the docent discovered that I’m a writer, she encouraged me to sit at Elizabeth’s desk.
What’s your favorite thing about going on vacation? Do you take lots of photos or do you live in the moment?
I just got back from a couple of heavenly days in Charleston, which is one of my favorite cities in the South.
This time, I made the trip because a local community theater was staging one of my daughter’s plays. That alone is enough to make me love a town, of course. (Want me to adore you? Appreciate my kids!)
But I have so many special ties to this quaint, historic town. My parents lived there while my dad was in the Navy in World War II. Growing up, I heard so many stories about Charleston and their love of the architecture and the ambiance. When they moved back to Tampa, their hometown, they commissioned their architect to renovate their little bungalow to a modified Charleston style, with porches, and a wing that was built perpendicular to the street. I grew up in that house.
Still, I’d never known exactly where my mom and dad lived back then. It was in the earliest days of their marriage, and obviously long before I entered the world. But recently, when I was cleaning out some old family files, I ran across a notecard someone had sent them when they moved in…complete with addressed envelope!
So naturally when we went up this weekend we had to carve out time to visit that address. It’s a charming old apartment building between Calhoun and Broad.
We couldn’t enter to hunt for the apartment, as we didn’t have anyone to buzz us through the locked doors. But that’s when I really got lucky. Outside, as I took pictures, we ran into a woman pulling weeds. Turns out she takes care of the property, and when we explained our pilgrimage she was able to show us (from the outside only, of course) exactly which unit my parents had lived in. It’s the second floor balcony just to the right of the main entrance–and apparently it was super tiny! They never mentioned that. Maybe to newlyweds tiny was a happy thing. <3
Finding Berkeley Court wasn’t our only emotional landmark on this trip, though. We stopped by to share a moment of silence at the Emanuel AME church, where nine worshippers were recently shot as they gathered for Bible study. The scene was even more moving than I’d expected it to be. People milled around, probably, like us, trying to both honor and understand. Flowers and mementos hugged the façade. And visitors had written their names all over the trunks and branches of the small trees on the sidewalk–an oddly beautiful and powerful sight. It felt as if everyone who came wanted to leave a little of their own hearts behind.
Our visit wasn’t all history and memories, of course. It was also…FOOD! Oh, my goodness, do Charlestonians know how to eat! After a fabulous Italian dinner, dessert was a carrot cake “deconstructed,” which turned out to signify that cake cubes lay alongside pecans, dried berries, real carrot spirals, and the icing, so that I could assemble every forkful with the perfect proportions!
And then there was lunch at the Saffron Bakery (which Boychild and his wife discovered when they were visiting for the play’s opening a couple of days before). It was almost too good to describe. Simple—just a grilled cheese and tomato soup, with a side of grits, because Boychild promised me adding grits was worth it. But delicious beyond description! And oh, the bakery!
So, all in all, a wonderful trip, even if I’ll be treadmilling off those eclairs for the rest of my life. What about you? Have you ever been to Charleston? What’s your favorite city—and why? Is it the food? The history? Or something else? I’m giving away a $10 Amazon gift certificate to one randomly chosen poster today!
My mother (pictured above) was a proud Italian-American. Her mother was from a small village outside Naples and her father was from the province of Abruzzi. In that amazing journey that so many immigrants made over the years, my grandparents (separately) found their way to America, eventually settling in Philadelphia and raising five children. Genoveffa and Mario were devoted to their new country but also stayed old-school to the very end, speaking Italian at home and, most especially, cooking very traditional recipes.
It was a tradition passed on to their children. Along with my siblings and my cousins, I was the fortunate recipient of delicious food made from recipes carefully passed down from one generation to the next. My grandmother was the best cook in the family when it came to the traditional Italian recipes (apparently, my grandfather taught her how to cook). I never once saw Nana consult a cookbook or a recipe card. Her cooking skills seemed somehow imprinted onto her DNA. And when she pulled out the old pasta machine to make ravioli or lasagne, or cleared the decks to make spaghetti and meatballs, gnocchi, or pizza…well, it was heaven. There were few things better in life than Nana’s “homemades.”
Like their own mother, my mom and aunts pretty much cooked everything from scratch.
Those are the three Esposito sisters in their later years–my mom (Flora) is in the middle, flanked by big sisters Rudy and Maria. After my nana, Aunt Rudy was the best of the traditional cooks. She made the most amazing eggplant parmesan and also put together a mean antipasto platter for every holiday. Those platters were works of art, and I really wish I had a picture to show you. Aunt Rudy was also the kindest, most loving person I’ve ever known and I think that love manifested itself in her wonderful cooking.
Maria, on the other hand, was what my family would have referred to as an “American” cook. She veered away from the traditional dishes and had an inordinate fondness for trying recipes from the newspaper–not always with the best results. Still, you had to give her props for trying something new.
My mom, though, was without a doubt the best cook in the bunch. She could cook anything and do it to a level of artistry that’s probably now only seen in the kitchens of the best restaurants or at food magazines. She had an innate sense of what worked in a recipe and what didn’t, and she had no fear when it came to tackling a difficult cooking project. My mother was also a talented, self-taught butcher. Okay, she wasn’t out in the backyard slaughtering cows (although Nana did used to slaughter a lamb at Easter back in the old days), but she could take just about any cut of meat and trim, butterfly, or filet it into tender submission. It was a skill I wished I’d taken the time to learn, along with how to make her soups. She made the best soups I’ve ever tasted.
When my mom died at the too-early age of seventy-four, she left her cherished recipe box stuffed with hand-scribbled notes, recipes she adapted, and a select few from newspapers that she deemed worthy of saving. She also left a treasure trove of wonderful, first edition cookbooks. The cookbooks were split up among my sibs with no problem, but the recipe box…well, that was the bone of some contention. EVERYONE wanted it. Finally, we all agreed that my sister (the eldest and a very good cook) should get it. But before it was handed over I pulled out every recipe card, scribbled note, or old newspaper clipping and photocopied four copies for the rest of us. It took a LONG time, but it was worth it. And the best part? I love looking at the recipes and seeing my mom’s handwriting and notes. It’s like some small but very important part of her is still with me.
I will never be the cook my mom was. I’m not disciplined enough and I don’t have her built-in sense of what works in the kitchen and what doesn’t. But every once in a while I pull off something pretty nice–like this asparagus ricotta tart I made the other night.
Not bad, eh? It’s an Italian recipe, pulled from one of my vegetarian cookbooks, and it was really good. I have a feeling even my mom would have liked it.
Do you come from a family that likes to cook? Any favorite recipes that have been handed down from one generation to the next? Feel free to share!