My Uncle Geno found a piece of garlic in every bite of food he ate – his Christmas Eve baccala salad, the stuffed veal pocket that my grandmother swore contained no garlic whatsoever, the red sauce that even a kid like me knew was filled with the stuff. A little or a lot, it didn’t matter. Geno would find the hated garlic, pull it out of his mouth and show the sonofabitch for all to see.
The youngest of eight children in an Italian-American family born in the coalfields of Greene County, Pennsylvania, Geno wasn’t afraid to make his opinions known. Loudly and repeatedly when the audience was enjoying it.
Sitting at the Sunday dinner table in the wood-frame home facing the Monongahela River that I grew up in in the 1970s and he grew up in thirty years earlier, Geno would accuse my grandmother of hiding garlic deep in the flesh of the veal. “I know you’re in the kitchen with a knife, stuffing that sonofabitchin’ garlic where you think I won’t find it,” he would say. Geno’s accusations came fast and were flavored with the Appalachian twang and Eastern European rhythms of the Pittsburgh region. My grandmother’s denials were spit back in an English-Italian mix that sounded angrier than they were likely meant to be.
Their arguments were as much a part of Sunday as watching the Pittsburgh Steelers on TV or hearing Geno’s thoughts on Franco Harris (beloved, even if only half-Italian, like me) or the Oakland Raiders (bad, bad guys who looked like thugs in their black uniforms. Sonofabitches every one of them.)
My mother would join the garlic argument, taking the side of my grandmother, who cooked the Sunday dinner when she was feeling well and oversaw every detail when she wasn’t. Most likely, my mother was the one stuffing the veal full of garlic. As much as she loved her brother, whom she helped raise, my mother also knew what it took to put a good Sunday dinner on the table. And that included garlic.
I never understood Geno’s hatred of garlic. While my Serb or Slovak classmates might have found garlic stinky or harsh, it was so much a part of what we ate every day that it was simply what food tasted like. Whole cloves, garlic powder, garlic salt — it was an accepted and unavoidable fact of everyday life in my house, much to Geno’s dismay.
Sunday dinner, which was served Old-World style in the middle of the day, never changed much although the number of uncles, great aunts, and older married cousins who dropped in for their visit varied from week to week. There was always an enormous platter of mostaccioli, which we called sewer pipes, with thick red sauce that had simmered all day. We might also have a pork roast, a bracciole of rolled steak stuffed with bread and cheese, or my favorite, roasted chicken stuffed with wild rice, pineapple and rosemary. The chicken with pineapple might have been a variation on some poultry and citrus dish from the Old Country, or maybe just something from the back of Parade magazine. It didn’t matter to me. I loved it.
And much more intriguing to me than the garlic wars, were the little bites of Christmas that I would find tucked inside that chicken. The fact that the dried rosemary my mother kept in a glass jar even looked like pine needles, made their exotic pine scent and slight bitterness all the better as it mixed with the sweet, caramelized pineapple. To my 10-year-old taste buds, rosemary was an adventure — something that tasted too much like forest to actually be food.
After my grandmother died, Sunday dinner changed. The arguments faded. The great aunts and cousins appeared less often. Geno, however, remained a presence.
On a summer Sunday afternoon, I came across Geno outside tending a slow, all-day fire for a lamb roast, an occasional treat picked up from the Serbs who lived all around us. “Go up to the house and get some oil and rosemary from your mother,” he said. I’m gonna make us something good.”
I dashed down the alley on my bike and when I returned, Geno poured olive oil in a foil roasting pan and set it over the red and white coals. Once the oil was hot, he added rosemary and chicken pieces, which were supposed to be barbecued later in the day. The chicken skin sizzled in the oil and Gino held forth on how the rosemary perfumes the chicken. He also placed pieces of white bread under the spit to catch drippings form the slowly turning whole lamb, which was by now dark and crisp.
As the chicken also crisped, I caught sight of a big handful of garlic cloves that Geno had added to the oil. Soon, we sat outside, far from the family and the Sunday table and savored pieces of warm toasted bread, rich with dripping lamb fat. And we quietly ate every bite of the crispy chicken, tasting of plenty sonofabitching garlic.