I am a home cook from a food-obsessed family. Everything that happened centered on food. After all, I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian-American grandparents as well as my parents. My household wasn’t unique in a food culture sense. But while many of the foods and recipes are similar to those from other families, the stories are what bring the food to life. The best way to delve into Italian-American cuisine and stories is through a typical family meal. And that starts with shopping for the ingredients.
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My mom, Josephine Lanzetta Murko, was born on an apple farm in Claverack, N.Y., during the Great Depression and only lived there for a few years. She recounts that my grandfather could not sell an apple for a nickel and had to move the family back to the Bronx. At that time, the Bronx was still quite rural and people lived in a tight-knit neighborhood with everything within walking distance.
Saturdays in my mother’s young life were spent shopping for food with her mom, my nana. The journey, as my mom recalls, was a stroll down the “avenue.” Mom and Nana first visited Mrs. Green’s coffee shop. Mrs. Green would make custom blends for all her customers. My grandmother liked a light blend for her stove-top percolator. The aromas were so keen, and my mom recounts that whenever confronted with the smell of fresh coffee today it still triggers the memory of Mrs. Green’s coffee shop and the Saturday market treks with her mom.
The next stop was the butcher shop where customers stood two-deep and where my mom watched in fascination the knife work and dexterity of the butchers. This was what she wanted to be, a butcher, she thought, and as a little girl she wrote a paper about it. My mom has amazing knife skills, and it’s probably in her blood as my grandfather owned a butcher shop in the Bronx before his foray as an apple farmer.
A butcher shop back then was a different place. Sawdust was on the floor to absorb the meat and blood drippings while the butchers worked their magic. Once up to the counter, my mom would watch the butcher cube and then grind the beef, veal and pork they would then use to make meatballs. Nothing was prepackaged in those days, and the meats were from local animals.
Then on to the produce store where only local, in-season fruits and vegetables were sold. My mom said it was like a photo; she was in awe of the abundance of all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She notes that she had never had a strawberry out-of-season and that the fruit was not shiny. Their next stop was the cheese shop where they bought fresh ricotta and mozzarella and other cheeses. Imagine next stepping into a shop entirely dedicated to butter. Butter of all kinds was sold from large barrels by the pound, which sounds heavenly to me.
Saturday markets full of ingredients for soup
The bread store was perhaps my mom’s favorite. The smell alone made her feel warm and cozy and hungry. When she became old enough to shop without my grandmother, Nana would give my mom an extra four cents to buy the fresh-out-of-the-oven warm loaf, which she would then nibble on or devour all the way home. My grandmother knew this was a special treat for my mom, and to this day, warm bread and butter is one of her absolute favorite things. It’s one of mine.
Last but not least, on the shopping extravaganza was the poultry shop. Saturday was soup day. One Saturday when my grandmother wasn’t feeling well, she sent my mom and her sister, my aunt Margie, to get the chicken. They were still little girls. They selected the live chicken and waited patiently for it to be killed and packaged to bring home. While walking home, the bag started to jump.
They so wanted to drop the bag but being the obedient kids that they were, ran as fast as their little legs could go all the way home, imagining as only little girls could, what kind of spooks were in that bag. When they delivered the jumping chicken bag to Nana in a whirlwind of excitement, panic and fear, Nana giggled and told them, “Sweet girls there are no spirits in the bag it’s rigor mortis setting in.”
While my mom clearly describes the rich palette of textures and smells of the Saturday markets of her youth, she also revels about the joys of being connected to her neighbors and friends. She said they were having a great time because all the neighbors, relatives and friends were out on Saturday. This ritual was not a chore, it was an exciting day. It was the social fabric of creating the family meal. I have even heard stories of recipes being shared at the butcher counter. One Jewish lady I know learned how to make killer Italian meatballs from the Italian ladies at the butcher shop.
So, while we seem far removed from the 1940s Saturday shopping trek, I implore you to think about this question: Is not the farmers market in your neighborhood or community a social hub of sorts?
Modern society has changed the way we shop for food and interact at the grocery store, often with blinders on as we roll our carts down the aisles. But at the farmers market you make eye contact, chat with the farmers and purveyors and smile and chat with your fellow shoppers. I think we have found the “avenue” of my mom’s youth.
Italian Chicken Soup
I have learned that just about every cuisine has a version of chicken soup and even within a cuisine, there are many variations. It’s what I call similar but different.
One chicken cut up into parts and cleaned (this would include chicken feet in the old days)
Enough water to amply cover the chicken
2 to 3 onions, chopped
Bunch of carrots, chopped
4 to 5 parsnips, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
Optional: Noodles, escarole, eggs. Sometimes, we added a little tomato paste, or tomatoes, the butt of the Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Boil the chicken for about 20 to 30 minutes. Skim off the scum.
2. Add the vegetables, including the parsley and garlic. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 3 hours.
3. Remove chicken from broth. You can either remove chicken from bones and put back into soup or eat separately.
4. At this point, you can use the optional ingredients.
If using, add noodles that were boiled separately (thin or medium; your preference.)
Add escarole (cut, steam separately and drain). Mix 2 eggs, ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper then add to broth.
Top photo: Carole Murko’s grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family