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Memories and Musings: The dinner table way back when

By Gene Gallelli

During WW II, when so many foods and commodities were rationed and you needed a coupon for everything but the kitchen sink, many of my favorite childhood meals are still vivid in my memory.

My mom, dad and I were part of a truly extended family: both sets of grandparents and an aunt and uncle were from Italy and another aunt and two first cousins were first-generation Americans. Of course, if I counted all my second and third cousins, it would have filled the East Rochester High School auditorium.

All the adults in our extended family had acknowledged specialties in the growing, cooking and baking areas of food acquisition and preparation. Uncle Bruno and Grandpa Gallelli were the keepers of massive gardens loaded with every vegetable and fruit native to the area and climate. Grandpa Mangone cultivated grapes, fruit trees, raised chickens, and made wine.

Both grandmothers, my Aunt “Tanoots,” and my mom were the kitchen wizards, but Grandma Mangone was the Blue Ribbon bread baker. My Aunt Filomena was a real “Rosie the Riveter” and had little time during the war for the kitchen and garden.

One of my favorite meals was a hidden-from-my-parents breakfast prepared by my Grandmother Gallelli. “Forbidden” because it included both the sugar and coffee that were rationed and, also, because my parents insisted neither was good for me. Grandma would cut stale bread into cubes, pour sugar, then warm milk over them and then – just a little coffee. She was ahead of the curve on sweetened, flavored cereals.

Sundays were always a special meal day because it meant having what everyone now calls Sunday sauce. My family has always called it succo (soo’coh); other families called it ragu or gravy, depending on where in Italy their families came from.

Bursting with flavor, my Mom’s simmer-for-hours succo was thick with sauce made from home-grown, home-processed and home-bottled tomatoes. Her sauce was enhanced with the flavors of plump meatballs, hot Italian sausage and fall-off-the-bone ribs. It was a meal made in Heaven that we would enjoy again on Thursday. (I still make it using the same basic ingredients and techniques, but the raw tomato sauce, purée and paste come in cans and my “succo” will never be as good as Mom’s.)

Thinking back on those days in the early 1940s – and if it was summertime – I was probably unknowingly a vegetarian, since most of our meals came from our gardens with an occasional chicken dish and plenty of pastas with red or white sauces. (I can still taste Mom’s eggplant cutlets, Dad’s sautéed chicken and onions over linguine and everyone’s pasta with basil pesto or olive oil with sautéed garlic (aglioe olio di oliva) on Fridays.

Summer desserts were mostly available fruits and an occasional sheet cake; in winter, meals were ended with all the aforementioned fruits that had been canned. Grandma Mangone made Concord grape jam for everyone to slather on their morning toast; Grandpa Mangone would make wine with the grapes from the same vines. (He preferred Zinfandel grapes for wine-making, but couldn’t always get them. You used what you had.)

It would be easy to go on and on about those days of my youth and the meals that adorned our metal kitchen tables, but it’s making me hungry. I hope it has many of you heading for the garden, refrigerator or favorite restaurant, as well.

Bon appetite or, as my grandparents would say, “Mangia!”

Gene Gallelli was Associate Superintendent of the Dare County Schools for eight years. He received his Doctor of Education degree from East Carolina University, where he taught and supervised students studying to become school administrators.

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