Memories and Musings: Rows of family history

Published 7:50 am Wednesday, October 13, 2021

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By Gene Gallelli

“You’re one of the few people I know who enjoys grocery shopping,” says my daughter as we unload and put away a countertop displaying six bulging paper grocery bags.

Her comment catches me a little off guard, but then I smile to let her know she’s right, although I doubt she knows why I enjoy rolling a cart up and down aisles full of things that cost money.

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Unless I’m shopping in a grocery store I’ve never been to before, or the ones I’m familiar with have been totally rearranged, my family memory tour begins when I hit my go-to store’s produce section.

When I see the broccoli rabe (rapini), I remember my dad and grandpa journeying together to a field where the rapini were abundant and, often on the same day, harvest bitter dandelion plants. Interestingly, both are now gourmet veggies served in the finest restaurants. (Wonder where they got my mom’s recipes?) The harvest location was always kept secret, probably because dad and gramps were trespassing or to keep my Uncle Bruno from knowing where it was.

Usually in supermarkets the meat section runs perpendicular to all the store aisles and occupies a commanding section of the back wall. The beef, pork and chicken sections don’t trigger memories beyond how wonderfully my mom and dad cooked them, so I keep pushing the cart until I hit the sprawling hot dog display.

My dad would eat hot dogs every day if my mom didn’t watch him. Boiled, fried or grilled, they were his midday obsession. He would only buy a Rochester brand carried by Barduci’s, a local grocery store. One of the saddest days of his life was when hot dogs started arriving in stores without “skins” that popped on the grill. To this day, I won’t eat them unless they split and sizzle on the grill.

My entire family has always consumed strong coffee throughout the day. But “back in the day” it was considered a sin to drink anything but Madaglia d’Oro (Gold Medal) espresso that came in a can and could keep you awake for a week. My family still has its favorites and they’re all dark roasts, but I always scan the coffee aisle looking for that can of “Gold Medal” espresso. If I ever find it, it’s headed for the shopping cart.

Trying to make decisions in the cereal aisle is like trying to pick out a particular star in the nighttime sky. It was difficult enough as a youngster trying to decide between a flake, crispy rice or a wheat that’s been shredded. Oh, and they all came in one size: big. (Those with a prize inside had a definite edge.) I can still see my mom putting cereal boxes back on the store shelf and saying, “No cereal until you finish the five already open.”

Today’s pasta aisles – now, totally out of control – remind me not of all the different shapes pasta comes in, but of how my Grandma Mangone delighted in sending me on my bicycle-with-a-basket to pick up, at a moment’s notice, a loaf of fresh Italian bread and a pound of spaghetti at the closest mom and pop grocery. The bread was to die for and the pasta came out of a huge box on the counter. If the crusty bread was still warm, it never made it home as a full loaf.

To be honest, there are several good pasta sauces available in jars with Italian-sounding names that I buy when homemade isn’t available. But I can’t go by the endless display of blazing red jars without pausing to remember the day-long canning of tomatoes and sauces by my extended family. My eyes still burn thinking about the acidic atmosphere caused by the huge kettles of blanched tomatoes simmering on the gas stove. My job was to turn the crank on the de-seeding machine and seal the caps on the filled bottles, while listening to two grandmothers, two aunts, two cousins and my mom laugh and curse in a hybrid blend of Italian and English.

There are myriad shelves and aisles in the supermarket that remind me of where I’m from, the family that loved and raised me and the joining of all the puzzle pieces that when assembled display who I am today.

If by now I haven’t made it clear that the aisles of a supermarket are the pages of my life’s journal, metaphors for earlier times, then I have failed to explain the wonderful journeys I take pushing a shopping cart up and down the aisles of my past.

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.