- Vien a ca, Beda
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 64]
In 1988, at the age of eleven and a half, I spent the first of what would be several summers in Sicily. My parents had separated the previous year, and my mother had migrated from Montreal to Catania, a city tucked between the great Mount Etna and the placid Ionian Sea. There, a leisurely walk from a rocky coast that had once boiled and spilled from the earth and into the waves, she lived with a man she'd met on an Adriatic beach some sixteen years earlier.
When I arrived at the beginning of June, fifth grade just a day behind me, the reunited lovers were waiting at the forefront of the expectant airport crowd. My mother called, "Bartuś!"—my Polish moniker—and immediately seized me in her arms. [End Page 65] She wore strawberry lipstick, a sleeveless blouse and a loose, flowery skirt; tortoiseshell sunglasses sat atop her hair like a large butterfly. Despite the sheen of tears in her eyes, I had never seen her so happy and ravishing. Beside her, dressed in a cobalt suit and smelling of cologne, Giuseppe looked every bit the Sicilian he was: his eyes slanted downward, his nose hooked just below the bridge, and his skin was several shades darker than ours. Without hesitation he kissed my cheeks, then grabbed my mother's hand and led us toward the exit, parting the crowd. Much as I had missed my mother during the past year (using, per her suggestion, a tailor's measuring tape to measure time, cutting off an inch each day until my departure), I had also fretted about seeing her in the role of someone's girlfriend: touching, maybe even locking lips, with a stranger. It wasn't until I stepped into the Mediterranean summer heat—my mind, if not my body, suddenly ripening—that I recognized the allure of my and her new life. The volcano smoking against the azure skies, the palm trees rustling in the salty wind and casting dancing shadows at my feet, the sea glittering like a sheet of chrome on the horizon—there was nothing more exotic. And I hadn't even seen a Sicilian girl yet, or sampled Giuseppe's cooking.
Though not a professional chef, Giuseppe was certainly an epicure, and he liked few things better than preparing a meal and making a show of it. He'd been raised in his mother's country kitchen, and his knowledge could fill a cookbook, I soon discovered. My mother, on the other hand, averse to planning, grocery shopping and slaving over a hot stove, had never cared for the culinary craft. She only set foot inside the kitchen because she could not not eat. As a result, her repertoire was limited to a paltry list of Polish dishes, none of them more complex than fried pork cutlets, boiled potatoes and sliced cucumber on the side. Giuseppe, arriving from work for pranzo or cena, grudgingly ate the banalities my mother placed before him, the plates no more colorful than the accounting documents he pored over in his office. On occasion, however—when he'd had a good day, I imagined, or simply a slow one, perhaps—he brought a live octopus or a choice cut of veal wrapped in white wax paper. His rotund belly always strained against his work shirt, and he would drape himself with an apron, the thing stained and scorched. The balcony doors would get thrown open and the gas stove fired up. "Guarda come si fa, Bartolomeo," he said and then showed me how easy it was—with just some olive oil and spices and Sicilian passion—to braise or sear or sauté something to perfection. My mother, tickled by Giuseppe's high jinks, set the kitchen table for us and watched, and then we would eat, the food every bit as rich and fragrant as the smells still lingering in the air. [End Page 66]
Being a not-so-little gourmand, fleshy if not outright fat, I could consume as much as my mother and Giuseppe...