Showing posts with label uncle joe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label uncle joe. Show all posts

Friday, June 14, 2019

Love smells


I'm like most humans. Certain smells get to me.

Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and before it has melted I am transported to my brother Joe’s apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully prepares the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff my dear Uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets.

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside of me—because when it is inside of me so too is Uncle Joe

From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a filled wheelbarrow without assistance my mother’s eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He did not need a little kid working on his crew, but the man took his job as uncle (and godfather to me) very seriously.

After my father died Uncle Joe became even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed I had become a pretty decent laborer. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I had finally gotten the hang of not just mixing but properly laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn and Neil, my uncle’s best concrete man, hadn't made it in to work.

“This one’s all yours, chief,” I heard that ever benevolent voice say from alongside me. “Time you took charge, don’t you think?”

I was by no means in charge, of course, but did manage to lay down a respectable bit of sidewalk, with the patient guidance of a man that I loved as deeply as any other. 

I’m proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.

My strongest scent memory by far involves my father. And a jar of Noxzema skin cream.

Every night, right around my bedtime, dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He’d turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—and strongly smelling of Noxzema skin cream, his prefered beard-softening elixir.

It was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.

On the early morning that my father died, the firemen and EMTs carried his body from our kitchen floor and into his and my mother's bedroom, where it would lay, covered in a clean bedsheet, until the undertaker came to collect it. As the rescue team carrying dad brushed past me, unsuccessfully attempting to shield a young boy's view, I could swear that I smelled the Noxzema that dad had shaved with only hours before.

It’s been 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell the Noxzema today.

I mean right now, at this minute, right here.

I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me.

There it goes now.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Men and their gardens



I come from a long line of earth tenders. A very long line.

That's Mister Bua you see there, grandfather to several of my cousins. He and Mrs. Bua lived in the ground floor apartment of Uncle Joe's house on Berriman Street in Brooklyn. A general contractor by trade, my uncle bought the property because it had enough room for his red dump truck and assorted building materials, space for lots of family cookouts in the summer, plus a good-sized garden where he could grow vegetables.

The tree that Mister Bua is tending is a fig tree, a healthy one too. The trellis on the left is for a squash-type vegetable that we call googootz (here's a link that explains), and the vast majority of the plants that I see are tomato plants.

I do not see a single weed. If you are at all familiar with vegetable gardening then you are likely as awestruck by this as I.

In a week or two I will have my own garden, a 24'x24' plot of earth, fully planted. Like my uncle and Mister Bua, along with many other men I grew up admiring for their skill and loving for their generosity of spirit, tending to a garden in summer is a need, not a choice. If I didn't have to nurse my fig trees (four now), tomatoes (a couple dozen plants, at least), googootz (always a crapshoot), garlic (230 or so this time around) and assorted other things I really do not know what else I would be doing from mid-June until September.

I know this may sound silly, or at the very least quaint, but looking at this photograph of Uncle Joe's garden makes me all kinds of weepy. Go ahead and click on the picture, enlarge it and really take a good long look. Mister Bua, a sweet man with a kind heart, is exactly where he wants to be at this moment and doing exactly what he needs to be doing. Every single thing coming out of the ground is lush and beautiful, tended to by men who care deeply for them. Hell, even the sheets drying patiently on the clothesline, possibly Cousin Ursula's, Mister Bua's granddaughter, make me nostalgic.

Things just could not be more perfect.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Mom's cured green olives



One of my strongest childhood memories of autumn goes something like this.

Uncle Joe pulls up to our apartment building in Brooklyn in his red dump truck. He is greeted by his sister, my mother, who emerges from the family's fountain service store onto the concrete sidewalk outside. My uncle goes to the back of the truck and drops the tailgate, his sister following close behind, but not too close.

There are wooden crates stacked along the back edge of the truck bed, eight or ten of them I would estimate. Soon my uncle begins to unload them. He carries the crates through the store, past the two small rooms behind it, ending in the backyard where my grandparents used to keep chickens, ducks, lambs and, at one point I am told by Cousin John, even a baby calf.

One by one he places the crates on the ground, underneath the huge trellised grapevine where 30-odd family members spend many hours together every summer. Being autumn many if not all of the grapes, white ones, have already been harvested, either made into Aunt Laura's famous jellies or simply eaten straight from the vine as they have ripened.

Two or three tables are in place for the work that is ahead, sturdy ones because that is what they must be. After he unloads the last crate Uncle Joe goes back to his truck to gather the tools that will be needed once the crates have all been opened. There are several of these tools, but all are the same.

They are hammers of various shapes and weights, normally used for my uncle's work but here put to use in order to pound away at the contents of the crates.

They are filled with hundreds of pounds of fresh raw green olives. Where the olives were grown I do not know, but they were surely purchased at the Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie, about a twenty minute drive away, longer in a dump truck. My mother is the designated curer of olives in the family and as her son I am expected to lend an assist.

My work is simple, if a tad tedious. Grab one of Uncle Joe's hammers and, one by one, crack open each and every olive until not a single whole one remains. It is impossible to finish the job without bruising my fingers, but this is the price of autumn's work. I don't mind paying it.

In the end I will have helped my mother produce many glass jars filled with strongly flavored cured green olives for appreciative family members and friends.

That is the memory that stays with me, not the bruises.

Anyhow, this is a very long-winded way of saying that I got my hands on some fresh olives last week when visiting my brother Joe in New York. Mixing up a batch of cured ones did not at all seem an unacceptable thing to do.

And so.



This is 4 pounds of raw green olives. They've been rinsed thoroughly and allowed to dry.



Though I was tempted to use my old claw hammer, for old time's sake, I decided on a kitchen mallet instead. One by one you'll need to give each olive a little whack in order to break open the skin and expose the inner flesh.



Like so. Now, you can see that this is a nice clean cut, but don't worry if it isn't. Even if some olives come completely apart they're still okay.



Some of my olives even broke in half. Not a problem.



A fennel bulb, three carrots and a couple celery stalks.



Cut them all up, like so.



And place them in a non-reactive container along with the olives. I used a large dutch oven, as it's lined with porcelain and also has a lid for covering the olives as they cure.



Add 2 1/2 cups of white vinegar, 1 1/2 cups water and 3 tablespoons Kosher salt. Then drizzle a bunch of olive oil on top and cover. Set aside where it won't be in the way because the olives will remain in the mixture for a couple days or longer. Try and stir them once in a while, too.



Knowing when the olives are ready is a little bit tricky. Just-picked olives will need to stay in the vinegar mix longer than those that have travelled a bit. I'd say start checking them after two days. The color should have darkened some by then, and the olives will have softened too. Just don't allow them to get too soft. Pick out a couple olives and give a taste. When the texture seems right then it's time to wrap things up.

These olives were ready in three days.



Pour the olives into a colander and let them drain fully.



At this point you're ready to jar the olives. I transferred them into a large bowl and added several sliced garlic cloves and a little hot pepper, but you don't need to add anything at all if you don't want to.



Either way, stuff the olives into jars and fill the jars with extra virgin olive oil.



Make sure the olives are completely covered in oil, then tighten the lids on the jars and set them aside in a cool place. Be patient because they won't be ready to eat for a good couple months.

I filled seven pint-sized jars out of this batch. My guess is that five of them will be distributed to others at Christmas.

It's always better when you share, no?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The godfather



When you are thirteen and wake before dawn to the sound of a parent dying, odds are short that things are gonna suck pretty bad for a while.

And they did.

But I was luckier than most. I didn't grow up in a family, I grew up in a clan.

Big difference.

Imagine this: Six families, all blood related through siblings, living upstairs, downstairs, and next door to each other in side-by-side apartment houses, three apartments per. My twelve cousins and I didn't have only two parents apiece; aunts and uncles counted too, because they watched over all of us just like we were their own.

I know. Hard to imagine. Different times.

The head of our clan was Uncle Joe. That's him at his house on Berriman Street in Brooklyn. When he bought his own home, late in life actually, he made sure that it had four things: close proximity to the rest of us (only a block and a half away from his brothers' and sisters' families); ample yard space for his dump truck and assorted building materials (he was a general contractor); a generous outdoor area where the whole family could gather for barbecues and parties; and last, but by no means least, a garden.

Uncle Joe had no children of his own, but he was godfather to the majority of his nieces and nephews, me included. The man wasn't merely loved by those of us who knew him. He was adored, idolized even.

My godfather didn't live a lot longer than my father, but I was fortunate to have him around for what the shrinks might call a young man's formative years. He taught me how to use hand tools and mix concrete, how to level a piece of wood before driving a nail into it, how to lay brick, and the proper way to let out a clutch.

More important, and strictly by observing the man, I learned how to be fair and kind to people while at the same time being firm in what I believe.

At least I hope that I did.

It would break my heart to think that I let him down.

Happy Father's Day everybody!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Christmas past



You would need to be pressed very hard to find a kinder, more generous, better loved, more widely respected man than Joseph Patrick Giamundo.

Though a general contractor by actual trade, his role in 65 years of life was not to renovate or repair people's homes and properties. Rather, the man's primary duty was to provide guidance, support, comfort and, most importantly, example to a family consisting of more than 30 people.

He had no children of his own. An early and rather horrific tragedy put an end to that.

Yet we were all Uncle Joe's children. And proud of it.

"Patriarch" falls pretty far short of describing the man's station in our clan. He was just completely and deservedly revered, by his family for sure, but by many others as well.

He still is. And it's been decades since he passed on.



I came across this picture not long ago and made sure to keep it in plain sight so that I could remember to share it with you for the holidays. It's one of Uncle Joe's homemade Nativity scenes, the kind he would throw together using scraps of plywood and two-by-fours leftover from his contracting jobs.

Nothing was so extraordinary about these annually assembled outdoor structures. And yet this one will stick with my entire family forever.

The hand-scribbled sign stapled to the top says it all.

TO THE S.O.B.s THAT STOLE THE FIGURES OUT OF THE MANGER
DROP DEAD

Yep, Uncle Joe's nativity scene figures got heisted.

His mood after discovering the overnight theft was more wounded than angry, at least that's how it seemed to me. The few figures that you see in the picture are extras that Uncle Joe gathered up and hastily placed in the manger after all the originals had disappeared. It was an incomplete set but, well,  at least it was something for us kids to look at and feel excited about during the holidays.

For a good couple days my uncle tried to hide his melancholy. When his sign appeared, especially the DROP DEAD part of it, we were all pretty shaken up. Uncle Joe just never spoke that way to people, no matter how much they deserved it. I remember feeling really badly for him, like something uniquely precious, perhaps even like the child he'd lost, had gotten ripped away from him once again.

On Christmas Eve Uncle Joe awoke to find that his Nativity scene figures had all been returned. His mood, of course, brightened considerably, and so did the rest of the family's. Just before leaving his house to attend the midnight mass at St. Rita's Uncle Joe put up another sign on his manger.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH AND MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU!

I can't find a picture of that sign. But don't really need one either.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Good men and their sausage


You can't see it here but the stamp on the back of this old photograph reads "July 1969."

A lot happened that month. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and the first U.S. troops left Vietnam. New York Mets ace Tom Seaver lost his bid for a no hitter with only two outs left in the ninth. Brian Jones, the original leader of The Rolling Stones, drowned in his swimming pool. And, in a tragedy that would haunt him the rest of his days, Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, an accident where a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne had died.

Very early that month, July 4th to be precise, something a bit less noteworthy occurred: I learned that if ever I was to grow up and become a man I would need to learn how to build a fire, drink a cold beer, and cook an enormous amount of sausage, peppers and onions for the people I love.

Please don't ask me why. It's just what we're supposed to do. And you know it.

I could look at this picture a thousand more times and every time the tastes inside my head will be the same. Not a red pepper or garlic clove or onion slice or fennel seed's bit of difference.

It's the way I like it. The same. Every time.

Uncle Joe does the cooking because it is his backyard, his makeshift brick-and-cinder block fire pit, and his party. Uncle Dominic consults with his brother and drinks his cold beer. The rest of the family, thirty of us perhaps, wait for my uncles to announce that it's time to eat.

Somewhere nearby I am watching and learning.

Summer is coming. Time to man up.
 
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