Growing up Italian definitely had its advantages. For one, the food is definitely better. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks, there was always something traditional. For example, a traditional American before school breakfast would consist of toasted Wonder bread with butter, raisin bran cereal and a small glass of orange juice.
In our house, mom would break out the blender for breakfast. First she would crack a raw egg (brown shelled of course) into the blender, put a few teaspoons of sugar, add a shot of espresso and milk and blend until frothy. She would then toast a few thin slices of homemade bread and serve it with a couple of wedges of cantaloupe. We would then dunk the bread into the “egg crème”. When we were done with our toast we would finish the “egg crème” and then top it off with the cantaloupe. Needless to say, we would go to school wide awake from the espresso and Sister Cecelia, the principal could never figure out why we were bouncing off the walls
I can remember the first time I had a school lunch as if it were yesterday. I am number four of five boys, so by the time I went to school, my mother was already very aware of the school lunches. She also understood that I would be coming home hungry because the schools version of lunch was very much different than ours.
Anyway, here I am, my first day in the first grade. I am really excited for lunch, because I have never really eaten “American” food and I can’t wait to try it. In my mind, this was exotic, something that you would see Anthony Bordain eat on the Travel Channel. So, when it’s time, Sister Louis, my first grade teacher, lines us all up for lunch. Sister Louis had a thick Italian accent, and wore a uniform that made her look like the penguin version of Marlon Brando in the Godfather. She was very quick with her ruler that she kept hidden under her cloak, which she used to crack your knuckles if you weren’t paying attention. A lesson I learned on the first day.
Anyway, she already knew that both my parents were “off the boat”. As I stood in line she looked at me and asked me if I was hungry. I told her I was and that I was very excited because I had never had any American food before. Well she started to laugh and said that today we were having spaghetti with meat sauce. I said you mean Bolognese Sauce? And she said it was the American version
Needless to say, I was very disappointed that we were having spaghetti Bolognese and not some exotic American dish like Salisbury steak. Anyway, we get in line, and I am at the back of the column because I am the tallest so I get to watch everyone go first. As I wait in line, I am craning my neck to see what is going on in front of me. As we wait in line a woman hand us these hard plastic trays and eating utensils as we shuffle forward a few feet at a time. So now I am holding my tray with this exotic looking utensil that looks a spoon and a fork combined which I come to find out later is called a Spork. I try to be cool like I know what it is but in my mind, I have absolutely no idea what a spork is or what it is used for. When I get up to the “buffet” line, I place my trays on the line, clutching my spork and start to slide my tray forward. Now, looking at me though the sneeze guard is this woman who to me looks to be 107 years old with a hair net on her head, plastic gloves on her hands and a hairy mole the size of my father’s garden growing on her face. She looks like the wicked witch of the west from the Wizard of Oz. Seeing her should have been the first warning sign to me that this was not the spaghetti Bolognese that my mother made. But being a rookie to the school lunch program, the alarm bells really didn’t start to go off. Not only that, I was too horrified by what I saw in the pans to really notice Miss Mole, I mean Miss Molly. Staring at me in the pan was something Miss Mole called spaghetti. The only problem was that this red tinted goop was served with an ice cream scoop and I have never seen spaghetti served with an ice cream scoop So, Miss Mole slops this concoction onto my plastic plate with a wet thud. She then puts this red liquid with some chopped hamburger mixed in it, on top of my “spaghetti ice cream”. I was later informed that this was red sauce or gravy. A slice of white bread with margarine smeared on it completed my entrée.
On my tray, is what I am sure will be my last meal. I start to walk away only to be told to wait there is more. More? I thought. I hoped and prayed it was something I could eat. Instead, they threw a bowl of this green wobbly stuff on my tray and finished it all with a carton of milk.
Now remember, this is my first time eating something other than homemade Italian food. I clutch the edges of my plastic tray and began to wonder if maybe the tray would taste better that the contents. I walked over to the class table and sit down with my new friends. In my class there was one other person whose parents came from another country, Demetrius who was Greek. As I approached the table I immediately sought him out and was looking at his face to see if he was thinking the same thing I was. I was hopeful that he would be smiling and shoveling this “food” into his mouth with this instrument of destruction called a spork. Instead, he was staring at his plate and playing with the green wobbly stuff with his fingers, that I would come to find out later was green Jell-O. When I asked Miss. Mole, what kind of flavor the green Jell-O had, I was told green.
Anyway, I sat down at the table and was looking around at all the happy faces of my new friends. They were all commenting how much better this was than their mom’s and how great the meat sauce was. I decided that it had to be ok if they were all enjoying it, so I tasted the sauce. I was shocked that this was called meat sauce. Where was the basil, the parsley or garlic? Where were the little pieces of pork? Where was the hand grated cheese? This sauce tasted like tomato juice.
And another thing, I was used to twirling my spaghetti with a fork. This stuff was all mashed together and you ate it with a spork. My head started to spin. Partly because of the spaghetti and meat sauce but mostly because watching the Jell-O wobble was making me dizzy. I looked over to Demetrius and asked him what he thought. He just shook his head and kept playing with the Jell-O.
I didn’t know what to do. In our house, we had to eat what was on our plate. Not only that Sister Louis was watching us, me in particular, to make sure we finished our lunch. I was afraid I was going to get hit with that ruler again. Just then Miss Mole came out with a pot and asked us if anyone wanted seconds. Seconds? I didn’t even want the firsts. The other kids at the table all raised their hands very enthusiastically. I looked at them like they were crazy. They all had red stained faces, sauce spattered on their uniform shirts, a piece of buttered Wonder bread in one hands, with a sporkfull of green flavored Jell-O in the other hand.
Sister Louis saw the look in my eyes and realized that I had just experienced culture shock. She came up to me and asked me if I was ok. I told her, in Italian, that I wasn’t very hungry. She reached into the pockets of her nun habit and pulled out a ½ salami sandwich. She told me I could have it. I told her “grazie” and she responded with “prego” I remember eating that sandwich like it was a piece of filet mignon.
Sister Louis and I had a special bond from that day forward. I would go out of my way to be respectful to her like she was one of my aunts. I never gave her a hard time and would make sure I always greeted her with “Buon Giorno” every morning. She retired after that year, but I will never forget her kindness and the salami sandwich.
1 pound bulk Italian sausage
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup diced potatoes
1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 teaspoon minced garlic (2 cloves)
5 cups Chicken Broth
1 jar Coppola’s Roasted Garlic Sauce
2 cups Heavy Creme
1 cup finely shredded Mozzarella cheese
In large saucepan, cook and stir sausage, onion, celery, and garlic over medium heat until onion is tender and sausage is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Drain.
Stir in broth, potatoes, and sauce; heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Return to boiling.
Stir in Heavy Crème
Stir in cheese and spinach; reduce heat and simmer for 2 minutes or until cheese is melted and spinach is heated through.
Makes 6 to 8 servings. Serve with Crusty Italian Bread.