The Sunday Dinner Incident


Life growing up in our Italian neighborhood was one long food fight that finally ended when a Norwegian family with eight kids moved into the old Cabaldi place.

It took about a month but the local cuisine took a nosedive when kids in the neighborhood discovered the delights of Mrs. Larsen’s Norwegian French toast, which she insisted the Vikings brought back from France. I guess they also brought back the foot deep powdered sugar she sifted over the top. Mrs. Larsen introduced us to potato klubb and lefse but it was the desserts that dissolved any remaining loyalty to the Wednesday pasta days. You can eat just so much pasta but those cream-filled Norwegian desserts were powerfully intoxicating to an Italian kid. It was mutiny.

To be honest, if you grew up in an Italian neighborhood you already know that food is not just fuel, it’s a whole lifestyle. And because Wednesday was Prince Spaghetti Day for the rest of America, the homemakers on the street would work overtime on Wednesdays outdoing each other with fresh pasta and homemade sauces. My mother, who was Irish, never quite got into the swing of “mucking about in the kitchen all day,” as she put it. To be fair, she was a career woman whose idea of haute cuisine was bread pudding made with Wonder Bread and topped with heated up lemon pudding mix.

Grandma, however, was the neighborhood food critic and arbiter of all things Italian culture. At just under five feet with sensible black cuban heel shoes and a bobby pinned bun perched on the top of her head, she was the only one who didn’t bother to hand out fresh pasta and sauce every Wednesday like it was Christmas fifty-two weeks a year. Grandma saved herself for her ravioli and pannetone and hassling old Mr. Fumagali, the bread baker.

Mom and Grandma had an understanding and it involved keeping a shouting distance between them. Considering we lived next door to Grandma it took some doing to keep a sparring distance. Mom would pretend she wasn’t home when Grandma would knock on the door and Grandma would mutter, “Oh, my poor son, Joe” when she was within earshot of the front door, or anyone in the neighborhood willing to listen.

This is how it starts. First it’s the muttering, then it’s the words, then it’s plates of pasta and some sketchy sanitation. Let me explain. Fact: Italians love to cook and they love to eat. Mom, being Irish, never quite got the memo but she did get Grandma sitting like a troll next to Dad one Sunday afternoon each month. Until the Sunday when it all went to hell.

On this particular winter day, after much exhortation by Grandma that she needed to step up her wifely and motherly game in the kitchen, Mom was ready with a little surprise. The best dishes were set atop the best linens and the center of the table was ready to receive the main course. Pasta. Of course it was pasta. But not just any pasta. Mom had prepared a big platter of nude pasta she plunked dead center on the white tablecloth. To this day, what happened next is a bit of a blur. You’ll have to forgive me but I spent part of that meal under the table cowering beside our old collie.

Mom was a fan of Hunt’s Ketchup, or “catsup’ as she indicated was the proper way to pronounce it. Mom came out of the kitchen armed with a bottle of the ketchup/catsup shaking it like a rag doll. She unscrewed the cap and smacked the bottom of that bottle with the force of ten years of rage and most of the bottle came to rest in the center of the congealing pasta. Grandma grabbed her water glass and looked faint. My Dad looked trapped. Hostilities had commenced.

Mom merrily forked the pasta around to our plates and proceeded to slurp a few strands from her own plate until she realized the shock was wearing off. Jumping up with a hearty, “Dessert time!” she took her plate off the table and offered it to our collie, her faithful ally in any scheme to infuriate Grandma.

Old Lassie licked the plate clean as Mom declared, “She sure beats washing dishes all the time.” Being well brought up, she politely excused herself and marched back into the kitchen and shelved the plate in the cupboard with extra clatter that matched her mood.

My Dad didn’t dare move. But Grandma did. She jumped up plunging her place setting to its death on the dining room floor. I should probably tell you Grandma liked to tuck the tablecloth into her collar to catch any spills, something I noticed she only seemed to do at our house. But just than Mom stuck her head around the kitchen door frame and declared, “Who wants bread pudding? I made that lemon pudding sauce you like to go with it.”

The last I saw of Grandma for a long while was her rigid back marching next door to the beat of her sensible black shoes followed by the slamming of her front door. My subsequent visits were held at Grandma’s house. Mom was not invited. Dad went into hiding. The Sunday Dinner Incident was never spoken of again and remains, until today, the subject of much speculation and few facts.

We moved two hours away three months later. Dad told everyone he liked the idea of a little breathing room. Mom never said a word.

Posted in Family, Food, Food you fight with, growing up Italian, Relationships, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bombs bursting in air

JoeAlbericiEvery American alive today has lived through America’s involvement in a war. Everyone. Call it “war” or a “military action,” it’s the same outcome bolstered by rhetoric to justify our heading out the door to help or harm. We like to keep these things thousands of miles away from the kitchen door.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re attacked you have the right to defend yourself. But our national tendency to go picking a fight makes our carrot and stick diplomacy more stick than carrot. No matter what you hear, history bears witness to this: America is always spoiling for a fight.

When politicians sit in Washington and tell us their decisions are good for America and help to keep us free, let’s take a step back and look at the defense budget, the giant maw digesting tax dollars at the expense of social programs and education. It begs the question about what our national identity truly is and what our legacy will be. The fact is we spend so much money on either making war or getting ready for the next one, there isn’t much left over for the rest of us.

And there’s another price to pay. One that isn’t factored into the cost of materiel. It’s the personal cost. When you see someone you love damaged in mind and body, you tend not to be a fan of war. You turn down the flag waving adrenaline.

Which brings me back to why. I understand a desire to serve your country, to protect it and eliminate threats. My family is a military family. And I understand there is a price to pay. But that doesn’t stop me asking why we put such effort and resources into something horrific.

We glorify war and consider those who oppose it to be milquetoast wimps incapable of true patriotism. The storyline goes: if you don’t have a strong military in a state of constant readiness or flexing its biceps around the globe there might not be an America left to celebrate the Fourth of July. Let freedom ring.

I mentioned that we’re a military family. I know what it looks like and what it feels like to have a father so injured mentally and physically in war that he was labeled 100% disabled. I grew up visiting him in a VA hospital eight months out of the year and stood by his grave when he died at the age of 52. And I know what it’s like to worry about a son deployed and to work for the military and watch troops return to their families. And to go to Walter Reed Army Hospital and see the physical and mental cost to a generation of young women and men.

There’s a human cost to be paid for the decisions made in Washington. I am opposed to war and saber rattling and spoiling for a fight. Opposed to any military action that is not undertaken as a direct threat to our safety, my safety, your safety. Not the manufactured perception of threat for the sake of justifying our actions but a real threat that lands on our doorstep: U Boats in the harbor, planes over Pearl Harbor. Not “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.”

When the people do not question what their leaders are doing or seek to remove dangerous and potentially unstable individuals wielding power like a child’s rattle than the world becomes a sandbox for the few at the cost of us all.

Photo credit: Joe Alberici, the author’s father.


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The politics of yarn

bird heartThere are few things more convivial than a group of folks showing off their latest projects and talking yarn. Whether it’s knitting, crochet, spinning or weaving, yarn is the thread that binds those of us who love the fiber arts.

So what happened? Politics happened.

At the best of years it’s one of those subjects that can take conversation to a new low. But in divisive America 2017 it’s become downright toxic.

Case in point is the Tennessee yarn store that slammed the door on anyone who didn’t wave the flag for Trump’s version of a great America. Granted she could as the owner but that would have been unheard of before this election.

Or the time a knitter with a penchant for sly alt-right factoids had two Hillary supporters trapped in her moving vehicle while her radio blared Sean Hannity on the way to a yarn store and an afternoon of tea and political sympathy.

Or the two activists who love to knit who assured me it was OK for them to wear their pink hats everywhere but it wasn’t OK for someone to question why they would.

Is there a line anymore? The invisible boundary of good manners you do not cross? In 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, the boundary of no return for him and his army as he headed for Rome and the history books. Apparently not much has changed since 49 BC.

Is the chilling of relationships when politics are revealed sufficient for us to drop acquaintances? The determining factor might be a lack of sensitivity, a tendency to gloat, to make the overly loud point. Or to do it at the wrong place and the wrong time and with the wrong people. As my Italian grandmother used to say, “Pensare prima di aprire la bocca.” That’s “think before you open your mouth, bub.”

It’s hard not to feel a twinge or two when you realize someone you used to knit with at a favorite local yarn store is giving you the verbal bird. It might feel good for a minute to ride around on your high horse but the ride lasts about as long as that high you get when you drink too much coffee and realize you’re nowhere near a bathroom.

Politics does that to us.

We say things and we mean them. And we don’t back down because I’m right and you’re not and I don’t care what you think. I can’t talk to you anymore because you don’t agree with me.

Politics makes strangers of friends and acquaintances.

And it makes for poor companionship on a day when you just want to talk about mittens or that shawl you’re struggling with or the wonky arms on the sweater you’ve been knitting for a year.

Sometimes the point is to not make a point. Sometimes it really is all about the yarn and finding the middle and remembering there was a time when we could welcome each other and spend a few hours getting away from the rest of it.

Maybe it’s time we all just got back to our knitting.

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Welcome to Dogland

In 2010, I wrote a post welcoming a wonderful, most majestic and decidedly imperious member to my family. This is a different kind of post…

herself1There’s been a lot of talk about moving to another country since this past November. Admit it: you’ve been looking at everything from Costa Rica to Iceland. But what if I told you there’s a country that will fulfill all your craziest expectations for great neighbors, moments of much hilarity and one great sorrow. Would you want to know more? Would you move there? I did in 2010.

There aren’t any Yelp reviews. It won’t show up on Google Earth. It’s everywhere and nowhere. Citizenship is easy. You don’t need a birth certificate, a driver’s license, a passport, a physical exam or a visa. No one is an illegal immigrant in this country. The only requirement is one thing: a dog. That’s right: a dog. You become a citizen of Dogland when you are adopted by a dog.

Welcome to Dogland.

Let’s not kid ourselves, you don’t pick a dog. That’s the ruse. We humans, so convinced of our superiority, lay open our need and into that wasteland steps the dog who has been on a mission to find you. This small puppy you’re smiling at, the old dog who’s seen worse days, the abandoned dog, the beaten and sad dog. Your dog has been looking for you. We don’t fool ourselves in Dogland.

Hearts. Heart dogs. I never knew there was such a thing. What did I know about anything in matters of the heart? People come and go, judge us, inform us, advise us, laugh at us and with us, and sometimes they even love us. But people are people and their love is definitely conditional. No matter what he or she tells you in the heat of the first passion of love or friendship, at some point you’re going to be asked to compromise a part of your spirit. But never with a dog. Never.

I used to think that angels wore pastels and sported glorious wings and had long golden hair and great singing voices. I figured God liked the Heavenly Host that way. But I’ve changed my mind. I think whoever looks out for us upstairs or over the Rainbow Bridge had a different idea in mind when it came time to find a few good friends to share eternity with.

People draw images of angels, everything from flying baby heads with wings to giant avenging angels with swords of fire. But we don’t get it. God does and that’s why we have dogs. I believe that dogs come to us from a different realm and return there at the end of their brief time helping us. We’re better for knowing them than we would ever have been without their love. Dogs are sent to us. We really are only drawn to them. They do the rest.

I’ve been lucky in my life to have had one of these angels come to spend a too brief time with me. I wasn’t prepared for this. I thought we would be a team forever. I didn’t realize she was here for just a blink in time to be my best friend, my confidante, the purveyor of calm listening and a tireless companion when I was ill. I hope she knew how much I loved her too. I don’t know why she chose me but I loved her from the moment I saw her covered with dirt in a muddy yard halfway across the state. I searched for her for nearly a year. Maybe all my life.

When it came time to send her back across the Rainbow Bridge two weeks ago my heart fell into blackness. She taught me a lot about growing old and enjoying the moment and not being afraid when it comes time to cross over the Bridge and rejoin her. And that’s what we’ll do: rejoin our heart dogs who have loved us. Pope Francis said so and I know he gets his information straight from Heaven.

I feel sorry for people who have never allowed themselves the joy and craziness and the pain of loss of a dog or cat or hamster or sheep or snake or any creature that opens them to a sense of wonder at a different perspective on life.

Please don’t delay. Don’t be so afraid of the end of the journey that you never take the first step.


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FLASH! Girl power lifts Santa’s sleigh

real-santa-claus-sleigh-and-reindeer_555587Let’s talk about this right now: Santa’s sleigh is girl powered! All your life you believed Santa’s sleigh was pulled by tough, male reindeer. Am I right? The fact is female reindeer don’t shed their antlers in winter. The males do. And some of those female reindeer are expecting. Here’s to the girls. Santa’s reindeer have antlers. Bam! Santa’s reindeer are female. Thank you.

Truth is, eleven months of the year we ignore reindeer. In the middle of a hot summer, unless you live in Lapland or around Svalbard, you probably don’t care. But come December reindeer take their place as symbols of the season. Santa can’t arrive without reindeer power and the buffet table looks pretty bleak without at least one reindeer ornament. But reindeer are amazing. Let’s explore…

Reindeer are not to be ignored. They travel further in their annual migration than any other land mammal, covering over 3,000 miles in a year cutting across northern Scandinavia.

Reindeer also have specialized noses with 25% more capillaries delivering warm red blood that heats the air before it reaches their lungs. No reindeer ever said, “Man, it was so cold out there it was like breathing in razor blades.” Rudolph and his red nose? Sort of.

Reindeer have special pads under their hooves that toughen up to withstand the Arctic cold and their hooves are covered with fur to insulate them from the snow. Each reindeer hair is hollow to trap cold air before it reaches their skin. Reindeer are warm and toasty in some of the coldest weather on the planet.

Reindeer have eyes that turn from yellow-brown in summer to deep blue in winter. Why is that? To capture more light in the dark northern winter months. Did you know reindeer are the only mammals that can see in the ultra-violet spectrum? This helps them find their way in the dark and see danger.

Reindeer are quiet most of the year. Reindeer moms talk to their babies but male reindeer seldom speak, unless it’s to find a mate once a year or converse with a herder.

Did you know reindeer can run at nearly 50 mph? And fly? In fact, research included in the book The Flight of the Reindeer, proved that reindeer can actually fly. Fly! They can run so fast they actually leave the ground. Imagine that.

The Sami people of northern Sweden are one of several indigenous peoples who are traditional reindeer herders. Their lives and their year is spent among the reindeer traveling throughout northern Scandinavia with their herds. One herder, whose family has herded reindeer for generations, described it as “our souls touch.”

And just in case you were wondering: elk are not reindeer. But reindeer and caribou are different names for the same species.

If you want to visit with Santa and his reindeer, I’ll leave you with Reindeer Cam.

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This is the last word on that: fruitcakes and politics

fruitcakeNo matter what political firestorms blow over the landscape, at this time of year fruitcake cancels them out. That might not be true but fruitcake has gotten a bad rap over the centuries.

The Romans carried a concoction of barley mash, pomegranate seeds, raisins and pine nuts as they conquered the world. If that doesn’t make you get out a bowl and spoons then how about the Crusaders. It’s hard to find the energy to search for the Holy Grail without stoking up on calories. Yes, fruitcake traveled with the Knights Templar.

What’s the deal with fruitcake? Why doesn’t it have any friends? Why the jokes? Maybe it’s the gummy, gluey stop light candied bits that some bakers insist make it festive. Maybe it’s the weight. A slice of fruitcake has the density of neutronium. It’s a scientific fact.

But that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a covert slice. Confession: every year during December I sneak off to a local tree nursery that brings in a small shipment of Claxton Fruitcakes. I buy many. And I hide them.

I know that if I get stuck in a snowstorm I’ll have the necessary calories to withstand the northeastern cold until I’m rescued. Failing being rescued, fruitcake provides excellent traction. When I lived in Vermont folks used to put a bag of turkey grit or a piece of their house foundation in the trunk to provide grip on icy roads. I used fruitcake.

Political candidates whine that they get kicked around but they could learn something from fruitcake. Fruitcake has been publicly humiliated for centuries. I don’t know of any politico that’s gotten slung out of a catapult by a guy dressed as a Viking, although I do know a few who should be. Leftover fruitcake gets slammed against a target every year in early January in a place called Manitou Falls, CO. All in the name of fun.

It’s time to reevaluate our relationship with fruitcake. If you’re calorically challenged and fear December’s temptations, then fruitcake for breakfast it is. One slice of fruitcake and you can skip that mid-morning snack and maybe lunch. Fruitcake is a powerhouse of “good” things: nuts, raisins, eggs plus butter, sugar and flour. Three out of six isn’t bad.

When I was a kid my mother taught me that anything that arrived in a round tin and reeked of booze should be left for the grownups. My dad was under orders to lock the car doors at night. Mom insisted that the same people who left bags of zucchini in your car when you weren’t looking were not above dropping off a spare fruitcake or two after dark. This anti-fruitcake sentiment may have fueled my desire to eat all the fruitcake.

A question that gets kicked around every year is how long these things last before they go “bad.” There are a few people who might say they’re never “good” but we’ll forget about them. The truth is that fruitcake never goes bad. There’s a story that Howard Carter found a fruitcake perfect for eating when he opened King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. In fact, as the story goes, it was served at a festive lunch celebrating the tomb opening. I might have lied a little here but let’s be honest: if you soak anything in enough booze it will never spoil.

It’s nearly Christmas. There’s still time to make a memory. I’d like to see fruitcake take its rightful place alongside cookies and other seasonal sweet delights. You can help with this. Surprise your guests. Listen to the “oohs” and cheers as you wheel out the fruitcake in the shape of your choice, the centerpiece of your dessert buffet. It’s a bold choice and the right choice. Fruitcake. This Christmas.


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How two Brits killed Christmas

krampus_card_by_mscorleyVIGILANT parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, teachers and strangers, with or without candy, you are now green lighted to tell children there is no Santa Claus. No jolly fat man. No rosy cheeked harbinger of the holiday season. Nothing. There is nothing out there. It’s all a retail lie.

But we’re only telling you this because we love you and are responsible adults who do not want to be blamed for your therapy bills when you’re thirty.

You may, however, believe in the Krampus because every kid should be afraid that some demon with horns and bad breath is going to drag them off to Hell on Christmas Eve. Hey, kid, you been naughty? All that’s gonna be left of you is a lump of tar black coal.

Paging Clement Clarke Moore to the courtesy phone. Could we please have a little magic over here on The Night Before Christmas?

Thanks to two killjoys, Christopher Boyle, a psychologist, and a “mental health researcher” named Kathy McKay over at the University of Exeter (GB) writing in the December issue of The Lancet Psychiatry, parents and well-meaning grown-ups everywhere are cautioned to be careful what they say. And watch the fairy tales while you’re at it.

In an over-statement of histrionic proportions, they write: “If they (parents et al) are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?” 

Let’s just dump this muppet flail right back in the kid’s lap, shall we? If I’m a kid and my Mom and Dad tell me there’s a Santa, and Dad goes all Clark Griswold with decorations and eggnog, and the Big Night Before arrives and we set out milk and cookies, should I be suspicious? I’m maybe seven and my tiny ego is only half-formed and the tedious reliance on myth and magic is such a trial for the spirit. I’ll be under the couch reading the DSM-5.

I mean, if my pet tarantula, Skippy, dies it’s OK for these same adults to lie to me because it’s “nicer.” As this duo writes: “An adult comforting a child and telling them that their recently deceased pet will go to a special place (animal heaven) is arguably nicer than telling graphic truths about its imminent re-entry into the carbon cycle.”

I want to believe The Lancet is having us on. A bit of fun to lighten up the leaden weight of 2016. If you want to give yourself a treat it’s right there just under Football Therapy and just above To the Batcave.

Is it OK if we keep some magic in our lives? Is it OK if part of us never grows up and starts to believe that maybe Santa isn’t real? Is it OK for adults to tell a child that Santa doesn’t exist and he never did and to do this before the child has a chance to make up his or her own mind? Is being a “grown up” really code for being a self-righteous killjoy?

I want to suggest that Mr. Boyle and Ms. McKay go soak their two heads in a vat of eggnog and leave the magic to the rest of us in this weary fragile world.

Is Santa real? You bet. I have a small silver sleigh bell and a half eaten carrot I’ve had since I was a kid. You want to see them? I’d be happy to share. Magic isn’t magic if you keep it to yourself.

Thank you to Santa and the other nice folks at the North Pole for never giving up on us, even when it seems we give up on ourselves. Now, everybody back to your knitting.

Posted in Christmas, Crap you tell your kids, Health, Media, Relationships, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment