Our family were great walkers, and so we could be great eaters. As a boy I would walk with my mother and grandmother to do the marketing. Staten Island in those days was a set of villages, each with its own market street. In New Brighton we would shop on Jersey Street. Shopping was a village experience, where we would meet and chat with friends, relatives and fellow parishioners.
Sometimes we would shop at the local A&P. Alongside today’s gargantuan markets, it would seem like a large country store. More often we would stop at a succession of small shops. Chief among my grandmother’s stops was DeSimone’s butcher shop, with its saw-dusted floors, meat hooks and charts of meat cuts posted along the upper walls between stuffed trophies of wild game. For my grandmother and later my mother, dinner was never dinner without meat. When Mom was in her 80s, I would protest her planning to cook a roast on a steamy summer afternoon.
On every trip we would shop at the Italian or Jewish bakery. Occasionally we would take a slightly longer walk to the local “milk store,” where we would buy fresh mozzarella and ricotta. When I was 12 or 13, my grandmother would send me by myself on Saturdays to the Italian bakery and the latteria. I found it strange there was a dairy store that didn’t sell milk, where everything seemed bare and white, whereas the nearby bakery, almost as spare, was filled with fragrant aromas, warm colors and the intriguing shapes of Italian bread. Only as I grew older, when I had traveled to Italy and my palate had grown more subtle, did I appreciate the pristine glories of the dairy store.
En route we would pass a couple of vegetable and fruit stands. There I remember learning about seasonal produce and the tests for ripeness of different fruits: squeezing, sniffing, shaking, knocking. Grandmother would look at the eye-appealing earliest crop of a certain fruit and say with regret, “Not yet. In two weeks, they will be ready.” Even today the tastiest eating is from local produce in season.
Those shopping walks, along with Grandma’s savory cooking and Grandpa’s victory garden, were my introduction to the culinary arts. From my grandfather I learned the mystery of cold frames for winter crops, of blanching celery and protecting fruit trees with a coat of white wash. From Grandpa I also learned about greens: leaf lettuce, of course, but also Swiss chard, chickory, escarole, arugula and radicchio decades before they became fashionable.
Years later when as a second-year theology student I began to cook for our small Jesuit community, Grandma, then housebound, would wait for my weekly call to check a recipe before I headed out to an urban supermarket, crowded with strangers and packaged products, to purchase the food to prepare dinner.
For a Jesuit, who has spent much of his life at study and writing, sitting in meetings and lecturing at the podium, food shopping and cooking were for many years a refuge from the world of words. When computerized auto engines made obsolete what few mechanical skills I had gained, shopping and cooking gave me a way to exercise practical skills and indulge my sensate side. Watching a Bolognese sauce reduce again and again or continually stirring a risotto calls for the kind of relaxed attention that perhaps only a fly fisherman might find familiar.
Neither the shopping nor the cooking are things I have much time to do these days. The incessant demands of the Internet have me playing catch-up every day. But one day I hope to log out, shut down and return to the garden, the market and the stove top. And after that there will be fly fishing.