King of the Pastavazool

We’re not Italian.  But on Saturday nights, if my parents didn’t go out to Twin Oaks for dinner, my dad cooked.  Meatballs and spaghetti.  Braciole.  I’d stand and watch him make the meatballs.  First time he asked if I wanted to help, he made me wash my hands for five minutes before I stuck them in the bowl, squishing around the hamburger and raw eggs and breadcrumbs.  It was so gross and I loved every minute of it.

The braciole was something he did by himself, while I watched.  First, we went to Ruggieri’s Market on Saturday morning to get the meat – thin slices of beef.  Dad made a mixture, again with the raw egg, and spread it on the slices of meat, then rolled them up, stuck a toothpick in each one, and put them in the frying pan.  They sizzled and popped and turned brown.  After that, into the tomato sauce to cook until supper.

“Watch the pastavazool – don’t let it spatter on the stove or your mother will be mad,” he’d say.  Ah, so pastavazool was spaghetti sauce.  But wait.

On Sundays we usually had a roast beef or a pot roast, or sometimes a turkey.  My mom would work hard because we usually had company: my grandparents or the old neighbors.  We ate in the dining room, and everything was to be just right for the guests.  After church I had to dust the furniture.  Someone had to set the big table.  The smells from the kitchen made my stomach rumble.

And then, in the middle of the turkey and the mashed potatoes and the stuffing and the green beans, my dad would say, “Martha, pass the pastavazool.”  He pointed at the gravy, in the fancy gravy boat, and everyone laughed.  “Oh, Jack!” said Mrs. O’Connell.  “Here’s to ya,” said Mr. McLaughlin, raising his glass of Narragansett beer.

On regular weeknights there was no pastavazool, just pork chops or American chop suey or chicken à la king.  The pastavazool was for the weekends.  And it was very special.

House Specialty: Shish Barak

Beth and I already had planned a week in Amsterdam; now we had a side trip to visit family friends in The Hague.  We boarded a train from the Amsterdam station, and were met by the entire family: Paul, Catherine, Eileen, Patrick, and Matt.  After nearly a week in a cramped, cold hotel room, Beth and I were grateful for a night with a real family, in a warm house, with a hot shower and a big dinner.

Their home was beautiful and the Hoyes could not have been more gracious.  Mrs. Hoye showed us our room, and mentioned that Eileen was preparing a special meal.  Beth whispered to me excitedly, “I can’t wait to eat!  What do you think: roast beef, turkey maybe?”  I shook my head and laughed.  Whatever we were eating would be just fine.  The previous night we’d tried an Indonesian rijstaffel, and our mouths were still burning.

We washed our hands and went downstairs to a pretty table set for seven people.  Eileen was excited to display her culinary skills.  She placed shallow bowls in front of us.  Each bowl contained some kind of soup, a creamy base.  Couldn’t be clam chowder, I thought.  Could it?  The Hoyes were American, but had lived in Lebanon before relocating to The Netherlands.  We waited for our hosts to begin eating and took a spoonful.  Oh my God.  I was eating cold yogurt with spices.  And what was this? A meatball?  I looked up, hoping my face wasn’t registering the alarm I felt.  Mrs. Hoye looked at Eileen with motherly pride, and cheerfully explained that Eileen had made a traditional Lebanese dish called Shish Barak.

Beth whispered to me that perhaps this was just the first course.  Beth was used to first courses.  But I knew.  This was dinner.  Yogurt soup with meatballs.  We were good kids, raised to be polite and appreciative, and during that year we learned to eat what was put in front of us.  So we did our best and hoped for dessert.

Later, as we lay side by side in the twin beds, Beth said, “I’ll always remember Shish Barak.  But I would have preferred Shish Kebab.”