Excerpt from The Farm on Staten Island
. . . On their first Easter on Staten Island, my grandmother insisted her brother and his new wife come to Manhattan for dinner. She didn’t want them to be alone for the holiday on what she considered a remote island. A dinner guest might be expected to bring wine or dessert, but the brother I knew as Uncle Tony brought a young goat on a leash. His friends working at the ferry had let him take it aboard, but the driver wouldn’t allow an animal on the Broadway bus, and he was left to walk the three miles from the ferry to my grandmother’s on Mott Street. My mother remembered all the kids on the block being excited to see the goat, and the adults in the family, amused by her uncle’s country ways. Grandma didn’t want anything to do with a live animal so Uncle Tony took it into her tenement’s backyard, where it was slaughtered, dressed, and served at Easter dinner. The family accepted Tony’s behavior knowing that although he left the farm, the farm never left him.
. . . He had a tree I thought came out of a fairy tale. Half of its branches grew deep red apples and the other half, pale green pears. I was bewildered, but he explained that since he didn’t have room for too many fruit trees, he planted an apple tree and then grafted a branch from a pear tree onto it. This brought him close to the level of a magician for me.
. . . Everyone in the family knew I loved going to the farm on Staten Island. My mother’s brother, Uncle Jimmy, often took me along when he went to visit. One late summer day, he and I were walking through the property when we came across a fig tree heavy with ripe purple fruit.
Uncle Jimmy said, “Boy, you can’t get figs like these in a store. Let’s have some.”
He began picking them, one for me, one for him, until we’d eaten almost all the fruit on the tree. Suddenly, Uncle Tony came up behind us and said to Uncle Jimmy, “Caroline was waiting for those figs to ripen to make preserves and you, cafone, ate them all.”
It was the first time I’d ever seen him angry, but since his accusations were directed at Uncle Jimmy and not me, I wasn’t concerned. There he was, my white-haired Great Uncle Tony scolding my gray-haired Uncle Jimmy over some figs as if he were a little boy. Uncle Jimmy grinned and looked guilty while Uncle Tony seemed exasperated with his nephew. It all seemed so funny to me I couldn’t help laughing and soon my uncles were laughing too.
. . . Aunt Caroline grew tomatoes and herbs just outside her kitchen door, and when she made a tomato-basil salad she put ice cubes in it because the ingredients were still hot from the sun. There was one dish her guests often hoped she’d make at lunch. She’d sauté chicken hearts in olive oil with crumpled dried hot peppers and wild mushrooms gathered by my uncle in the wilds of Staten Island: simple ingredients which came together as something very special. She’d hum as she chopped and the earthy smell of mushrooms and olive oil would fill the kitchen.
. . . When he went to pick mushrooms he’d be gone all day, and Aunt Caroline would say, “He thinks I don’t know, but after he gets the mushrooms, he plays poker with his friends. As long as he brings me the mushrooms, I don’t say anything.”
The first time I can remember her serving the chicken hearts, she looked at me and without asking if I’d prefer it, cut a couple of slices of crusty Italian bread and spread it with cream cheese and Welch’s grape jelly. “Robbie’s American,” she said to my mother, “so I made him a sandwich I saw on television.” Glad to get the cream cheese and jelly at the time, I did eventually acquire a taste for her chicken hearts.
The complete story – The Farm on Staten Island
Aunt Caroline’s Recipes