Tales from a Hungry Life
By Maria Lagalante Schulz
Those words have informed my existence for as long as I can remember. Lucky for me, I grew up in a house where food was never far out of reach.
One day at one of the many weight loss centers I have visited, a counselor asked me if I could tell her why I liked food so much. I thought about it for a minute, and then the answer hit me: it’s my family’s fault!
In my family, there was nothing more fun and exciting then sitting down to dinner. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, depending on what my mother cooked that night, who was coming over for dinner, and if my grandmother brought flying saucers for dessert.
You can trace my obsession with food back to my father’s side of the family. That’s where I get my crazy hungry genes. My grandmother, Lena, lived to feed her flock. Jesus might’ve been able to feed the multitudes with two fish and a loaf of bread, but Lena could’ve done it with a couple of tomatoes, some homemade wine, fresh roasted chickens and an apple pie. And the multitudes would’ve come back to Lena’s every day of the week and twice on the weekends (sorry, Jesus).
But thinking that everyone is just as hungry as we are has its consequences. The perils of stuffing someone beyond the point where even a dog would say “I don’t want anymore” can be demonstrated by the plight of my father’s childhood friend, Patrick O’Reilly.
The Real Reason I Obsess Over Food,
The Awful Happy Birthday Dinner
When my father’s family moved from the Italian enclave of Corona to Queensborough Hill in Flushing, my grandmother was delighted when “Junior,” as my father was once known, made a friend. That friend’s name was Patrick “Babe” O’Reilly.
Now, my grandparents never held it against Babe that he was Irish. He couldn’t help it. Secretly, they were probably thrilled that my father had a friend, even if he liked to eat boiled potatoes, corned beef and cabbage. Whatever the case may be, they were so delighted to see Junior fitting in with the other kids in their new, dream neighborhood that they invited Babe O’Reilly over for a birthday feast in honor of my father’s brother, Don.
So, on January 10, 1941, Babe O’Reilly sat down at my grandmother’s table and dug in. My grandmother and great-grandmother served that little boy course after course, despite his protests that “I’m really full. Please, Mrs. Lagalante. No thank you, Mrs. Zaccara. I’m full. Really.”
“Just try the antipasto!” my grandmother said, as she piled his plate high.
“You wouldn’t want to miss the lasagna, now would you?” Nonni Zaccara said.
“Patrick, have some more bread,” my grandmother coaxed.
Louie Sr., Louie Junior and Donny Lagalante ate everything, and Babe valiantly pressed on. His glass of milk was never empty; his plate was constantly piled high.
“Time for dessert!” Nonni Zaccara said, as she placed a huge yellow cake with perfect white frosting in the center of the table. It was so perfect. This little boy would surely never forget this meal!
Patrick, who by now was drenched in sweat and panicked beyond hope, stood up shakily from the table. Too polite to say anything, and unsure just what to do, he said, “Excuse me,” as he fumbled for his handkerchief.
While my future grandfather, father and uncle plowed into their cake, Babe mopped his sweaty brow and turned toward my father. He tried to suppress a sneeze. Instead, he threw up all over my father’s head.
“Oh my God!” my great-grandmother yelled, as Junior, dripping and gray with shock, promptly threw up all over the floor.
“Don’t move!” Lena Lagalante yelled, as she ran for the mop. But her high heels slid and she launched herself high into the air—and landed smack dab in the middle of everything.
Philomena Zaccara, my great-grandmother, surveyed the damage and began to shake with laughter. She tried to help her daughter up, but instead dropped her back in the middle of the mess and laughed so hard that she peed all over the floor.
My grandfather was normally a quiet and reserved man. My father can’t remember him saying much beyond, “Junior” and “Pass the macaroni,” but that night, he shrieked with laughter that would have rivaled a banshee festival.
These are my people. They are good peasant folk, who love to eat and love to laugh too. I’m not sure which one they love more—eating or laughing. Let’s call it a tie.
Believe it or not, Patrick “Babe” O’Reilly and Lou “Junior” Lagalante are still friends, almost 70 years later. Many people have mistaken Babe for an Italian, because he loves to make his own sauce and cook for his family and friends.
Babe and Junior still laugh when they share that story. But Patrick has never come to our house for dinner.
I wonder why?
What NOT to do to your young, impressionable Irish friends:
- Feed him a six course meal that includes an olive-oil drenched antipasto, two cups of thick, black lentil soup, a three-cheese lasagna, a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth and a gleam in its eye, a loaf of crusty fresh-baked bread and two plates of olive oil for dipping, three ricotta-filled cannolis and two pieces of a seven layer cake
- Tell him he must be thirsty from all that food and insist he drink 3 gallons of milk
The following recipe is Babe’s. My great-grandmother’s incredible cooking inspired him, and he’s been trying to replicate it ever since with two thoughts in mind: one, he has to give it an Irish twist. And two, he stops eating when he’s full.
Irish Fried Cauliflower Philomena Style
Par boil one head of cauliflower in salt water, Drain well and separate flowerets.
Mix flour, salt, pepper and a packet of Dry Italian Dressing in a plastic bag.
Add cauliflower and shake well.
Dip floured cauliflower into an egg wash.
Coat with seasoned bread crumbs.
Refrigerate for at least one hour or longer.
Deep fry in an olive oil and canola combination.
Remove when crispy and drain on paper towels.
Place in a baking dish and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
Put into a 350 oven for a few minutes.
Serve with light gravy.
Food, Family & Fun: What I’ll be Talking About in Posts to Come:
- Why I consider The Wizard of Oz the perfect Easter movie (it has a lot to do with munching on chocolate bunny ears)
- Chock Full Of Nuts: Living and Eating with six rowdy boys
- The Connection Between Judy Garland and Sunday Brunch
- Why Old James Garner movies should be viewed while eating chocolate chip cookies
- Six degrees of Uncle Don: why Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom reminds me of my uncle, Mother’s Day and Oreos
- My Catholic School Dilemma: the best way to sneak in an entire chocolate frosted cake without Sister Grace Anne finding out
Plus lots more recipes and recollections from my so-called Hungry Life.