Updated: Apr 24, 2019
My childhood was spent lying on my grandparents’ off-white leather couch, riddled with nicks from cat claws, in a blue-collar neighborhood of South Philadelphia. I spent summers here, lazily watching Scooby Doo episodes with my grandfather, the AC wall unit gurgling semi-cool air. Between episodes, my grandfather–my Pop–and I would walk to the corner store for soft pretzels in brown paper bags, Hershey bars softened by humidity, and candy-sugared oranges. On especially oppressive days, we’d buy king-sized bags of Stroehmann white bread, and go down to the lakes to feed the ducks. Afterwards, we’d drive to a window cut out of an unassuming brick wall and order lemon and cherry water ices, Philadelphia-talk for soft, crushed ice doused in fresh fruit juices and zest. We’d use hard pretzel rods to stir the juice into the ice, creating Dixie-cupped soups, the dissolving salt elevating the flavor to a level few outside of Philadelphia can understand.
As I grew older, Pop would come to my house in the summer. We had a pool that filled almost the entirety of my parents’ small plot of land, and he’d set up shop in a lounge chair, laying out— basting for hours at a time. We would only interrupt his meditative state to refill his high-baller glass with ice and Pepsi, always punctured with a blue-stripped straw. His thick skin was like a hide, tanning under his exotic tattoos sprawling down his arms, chest, and legs; tigers, wolves, dragons, and Egyptian symbols, his gold chains, earrings, and rings glinting in the sun. He was over six feet tall, and the most ruggedly handsome man: he had piercing blue eyes and black hair slicked back with a comb kept always in his pocket, and usually sported linen shorts, electric blue loafers, and tank tops drenched in Issey Miyake cologne. I would bake inside, watching him from the window over the kitchen sink, as he baked in the sun. When he’d come in, he’d ask me, "What did you make today?” Antipasto, bread, or his favorite special chocolate cake—whatever I made, he’d taste it immediately. If he hated it, I never knew, because he’d say, “Aw baby, this is the best!” The first time I heard him say that, I knew I’d never do anything else in my life other than cook. My grandfather eating my food was an honor, his words like receiving his blessing; my church is in South Philly and my God is him.
His favorite special chocolate cake is called The Special Chocolate Cake. My mother would make it for him every year on his birthday, and as I got older it became a two-person job: we both wanted, more than anything, to give Pop the thing that he loved so much; to cut him a piece of that happiness that only a favorite chocolate cake can provide.
I learned how to cook from my mother and grandmothers; first the recipes passed down through the generations with little variation: meatballs, tomato sauce, string beans and potatoes in red and in white. I learned how to season dishes in the way that Ah-meh-di-gans will never understand, in the same way I learned how to season my language with appropriately placed, Sicilian dialectal insults: heavily, but not too much to detract from the beauty of what’s carrying it. I learned in these moments that food has a transcendental power, the ability to evoke memories and emotions through combinations of flavors and smells; it’s an all-encompassing piece of life that is the most beautiful thing to master. Cooking, especially for someone else, is one of the most intimate experiences, and the greatest expression of the care you feel for someone. When you cook for someone, you’re giving a piece of yourself. This was the power that my mother and I dared to harness each time we frosted The Special Chocolate Cake for Pop, a power that’s inherited, not taught.
My family hails from Italy. Coming to America in the 20th century, they brought poverty, traditional values, and a culinary obsession. My mother’s family settled in South Philadelphia, and they never left. My father’s adopted Brooklyn, and transformed East 24th and the surrounding streets of Sheepshead Bay as their Sicilian capital. My parents recall the times of trudging through snow with cardboard replacing the soles of their shoes, or wearing too big or too small hand-me-downs that might still be in rotation today.
My father’s mother and grandmother did all of the cooking; he, his two brothers, and his father did all of the eating. He was chased out of the kitchen, either by a wooden spoon or his lack of interest only to be beckoned back to the table once the food was served. He couldn’t care less about cooking, but he cares a lot about eating.
My mother grew up just as I did, cooking in the same small South Philly kitchen alongside her mother and grandmothers. As she grew up, the kitchen became her haven: after school, both parents at work, she prepared dinner, a motherly stand-in filling the most necessary role in all Italian families. The kitchen was her solace, the place where she became an Italian-American Julia Child, tailoring each dish to fit her sister’s moods and mastering her mother’s techniques, but ultimately out of utter adoration for her father.
Both of my parents taught me, in their own ways, to appreciate the preparation and developed flavors of each dish, but also the implications of each individual ingredient. My mother and father are two completely different players in the very same game, yet they complete each other: the need to feed meets the need to eat, a call-and-response relationship that defines many Italian and Italian-American households, a value that wasn’t just instilled in me, but one that I practice daily. No matter how tight money was in my families’ households, food was never sacrificed. It was the singular aspect of life that made up for the opportunities they missed out on, late night shifts, and ragged hand-me-downs.
My grandfather died on a Sunday. The type of day that’d call for pretzels, Hershey bars, and candy oranges. That clunky AC unit pushed out unapologetically lukewarm air, and for the first time, my grandparents’ house, filled past capacity with family, was silent.
It didn’t last long.
Hoagies, soda, and condensation-slick beer cans appeared on the small dining room table. It was a collection of deli meats and cheeses bound between layers of the same bread that I grew up smearing with butter and extra salt as I left home, traipsing from one family member’s house to the next. It perched on the table-turned-alter, the same one where I had my first taste of sweet roast pork sandwiches, with provolone and garlicky broccoli rabe. The same table where I had done math homework, and presented a butterscotch bundt cake that I made with my grandmother while Pop snored lazily on the couch. The same table where my mother lit candles stabbed into the frosting of a special chocolate cake just two days prior, candles blown out by the weakening soul of Pop, while my family sang happy birthday around him. For the first time, staring at the offering, I couldn’t eat.
Yet everyone else found solace in our regional food spread. Sadness drowned in crumbling butcher paper, and the consoling flow of warm beer. The house was filled with sounds of family, and the choking AC wall unit. I found comfort in the ability my family had to return to the ordinary, as if my grandfather were in his corner recliner seat on the new tan leather couch, feet cased in red velvet shoes perched up, instead of his lingering cologne the only reminder of his presence. As he always said, we had to "keep on keepin’ on,” and strength was found in our will to keep on. And in our need to feed.
The Holy Trinity is Pop, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It was almost comically fitting that he would die on a Sunday. He always said he’d watch over me, in life and in death, which is why the same Egyptian symbol, the Eye of Horus, God of Protection, blesses my body in the same black ink that carved into his, and why his handwriting, scrawling "keepin on” is etched into my ribs. I thank him every day for instilling family values and forging my unbreakable connection with food.
Every year, on his birthday, my mother and I still bake his Special Chocolate Cake. I use the tines of my fork to carve the same initials inked in my wrist-AC-in the plane of thick frosting. My mother doesn’t light candles anymore; their dancing flame would be too much of a mocking reminder that there is no one there to blow them out. Nothing is said as we cut the cake, for that would be sacrilegious, too. After my ritual, when I allow myself to eat it, I don’t taste chocolate, nor do I smell vanilla. Instead, I taste pretzels and water ice, and it feels like a Philadelphia summer.
As I pack up my New York apartment to move back to Philadelphia, the anticipation of continuing the next chapter of my life is palpable. I already planned the first meal that I’ll make for myself and my boyfriend, with whom I’ll continue my family’s South Philly legacy, just blocks away from the street that I grew up on. And of course, there will be Special Chocolate Cake.