I was a scraggly-haired, American kid covered in sand, eating clams straight from the Adriatic Sea
When I was 9 years old, I sat on a beach in Italy sporting my shiny, emerald green one-piece bathing suit, squinting my eyes to the sun and trying to take in every minute of the adventure. I was on an adventure with my mom. We were visiting our Italian family, just the two of us, catching trains and trying to figure out if we were going in the right direction. I was so very American, but adaptable, probably the most adaptable I would ever be again. I dug my hands deep into the sand like my mom showed me and pulled out a handful of tiny clams, their shells as thin as my fingernails. Eagerly, I rinsed them in the sea water and easily pried them open popping the tiny bounty into my mouth.
Free snacks on the beach. Italy – 1, NJ – 0. I’ve always loved a fudgy wudgy bar (fudge Popsicle), but here I had clams on the half shell literally at my fingertips. This is unusual behavior for a child. At least it was unusual behavior for an American child and I knew this. I reveled in my own sophistication. I was a scraggly-haired, American kid covered in sand, eating clams straight from the Adriatic Sea.
I slurped them right from their shells as casually and enthusiastically as sipping water ice in the summer
Back home, I remember standing at the kitchen counter on Christmas Eve while my dad quickly cleaned the clams making sure they remained cold during the process. He carefully pulled their shells apart until they sat there on a dinner plate like little open books. I was sure I’d never be able to open those littlenecks the way I had the tiny shells on that far away Italian beach. Dad made it look easy. I slurped them right from their shells as casually and enthusiastically as sipping water ice in the summer. He served no more than a dozen of them raw, on the half shell, floating in their very own puddles of ocean. The rest my mom would turn into something special like zuppa di pesce (fish soup), linguine and clams or steamers.
My mom spent very little time if any learning to cook from her mom, yet she could make a seafood feast to rival any chef or nonna. It’s as if the ability was always inside her just waiting for its moment. She never seemed eager to let me try to cook on my own. I guess she assumed that someday I would magically find the ability to turn ingredients into dinner just like she had. Set the table. Clear the table. Load the dishwasher. Empty the dishwasher. That was the extent of my kitchen duty. She didn’t like to be bothered while she cooked. She didn’t want her process disrupted, but she always wanted me around.
I would eat clams anyway I could get them
Usually she would explain to me what she was doing as I sat at the kitchen table learning from afar. “Never leave the garlic unattended while you sauté it. Let it get golden brown and then discard it. We don’t eat the garlic.” She never thought that it would be worth a few mistakes or the mess (especially the mess) to just let me try to make something myself. She thought I’d know how to cook the same way she thought I’d meet the right guy someday without ever actually hanging out with boys…ever. Regardless, I wasn’t deterred from cooking or boys for that matter.
Food was yet another adventure I was on with my mom. Clams in particular were intriguing. I knew that as a kid, I wasn’t supposed to like them, but I did from day one. I would eat clams anyway I could get them. Anyway, but rarely at a restaurant. Back then, I believed only my dad could clean them and certainly only my mom could prepare them properly. How would I ever do this on my own someday? My mom and dad were a team when it came to this dish. I wasn’t even allowed to try to cook yet (or talk to boys for that matter). Perhaps this was their plot to entice me back home once I was an adult living on my own. They would lure me with linguine and clams. Well played, parents. It worked.
Chefs who were paid to cook for a living couldn’t do what my mom could do
Fast forward an entire young adult worth of years later and their plan was effectively in place. My mom had devised a devious plan to ensure I would never miss Friday night dinner with her and my dad. She selected the one meal she knew I would never attempt on my own. She seduced me with linguine and clams. Sure, she loves this dish too, but I know she really made it for me.
She knew I would visit regardless of what was on the menu, but it was satisfying for her to see me so excited by this meal. As far as I was concerned, I couldn’t get it anywhere else. Chefs who were paid to cook for a living couldn’t do what my mom could do. And even though she made it for me once a week, it never lost its appeal.
I don’t remember how long this particular Friday night dinner tradition lasted
I continued weekend dinners with my parents regularly right up until I moved to New York. I don’t remember how long this particular Friday night dinner tradition lasted, but I know I could never bear to miss it back then. Like clockwork, I’d leave my office as soon as possible on Friday evening, sprint to my car and head home to my mom’s kitchen. The traffic was always unbearable. Merging from highway to local road, I was unforgiving as grumpy commuters tried to make their way ahead of me in line. I should have been more sympathetic. They probably weren’t going home to the dinner that awaited me. I should have let them ahead of me as their consolation prize. Instead, I guarded my space letting few if any pass me.
One hot Friday evening in June back when I used to live in the Philly suburbs, I left work early for a special occasion. Traffic was its usual crawl. On the passenger seat was a present I hoped she would love. Tucked carefully below a fancy bow was a card I hoped would convey how much she meant to me. Finally, I made my way down the familiar street and pulled into the driveway behind dad’s car, leaving just enough room for a neighbor to use the sidewalk.
The aroma was like the snacks on the Italian beach of my childhood and Christmas Eve dinner all rolled into one
As I opened the car door, the hot air hit me. The extravagantly wrapped present and I were overdressed and wilting. It was the kind of heat that causes other people to lose their appetites. I opened the front door letting the cool air revive me and made my way upstairs to the kitchen. The aroma was like the snacks on the Italian beach of my childhood and Christmas Eve dinner all rolled into one. On the table (my mom’s birthday dinner-table) was a bowl of linguine and clams, made more for me than for her.
As you might have guessed, my mom finally did start letting me cook in her kitchen. And she was right. I knew how to cook just by watching her. It’s a good thing too because she always prefers to be at home with her family for holidays and special occasions. Last month we celebrated her 80th birthday. Although she doesn’t make it easy to cook for her, I did anyway (mostly). She still did most of the work for her own party and gave me all of the credit. I’m starting to realize that it doesn’t feel like work to her. The thing she wants most for her birthday or any day really is to feed her family. We tried to take over her kitchen, but at 80, my mom is still in charge. Happy birthday, Mom. We love you!