Tag Archive | "School"

The Mortified Files, Part 1: Nutella


As American kids living in an immigrant household, we were always straddling two cultures. There was the culture our parents brought with them and raised us in, with all its comforts, traditions, and things that (we thought) would never make sense outside our house. Then there was the outside world–that place we tried so desperately to fit into, yet in which we always felt one step behind.

I spent much of my childhood trying to decipher what others considered normal, and what I should keep to myself, lest I wanted a thorough mocking from my classmates. Somehow, in a not-quite-English, not-quite-Italian–speaking household, we kids managed to figure out which words fit with which language, and then used the right ones with the right people. Whew. I honestly don’t know how bilingual kids do that on intuition alone.

The language was never the difficult part. It was the small stuff that tore at me…those things that I had no way of knowing whether they were flown in by my parents on their Sicilian space ship, never to be recognized or appreciated by others, or actually part of the normal world. I could tell that my favorite TV show, Topo Gigio, was not fair game among others. That was easy: the little mouse didn’t speak English. But what about My Little Pony or Care Bears? Did other kids know what they were, or did they exist only in my bubble? Yes, the little ponies and bears spoke English, but did other kids get these shows on their American TVs??

Food was especially tricky…all of my favorites were cause for stress when I considered them outside our house. Did normal kids eat liver? What about peanut butter and jelly? Brains? Turkey sandwiches? Mortadella sandwiches? Rabbit? Who knew??? This became especially stressful when I started kindergarten. I’d go to school every day dreading what was in my lunch box. Did my mom know what was normal? I had no idea. What if I opened my lunch in front of everyone, and it was something mortifying? What if I didn’t even know I should be mortified by whatever I had? The pit in my stomach would grow all morning until I lost my appetite by lunch.

Something told me that eating lamb brains wasn’t normal. I understood that the fact that my brother Joey and I would fight over the lamb’s head at Easter was something I should keep quiet about. Okay. I could do that. The rest of my world was not so cut-and-dry.

An especially stressful lunchbox item was Nutella. For most of kindergarten, Nutella felt like a dirty little secret. I loved the stuff dearly–obsessively, in fact–and I was quite sure this was normal. My cousins all ate it (eaten by others–check), it was a standard fixture on supermarket shelves (not flown in on the Sicilian space ship–check), and by God, it was chocolate (popular ingredients–check). How could the world not rejoice in unison over Nutella? But no. I learned on one particular Monday in 1985 that this is not the case.

There I was, eating my Nutella sandwich, feeling happily average, when a freckle-faced girl with a boppy ponytail walked by my table. Her name was Dena or Dana–I’m glad I don’t remember. As I went in for a big bite, she stopped with an abrupt horror, as if she’d spotted a rat right there on the story time rug. Only she was looking at me, pointing at my sandwich.

“Ewww, she’s eating BLACK JELLY! EW EW EW!”

She actually screamed this to the entire class. Honestly. And then she called over the teacher’s assistant to have her inspect the horrific contents of my sandwich. I’m not sure what she expected. For me to be wheeled away in handcuffs? Detention on account of unidentified sandwich fillings? In retrospect, it’s amazing that this girl made me feel like the freak. For one thing, it’s not exactly normal to go around inspecting other classmates’ food and reporting them. And even if I had been eating something freaky–which I was not–I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only one in the room. I was not the only immigrants’ kid in town. In fact, I later learned that the class was peppered with first-generation Italians, not to mention Russians, Chinese, and Indians. This was Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, after all: one of the city’s biggest immigrant hubs. My classmates were probably shielding their own mildly ethnic lunch from the wrath of Dena as they watched us. I just happened to catch the eye of the one All-American girl with a big mouth and a yearning for someone to humiliate. I likely could have teamed up with my fellow first-generationers and turned the tables on her, had I only realized.

Thankfully, our teacher’s assistant was slightly more attuned to the ways of the world than boppy ponytail girl. When she came over to investigate the fuss, she was thrilled to see my sandwich. “Oh, Nutella!” she said. “My kids love that stuff!” With that, boppy girl’s bubble burst, and I was able to peel my mortified soul off the floor. God bless you, teacher’s assistant whose name also escapes me. Your love for chocolate spread has more power that you’ll ever realize.

It’s funny to look back on all that stress now. How magnified everything became in my tiny world, how much I’d panicked over every last thing. And ironically, so many of the things I was ashamed of are the very things I’m now most proud of about my upbringing. Those moments of mortification have evolved into a badge of honor. I’d try to hide the fact that we didn’t speak English at home. Now I feel lucky that I was raised bilingual. Brains for Easter? I enjoy inviting friends over for the holiday–not to freak them out, but to share this favorite tradition with them (even if they won’t eat it).

Not every stumbling block translates nicely into a source of pride, but they each played their part in assembling me. I no longer mind if I’m slightly out of tune with the crowd. In fact, it’s the only way I know how to be.

Could I really have gotten all of this out of Nutella? Maybe. I guess there’s just something about school lunches that sticks with a kid.


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The Secret to Adolescent Fame, and Passing Calculus: Pickled Eggplants and Peppers

The Secret to Adolescent Fame, and Passing Calculus: Pickled Eggplants and Peppers


I’m going to let you in on a family secret. It involves jars and eggplants and peppers. Sometimes green tomatoes, but not today. Lots of vinegar and salt. Garlic, garlic, garlic. And some other stuff. Sounds innocent enough, right? But these simple ingredients, when combined, create our family’s secret culinary weapon: Pickled eggplants and peppers.

It sounds strange, I’m sure. I don’t know how pickled vegetables became such an important part of our family makeup. But over the years they’ve become just as important—if not moreso—than jarred tomato sauce. They graced our dinner table every night when we were growing up. My brother Sal mastered the art of making them go with anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if he snuck them into his breakfast cereal when we weren’t looking. Tucked them under his pasta. Crammed them into his chicken rollatini. His meal of choice as an adolescent was chicken cutlets swimming in ketchup and a pile of this stuff. Much to my parents’ glee, they could get us to eat anything as long as it was accompanied by pickled vegetables. It’s probably the reason we now eat everything, with or without the pickled stuff.

Just as I was mildly taunted for our tomato sauce stash, I was mildly famous at school for these pickled beauties. Around sixth grade, my girlfriends were over, poking around the refrigerator and asking what everything was, when they stumbled on a jar of pickled green tomatoes. They looked particularly revolting because the olive oil freezes in the fridge. The laughing kicked in. The “eww gross, what do you do with those” inquisitions that plagued my youth. Then they tried them. And suddenly, I wasn’t such a loser. In fact, I was even a little bit cool. The green tomatoes were such a hit that other kids started asking about them in the hallways, making requests for jars, their moms calling my mom for the recipe. When I was in high school a boy did my calculus take-home exam in exchange for a jar. I’m not kidding.

I hung out with the old gang last week for my best friend’s engagement party, and the jars actually came up in conversation. Jackie, who I hadn’t seen in a good two years, pulled me aside and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about your mom’s pickled vegetables.” I’m glad some things never change.

Of course, I never learned how to make them. For nearly three decades, I’ve greedily inhaled my favorite condiment by the jarful, never once asking my mom for the recipe, never even caring to know. Thankfully I’ve seen the light, and I will never look back. I made three jars this week with my mom’s daily phone guidance. Two are for me, and one is for my brother Sal, the master appreciator of this fine art form.

Pickled Eggplants and Peppers

The technique for pickled green tomatoes is slightly different, but alas, we’ll have to wait until next summer for that one. I think eggplants and peppers are better anyway, but I’m sure a playground brawl would break out if I said that in certain company.

2 eggplants
2 red, orange, or yellow bell peppers
4 tablespoons salt
1 cup white vinegar
5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon dried oregano
4 tablespoons olive oil

1. Peel the eggplants and slice them into 1/2-inch rounds. Cut each round into small strips, about 1 inch long and ¼ inch wide. Slice the peppers into strips about the same size.


The eggplants will shrink to around ¾ their size after the salt extracts water from them. Peppers are heartier, so they won’t break down as drastically. Keep this in mind when deciding how small to cut your pieces. Peppers are fine at any size. Eggplants are more appetizing in smaller strips. Too big, and they start to look like slugs in the jar. Not appetizing, I promise you.

2. Put the cut eggplants and peppers in separate bowls. Cover each with 2 tablespoons of salt and toss until the vegetables are entirely coated. The eggplants start to break down within minutes. The peppers won’t look as affected, but don’t worry. Cover and set aside for 24 hours (refrigeration isn’t necessary).

3. The next day, drain the vegetables and rise briefly if you don’t want them too salty. I don’t rinse them—their saltiness is half their beauty. The other half? Vinegar.

4. Return the eggplants and peppers to their respective bowls and cover with enough white vinegar to keep them submerged, about ½ to ¾ cup for each bowl. Cover and set aside for another 24 hours.

5. Drain the vinegar and squeeze out any excess. The eggplants will have soaked up most of it; squeeze it out if you don’t want to be overwhelmed. Don’t worry about losing the vinegar flavor—it’s truly in there, no matter how much excess you squeeze away. Drain the peppers, which will still be pretty crisp.

6. Now the true magic begins. Combine the eggplants and peppers in a large bowl and season with garlic, shallots, red pepper flakes, and oregano. Top with enough olive oil to coat everything, about 4 tablespoons. I included spice quantities in my ingredients list, but that’s just a formality. It’s truly a free-for-all at this point. Season it to your liking. I personally went garlic crazy and used 10 cloves. I did not regret it. It’s your show—there’s no way to mess this up.

7. Once everything is combined, pack the mess into mason jars. One 16-ounce jar fits a little less than 1 eggplant and 1 pepper. This recipe yielded about 3 jars.

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