Being There for Dinner

The boiling water bubbled over the saucepan. Sssssss! The stovetop hissed.

Grace screamed. Anna followed suit.

“Everything’s OK,” I said, grabbing the pot. I drained the just-cooked pasta in the colander in the sink.

The timer on the oven began beeping: the meatballs. The girls crowded into the kitchen.

“Girls, you need to move…”

The front door opened, then closed. “Dad!” The girls rushed out of the kitchen. Someone tripped and fell on the way; crying ensued.

Welcome to the end of the weekday in many families’ homes, right? Mine. Maybe yours too.

For a while, I would finish making dinner around 6 o’clock. Stanton usually would be home by then. I’d set the food on the dining room table, encourage my family to help themselves, and then retreat to the kitchen to begin cleaning up everything that had gone into preparing the meal.

And, I won’t lie: I often would enjoy a few minutes’ peace to eat by myself without one of the girls climbing into my lap or grabbing from my plate.

Then one evening, about a month ago, I glanced at the dining room table. Anna was sitting on Stanton’s lap, snuggling against his chest. Smudging his dress shirt with her sticky fingers, but they looked cozy and happy nevertheless. Grace was talking about her day at preschool, her eyes wide and excited.

I glanced at that dining room table, and…I missed my family. I wanted to join them. Pots and pans and even some Play-Doh littered the kitchen countertops, but I ignored the chaos in the kitchen and sat down with my family for dinner.

Such a little thing, such a Captain Obvious moment—to sit down for dinner with the people you love the most. Probably not even worthy of being written about, right? But I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed doing it. Clearly, I hadn’t done it all that much, because it resonated with me. Sitting face-to-face with my family, instead of standing alone a room away—what a difference.

Pots and pans and even some Play-Doh littered the kitchen countertops, but I ignored the chaos in the kitchen and sat down with my family for dinner.

A couple of weeks later, I was at the library and came across this book title: “The Surprising Power of Family Meals” by Miriam Weinstein. It was calling my name; I checked it out. During the next few days, I read through it. This book has a wealth of insights, but the ones that most struck me were these passages in which the author quotes theologian Bill Huebsch:

“‘Things work out when you cook and wash dishes together. It’s hard to sit down to table with someone you haven’t forgiven…In most of our lives, meals are also memorials. Almost everyone, when they speak of their lives, they speak about meals’” (pages 146-147).

Wow, I thought. And, yes.

Family, food, forgiveness, memory, life—all intertwined.

When my daughters are older, I’m not sure what they’ll remember about their childhood, or our family dinners. Like all parents, I hope they have many happy memories. I do know, though, that I want them to remember that I was there, at the table with them, instead of missing in action in the kitchen.

I’ve been trying to make this happen. Not every evening…but more often than not. Because life can get hectic. You can’t always be the ideal version of yourself.

Yet.

Being There for Dinner

“Don’t Blink” was a hit country song by Kenny Chesney, about 10 years ago. I heard it just the other day, and these lyrics have been replaying in my head ever since:

“…When your hourglass runs out of sand
You can’t flip it over and start again”

The theme of the song, of course, is that time goes by in the blink of an eye.

When I’ve been sitting down with my family now, I’ve been looking at them, really seeing them. There’s something beautiful about making eye contact with someone you love, and holding that gaze, and connecting. Really connecting.

“‘It’s the facing each other that’s important’” in how we eat, according to scholar Witold Rybczynski in “The Surprising Power of Family Meals.” “It’s the fact of sitting face-to-face, inviting interaction, give-and-take, that matters most” (page 87).

Family—food—face-to-face. Pretty simple.

Something I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older, is that the simple stuff is the good stuff. This past Sunday, I made Hamburger Helper for Stanton and the girls for lunch—Stanton’s request. “It’s been years since I’ve had Hamburger Helper,” Stanton said.

“Huh, I wonder why,” the foodie in me replied (the foodie in me can be a bit stuck-up, and not much fun).

For years now, I’ve been experimenting with gourmet and/or novel recipes for my family—herbed lamp chops with homemade ketchup, lime chicken tacos, everything I wrote about here. Why would I bother with Hamburger Helper, when I could prepare something amazing from scratch?

…the foodie in me can be a bit stuck-up, and not much fun…

I made the Hamburger Helper. Sat down with Stanton and the girls. Anna took a bite: “Mmm!” Stanton was ready for a second helping within, it seemed, seconds. And Grace declared that she liked my Hamburger Helper almost as much as the frozen pizza I “make.”

The simple stuff is the good stuff. Family. Food. Face-to-face. Hamburger Helper or herbed lamp chops with homemade ketchup, it doesn’t matter.

As long as you’re there.

I want to be there.

What about you, friends?

Photo credit: Pixabay

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

9 Easy Weeknight Dinners for Your Family

One of my goals for this New Year is to add some new recipes into my family’s weeknight rotation of meals. My three qualifications for these recipes are 1) quick, 2) easy and 3) healthy. Maybe you have this goal, too, friends.

Here are some quick, easy and healthy recipes that Stanton, the girls and I have been enjoying lately. I hope you and yours also enjoy. Dig in!

1) Tortellini, White Bean and Turnip Greens Soup

Winter is a wonderful time to make soup, isn’t it? I found this recipe while flipping through the current issue of Southern Living. As written, this recipe is vegetarian, but I used prosciutto and cheese tortellini instead of plain cheese.

1_soup-prep

I didn’t see turnip greens at my grocery store, but collard greens worked just fine. And instead of chopping a carrot, I used pre-chopped carrot chips to save time. I served this delicious soup with fresh fruit (those red grapes, pictured!). Grace, my picky eater, opted for leftovers from the night before, but Stanton and Anna lapped up this soup. It is really good, friends.

One change for next time: I’ll add another 14.5 oz. of vegetable broth to make it a little “soup-ier.”

2_soup

2) Bucatini with Winter Pesto and Sweet Potatoes

Here’s another seasonal, vegetarian recipe for you to enjoy, compliments of the Country Living website. (P.S. Check out this Seasonality Chart, an excellent resource from a sustainable agriculture nonprofit.)

Some changes I’d recommend to this recipe: Use a different, kid-friendly type of pasta (such as penne or cavatappi)—bucatini, spaghetti and the like can get messy with kiddos! (I love this handy Pasta Shapes Dictionary, which details which pasta works best for different sauces, etc.) I also found the kale to be a bit too hardy for my food processor (although yours may work better!); next time, I’ll chop and mix everything myself.

3_bucatini

3) Chicken and Green Bean Stir Fry

Confession: I intended to make a different stir fry recipe—this one, 4) Chicken, Broccoli and Mushroom. But I forgot to buy broccoli at the grocery store. So I Googled for a stir fry recipe with chicken and green beans, which I already had on hand. This one from The Lemon Bowl came up, and it was delicious.

4_chicken-and-green-beans-stir-fry

I very much appreciated The Lemon Bowl’s link for “Stocking Your Pantry for Asian Cooking.” If you have soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce and a few other essentials on hand, you pretty much can combine any protein with veggies and a side of rice for a quick, healthy and satisfying Asian-inspired meal.

5) Black Bean Quesadillas

Let’s move on to Mexican cuisine. Eating Well has this amazing and oh-so-easy recipe for Black Bean Quesadillas (also vegetarian!). I was shocked—truly—that even Grace loved them.

One tweak I recommend to the recipe: Use a full cup of cheese, not just ½. If your kids are anything like mine, they’ll appreciate the extra boost of gooey flavor.

5_black-bean-quesadillas

6) Easy Beef Enchiladas

I love any recipe that begins with the word “Easy.” 🙂 Everyone in my family loves this recipe. One recommendation, though: Skip the can of diced green chiles if your kiddos don’t like spicy flavors.

7) Beef Tacos

I love this beef tacos recipe from Blue Apron. I make it all the time now, minus the cucumber-avocado salsa (I buy store-prepared guacamole instead, which saves time). Simply skip to Step 5 of the directions, friends, and you’re all set—all you need is thinly sliced beef and some Mexican seasoning (any brand will do, or you can make your own), plus tortillas and your toppings of choice (guacamole, lettuce, shredded cheese, etc.).

6_beef-tacos

8) Pasta Bolognese

The Italian-American in me would be remiss not to include an Italian specialty on this list. 😉 I love this recipe for Pasta Bolognese, which I found in the weekly flyer from my local grocery store, Hannaford. It is incredibly easy to make, and incredibly flavorful—the yellow onion, I think, is the key ingredient.

Of course, use your pasta and pasta sauce brands of choice.

Please note, in the following documentation, Anna digging in to a big bite of this delicious Pasta Bolognese—spinach included! You go, girl.

7_pasta-bolognese

9) Chicken Tikka Masala

I haven’t had, or made, Indian cuisine in a while and thought it would be fun to give it a whirl again. Chicken Tikka Masala is a delicious yet traditionally time-consuming Indian/British favorite. The time-consuming part is gathering and then working with all the ingredients for the sauce, which usually include yogurt, ginger, tomatoes, garam masala—to name just a few.

Luckily, I stumbled upon this jar of Tikka Masala curry simmer sauce at the grocery store, and used the recipe on the label to make an easy, three-ingredient version of Chicken Tikka Masala: this sauce plus vegetable oil and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. This is taking the easy way out, but…ta-da!

8_chicken

Stanton and I loved this. (The girls opted for the rice with leftover black bean quesadillas, again—their new favorite weeknight dinner!)

I’ve included nine recipes here, friends, and I hope you’ve found one or two (or maybe even more!) that you and your family can dig in to in this New Year. Here’s to easy weeknight cooking.

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

Becoming Locals in New York’s Capital Region

I love this colorful mural, painted onto the side of a brick building at the corner of Madison and Main avenues in downtown Albany, N.Y. It’s one of my favorite local “finds” so far, as I’ve started to get to know the Capital Region of New York.

1_urban-illustration

I haven’t spent much time in the downtown area yet—with the exception of the regional DMV. 😉 We all know that waiting an hour or two for your DMV ticket to be called (and, hopefully, accommodated on the first try) is a rite of passage every local-to-be must experience, as you exchange one state’s driver license for another.

I’m happy and relieved to share, friends, that I have crossed this nerve-wracking rite of passage off of my “Moving to New York” checklist. My new driver license should be arriving in the mailbox within 7 to 10 business days. I’m also happy to report that the majority of the employees I met at this DMV were kind and helpful—in particular the older gentleman who checked me in with a warm “Welcome to Albany!” and assured me I probably would be done in time to pick up my older daughter from preschool (I was). Thank you, sir.

dmv

As time goes on, I look forward to checking out The Egg, Washington Park and other iconic downtown sites. I also need to keep brushing up on my parallel-parking skills, which, presently, are very poor. 🙂 In the meantime…

The natural beauty in this part of the country can take my breath away. My favorite spot, currently, is Henry Hudson Park, located along the Hudson River about 10 miles south of my colorful mural. Looking out at the water, framed by these ancient mountains, makes me feel PEACE.

2_henry-hudson-park

A bonus: The girls have fun on the nearby slide and monkey bars. The locals seem to enjoy gathering at the various boat launches to take in the view, or kayak and canoe. Many folks here are active and outdoorsy; I’ve seen kayaks atop many a Subaru Forester, which seems to be the locals’ vehicle of choice. Kayaking the Hudson: also on my must-experience list.

What distinguishes the locals from the not-from-here’s? I would say knowledge of hidden gems—the inside scoop. Our neighbors clued us in to a popular walking/bicycle route known as the Rail Trail. Stanton, the girls and I enjoy walking, biking, stroller-ing and scooter-ing along it, especially on weekends.

3_rail-trail

Perhaps most importantly, locals know all about food. Trusted grocery store, best pizza place, favorite mom-and-pop café. One neighbor kindly gave us a gift certificate to Romo’s Pizza, her favorite local pizzeria. We took home their famous “Gracie Pie” for dinner one evening and loved it. The Gracie Pie is a Sicilian-style pizza with cheese on the bottom and sauce on top.

4_romos-gracie-pie

While the girls and I were waiting for our Gracie Pie, we discovered a local bookstore called Tattered Pages Used Books in the same outdoor shopping village as Romo’s. It was closed when we were there, but the book lover in me can’t wait to return.

5_tattered-pages-used-books

We live in a town a bit south of Albany, more suburban than urban. I was happy to find yet another local bookstore, I Love Books, in our neighborhood. In addition to literary works, I Love Books offers up items such as puzzles, toys and wine paraphernalia. 😉

6_i-love-books

Close to I Love Books is Amelia’s Garden, a local fabric shop. Grace needed a fat square for a “friendship quilt” that her preschool class is making—such a sweet idea. Amelia’s Garden is a cozy, colorful breather from any mom’s to-do list. For a minute, I even considered signing up for one of their sewing classes; then Anna had a meltdown. Maybe one day, friends.

7_amelias-garden

One recent weekend, we stopped by one of the many “harvest fests” this region celebrates during the fall. This particular event was held at The Crossings of Colonie, an expansive park in Albany’s most popular suburb. I took this picture of the girls beside the pond that anchors the park.

8_the-crossings-pond

The Harvest Fest featured the Albany Drum Circle. This friendly group entertained everyone with their music. Thoughtfully, they also invited anyone who was interested to pull up a chair and learn some basic rhythms. This has been one of my favorite experiences here so far—learning what a drum circle is and watching it firsthand. Very cool.

9_albany-drum-circle

A friend of friend happens to live in Schenectady County, north of Albany. One Saturday morning, we met for breakfast at the comfy Union Café on a lively main street. I accidentally ordered a “ham and bacon” omelet—I meant to say “ham and cheese”—but you know what? That unexpected burst of bacon made it simply wonderful. Bring on the pork, right? 🙂

10_union-cafe

My very favorite local restaurant, thus far, is Extra Napkin, located on Delaware Avenue, which bills itself as “Albany’s Main Street.” First, the customer service here is excellent. The owners and their team are so friendly and sincere. Second, I adore the name: Extra Napkin. Because who doesn’t need an extra napkin—especially when you’re running in for quick but delicious burgers with your kids?

About those burgers… I appreciate how this restaurant sears their name onto the buns. A cool detail.

11_burger-extra-napkin

Last but not least, I love the chill vibe at Extra Napkin. This pastel-painted bicycle, part of the exterior décor, sums up the best of Extra Napkin—and possibly even the Capital Region as a whole.

12_bicycle-extra-napkin

Adventurous. Down-to-earth. Unexpected.

I have a long way to go before I’m a local, friends. But I’m starting to figure things out. And I’m grateful for the journey.

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

Local Flavors From New York’s Capital Region: A Newbie’s Perspective

Arguably the most fun thing about moving to a new city is discovering the local culture. Neighborhood hangouts, hidden gems and—my favorite—go-to homegrown eateries. Yes, friends, I love digging into the native food scene (pun intended!). 🙂

Stanton’s new job is based in Albany, N.Y., and we’ve been living in a family-oriented town a bit south of the city for about a month now. I’ve learned that this whole area, located at the northernmost point of the Hudson Valley, is known as “the Capital Region.” And here’s what I’ve learned so far about the local flavors here.

First up, a local coffee shop called Perfect Blend. Because every good story begins in a coffee shop.

1_perfect-blend-1

Perfect Blend is located at the picturesque “Four Corners” intersection at Delaware and Kenwood avenues. The quintessential local coffee shop, it serves up a variety of beverages and baked goods in a friendly setting with plenty of seating, both indoors and out.

…every good story begins in a coffee shop.

My standing order: spiced chai tea latte and an oat bran muffin. To my delight, the oat bran muffin features raspberries and blueberries—a sweet surprise in this traditionally hearty product. I last enjoyed my snack break indoors, admiring this stained-glass window panel.

2_perfect-blend-2

Across the street (Delaware Avenue) from Perfect Blend are the Delmar Marketplace and McCarroll’s: The Village Butcher, two local businesses that care very much about the high quality of both their products and their customer service.

3_village-butcher-storefront

On a recent Saturday morning, one of the friendly cashiers recommended the Island Coconut Green Mountain coffee to me from the Delmar Marketplace coffee bar, which paired perfectly with my made-to-order breakfast sandwich from McCarroll’s: The Village Butcher, just steps away. All of this for less than $6—hard to beat.

Stanton was my breakfast date that Saturday morning. We told the gentleman working behind the counter that we had just moved here. He called to his co-workers, “Hey, we got some newbies!” To which they all replied, “Welcome, newbies!” Let me tell you, friends: I love this place.

4_village-butcher-breakfast-sandwich

Now, across the street from McCarroll’s (Kenwood Avenue—we’re still at the Four Corners) is Swifty’s Restaurant & Pub. As you would expect, they offer extensive wine and beer selections to accompany the hearty pub-style food. I so enjoyed my sangria, as well as the Cubano sandwich that arrived later.

5_sangria-from-swiftys

Just two miles down the road from the Four Corners is Kleinke’s Farm, a local dairy farm that’s been operating since the early 1900s. What’s amazing to me about this part of the country is that you can walk and shop in a bustling community (the Four Corners area), and then drive just two miles and find yourself in beautiful farmland. I’ve only taken advantage of Kleinke’s flowers so far, but I look forward to sampling their fruits and vegetables soon.

6_kleinkes

On the subject of beautiful farmland…Indian Ladder Farms in nearby Altamont (about 12 miles west of Kleinke’s) is stunning. We loved apple picking there over Labor Day weekend. As you can see from this picture, Grace did lots of picking, while Anna focused on munching. 🙂

7_apple-picking

There’s so much for folks to delight in at Indian Ladder Farms, including a playground for kids. The cozy bakery and café also sells apple cider donuts, which I can assure you from personal experience are a hit with people of all ages.

Back in our town, Stanton and I had a lovely experience at Tool’s Family Restaurant for breakfast one morning. We walked inside during a busy time. An older gentleman sitting in a booth leaned over and said, “You can sit anywhere you like.” So we did. As we waited, we overheard other patrons chatting with one another and greeting the servers by name.

The vibe here is neighborly and down-to-earth. I ordered a broccoli, cheese and bacon omelet (an intuitive combination of flavors, yet one I never experienced in an omelet before!).

An older gentleman sitting in a booth leaned over and said, ‘You can sit anywhere you like.’ So we did.

Close to Tool’s is Shogun Sushi and Sake Bar. It’s similarly down-to-earth, yet more upscale. During late summer, people like to sit outside on the patio.

Stanton and I loved our alfresco dinner, which began with the Appetizer Sampler of pork gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), harumaki (Japanese spring rolls) and spicy rock shrimp. Everything was flesh and flavorful. We’ll be back.

9_shogun

North of Albany is Colonie, a suburb with bigger developments and stores such as Barnes & Noble, Target and Whole Foods Market. I haven’t spent much time here yet, but one rainy weekend evening, the four of us stumbled upon Grandma’s Pies & Restaurant. What a delight to find a local restaurant amidst all the chain offerings.

10_grandmas

Another delightful find was TwisT Ice Cream Shoppe, which is part of an old-fashioned drive-in movie theatre (Jericho). Stanton, his dad and Anna couldn’t get enough of their cones (and one kid-sized cup!). The laid-back ambiance at TwisT is a breath of fresh air.

11_twist-ice-cream

Last but not least, you can’t talk about New York cuisine without talking about pizza. We’ve tried a few pizza places, and our current favorite is Andriano’s (pictured below). Another good one: Golden Grain Gourmet Pizza.

12_pizza

Pizza is to New York what tacos are to Texas, you could say. Thus, I’m on a mission to find an excellent Mexican restaurant to satisfy the taste buds of my San Antonio-born better half. Mission No. 2: checking out the downtown area’s food and wine scene.

Pizza is to New York what tacos are to Texas.

Any recommendations, New York friends? 🙂

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

A Hostess Cupcake Can Take You Back

“Be right back,” our next-door neighbor Sophia said.

The girls and I watched as she dashed inside her house. It was about 5 p.m. on a weekday, and the four of us were drawing with sidewalk chalk on Sophia’s driveway. The afternoon before, we had done the same thing on our driveway, so much so that the entire slab of concrete was covered in chalky pictures (Grace and Sophia) and scribbles (Anna).

This afternoon, Sophia had told us that her driveway had room for more pictures and scribbles.

Now, Sophia darted back outside. She held her hands out to us—two Hostess cupcakes. “These are my last ones,” she said.

Anna squealed and grabbed for one.

“Awww, thank you, Sophia,” I said. “You’re so nice.”

I read once, somewhere, that children like hearing that they’re nice. It boosts their self-esteem, apparently. Whenever my own child or someone else’s does something kind, I do my best to tell them so.

“What are these?” Grace wondered, eyeing the cupcakes. She could tell they were something good.

“These are called Hostess cupcakes,” I said. “I remember eating them when I was little. I haven’t had one in a long time though.”

“Why not, Mom?”

“Well…” I unwrapped the cupcakes for Grace and Anna. Sophia watched us, smiling. Where to begin? The saturated fat? The sugar? The infinite shelf life?

www.legends1027.com - Hostess cupcakes

No, I wasn’t going to be “that” mom and ruin this sweet moment for these children with a soapbox on nutritional value.

“The truth is,” I said, “my mom used to buy these for me. But they’re not something I buy for myself. In fact,” I added before Grace could pepper me with another “Why?” “I remember the exact kitchen cupboard in my mom’s house where she kept our Hostess cupcakes.”

I also remembered, growing up as the oldest of four kids, that I often “claimed” and labeled any sweet treats that I wanted to save for later. I would grab a Hostess cupcake, scrawl “MELISSA’S FOOD: DO NOT TOUCH” across the packaging in black marker and hide it somewhere in the kitchen. (It goes without saying that my brothers and sister didn’t really appreciate me until our adulthoods.)

Sophia shared with us that her mom had bought these for her too. Then she said, “I miss my mom.” Her mom was out of town for a bit.

There are times that I, as a grown woman, miss my mom too. She lives halfway across the country from me—two plane rides, as Grace describes. I could only imagine how a child would miss her out-of-town mom.

That afternoon, I told my little neighbor that her mom must love her so much to buy her Hostess cupcakes. I had a feeling, though I didn’t read it anywhere, that kids like hearing that their families love them.

“My mom does love me,” Sophia agreed.

“I knew it,” I said.

Grace ate her last bite of chocolate cupcake. Anna licked some of her vanilla crème filling. Then her cupcake slipped from her fingers onto the driveway.

“Oh, no!” Sophia exclaimed. “That was my last one, remember?”

I did remember. I remembered how thoughtful it was for a mom to make sure her kitchen had a few sweet treats in it. I remembered how hard it was for a kid to share those treasures with other kids.

I scooped up Anna’s cupcake. I told Sophia again that she had been so nice and that the girls had loved their cupcakes. Sophia told me that I should get some cupcakes like hers the next time I was grocery shopping.

“You should, Mom,” Grace said.

Anna licked at the last of the vanilla crème filling on her fingers.

“Maybe,” I said.

Grace and Sophia rolled their eyes at each other.

Kids know what “maybe” usually means—“no.” I remembered that from my childhood too.

The kitchen cupboard with the sweet treats. The annoying-oldest-sister “claiming” of food. The eventual generosity that comes with motherhood.

“For sure, though,” I said, “we’ll do chalk together again really soon.”

The girls agreed that that sounded good.

Photo credit: Legends 102.7 WLGZ

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.

In Search of the Perfect Store-Bought Meatball

I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, known for its breathtaking mountains, coal-mining roots and multiethnic food culture. There are German beer gardens (bars) and historically Polish churches, which serve up buttery pierogis and mouth-watering kielbasa at their seasonal bazaars. And in my old neighborhood, you couldn’t drive more than a few blocks without cruising past the front door of a pizza parlor or Italian restaurant.

My Italian-American family and I enjoyed a steady diet of “pies” from Revello’s, Three Guys and Victory Pig (the only pizza place I knew that offered pint-sized cartons of chocolate milk to accompany its square-shaped, deep-fried pizza). Meanwhile, you could find my parents, my three siblings and me at Perugino’s down the street for every birthday, New Year’s Eve and high school graduation. My standing order was Chicken Ala Andy, breaded tenderloins sautéed in white wine and then drizzled in a lemon-garlic sauce.

For a long time, there was even an Italian-American grocery store, Zachary’s, on the corner of Bennett and Kelly streets, just one block from my maternal grandparents’ house (and I grew up just one block from my grandparents, Poppy and Grandma). Zachary’s closed its doors some time ago, but back in the day, you could find specialty cold cuts like capicola and mortadella behind the deli counter, along with freshly made Italian sausage and containers of seasoned olives.

Mr. Zachary always asked kids if they wanted a slice of cheese; they always said yes.

Italians, of course, have a love affair with food, and this was true of the Italian-Americans I grew up with—my own family not least among them. This epicurean passion flourished in full force every winter, when my mom spent hours preparing homemade ravioli, sauce and meatballs for our Christmas Day dinner.

Now, my mom’s meatballs—mmm, I can almost taste them now. The three main ingredients were a combination of ground veal, beef and pork with Parmesan cheese and garlic. Succulent.

Meatballs

Today, I make my home in San Antonio, more than 1,500 miles from that old neighborhood and my mom’s cucina. It’s hard to find authentic Italian-style meatballs here in South Texas, where the main food group is Mexican cuisine. While I love ceviche, puffy tacos and fajitas as much as the next girl, I do miss my mom’s meatballs.

When my mom visits, she generously makes several Pyrex pans of her meatballs for my husband, our two daughters and me. On her last visit, my girls (ages 4 and 1) watched as she prepared her meatball mixture. They also enjoyed sampling the fruits of her labor afterward.

It goes without saying: My mom’s homemade meatballs didn’t last long in my house after she headed back to the East Coast.

“Mom, is this Nona’s meatball?” Grace asked one weeknight, pointing skeptically at the meatball atop her plate of gemelli pasta.

I told her no, we had already eaten all of Nona’s meatballs. I had bought these at the local grocery store.

Grace slumped back in her chair. “This is too spicy. I want a Nona meatball. Can you make one?”

With my 1-year-old underfoot, I had barely been able to boil the water for the pasta and heat up the store-bought meatballs in the oven, let alone cook, from scratch, my mom’s meatball recipe.

“Can you, Mom?”

I scooped Anna up before she could begin pushing the trash can around the kitchen, her latest developmental milestone. Then I knelt beside Grace.

“I have an idea,” I told her. “We don’t have any of Nona’s meatballs left, and I can’t make them right now either. But we can find another wonderful meatball. A second-best, store-bought meatball. Deal?”

Grace still looked skeptical. Anna began wiggling out of my grasp. “It will be fun,” I announced.

We needed to find something not quite as zesty as our first store-bought meatball, the H-E-B Spicy Italian Style Pork Meatballs. Thus, the next time the girls and I went grocery shopping, I picked up a package of Aidells Italian Style with Mozzarella Cheese Meatballs.

I loved these chicken meatballs. I also loved that they were fully cooked; all I had to do was heat them up stovetop in my favorite (store-bought) marinara sauce.

Grace, however, found them too spicy for her taste, again. At first, Anna seemed to like this meatball, but then she began grunting for her sippy cup of water. Too spicy for her, too.

“I don’t know, Mom,” Grace said. “Maybe Nona should come back. Or you should make her meatballs.”

“Both good ideas,” I replied, gobbling up some dinner (while standing at the kitchen island, of course—moms rarely sit when they eat). “In the meantime, though, we’re going to find the perfect store-bought meatball. Sound good?”

Grace picked at her pasta.

I found myself grocery-shopping solo the next time, which gave me the opportunity to peruse the meat market shelves in a more laid-back state than if Grace and Anna were riding along in the grocery cart, asking for a snack every couple of seconds. I spotted a container of Italian-style turkey meatballs. Both the girls liked turkey. I decided to give these meatballs a try.

That night, I served Grace her pasta with a turkey meatball on top. I cut another one up into tiny pieces for Anna and put them on her high chair tray. Anna took a piece, tasted it and gulped it down. Then another, and another.

“Mom.”

I looked over at Grace, who was chewing and smiling. “Mom, I love this meatball.”

“You do?”

“Yes! And I want another one!”

“You do!” I spooned another meatball onto Grace’s plate.

She smiled again. “You did it, Mom.”

I smiled back at her. Mamma mia, how about that—I had found the perfect store-bought meatball.

The Italian-Americans back home wouldn’t think that was much of an accomplishment. A store-bought meatball? A turkey one at that?

“Mom…another one!”

“You want a third meatball?”

Grace laughed. Anna joined in.

Yes, I’d done it.

Photo credit: Pixabay

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.

When I Go to My Mom’s House

My hubby, daughters, and I recently returned from a visit with my family in Pennsylvania. I was so glad that Baby G was able to meet my maternal grandmother, who helped raise me, during this time. They shared a heartfelt hello, and good-bye.

We stayed with my parents, as we always do. And as always, my mom made sure her house was ready for us. She put clean towels in our rooms, along with new clothes for the girls. (“Don’t worry about packing them anything!” she said.)

30_When I Go to My Mom's House

My mom has a second freezer in the basement. When we arrived, she began thawing the food she prepared for our visit weeks earlier: breaded chicken, lasagna, stuffed cabbage rolls, zucchini fritters, and—per Little G’s request—lots of cookies. I think second freezers in the basement, bursting with goodies like these, may be distinctive of families of Italian-American heritage. 🙂

Towels, clothes, homemade food … all creature comforts. Who wouldn’t love to “come home” to these things? What I love about my mom’s house, though, is that these things symbolize her caring for my family and me.

All this caring takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort. Of course, this is what moms do.

I remember a moment soon after Baby G was born, when both my mom and Stanton’s mom were standing with me in my kitchen. My mom was staying with us for a few weeks to help out, and I mentioned that Charlotte did the same thing for her own daughter about a year and a half earlier. Playing with the new baby’s older sisters; getting their breakfasts, lunches, snacks (so many snacks!), and dinners ready; making sure they were clean and well-rested. Plus hundreds of other things that moms do every day, from putting Band-Aids on boo-boos (including the imaginary ones) to calling a plumber because the kitchen sink faucet is dripping (again). Basically, taking care of everyone and everything.

“You both did so much,” I remember saying to my mom and Charlotte.

They looked at each other and laughed. “Well, we’re battle tested,” Charlotte said. It was something any seasoned mom could relate to.

As the years move on, I want to create the kind of house that my mom has, and Charlotte has. And I want to be the kind of mom that they’ve been to their children (four each!). I want my daughters to know our front door is always open to them and their friends, and later their families. I want them to know I’ll always take care of them, whether they’re 4 years old or 40. When you come to my house, there will always be plenty of everything. Just bring yourself.

Another hope I have is that my girls will be as close as I am to my sister and brothers. During this recent visit, my sister took time off from her job in New York City to be with us. At one point, Jenna handed me a cup of coffee along with a plate of my mom’s Jimmy Carter Cake and said, “OK, let’s go.”

“Where?”

“To eat and watch an episode of Fright Night Lights, DUH.”

I laughed and followed my sister to the nearest TV, coffee and cake in tow. Because we love simply hanging out and sharing a cup of coffee together (Friday Night Lights reruns optional). It’s the little things, right, friends?

Yes.

I hope my daughters develop a similar bond. And I hope that as they journey along with their own lives, they come back to my house to reconnect.

I’ll need to get my own second freezer one day.

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.