Today’s farmers markets recall 1940s grocery stroll
I am a home cook from a food-obsessed family. And I mean food-obsessed. Everything that happened in my childhood home centered around food. After all, I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian-American grandparents and my parents, of course. I like to imagine that I grew up in a unique household. Specifically, yes, but food culturally, no and yes. And what I mean by that is that while many of the foods and recipes are similar, the stories are what bring the food to life. The best way to delve into Italian-American cuisine and stories is through a typical family meal.
And that, of course, starts with shopping for the ingredients. Let’s go back to my mom, Josephine Lanzetta Murko—here’s how it all started for her as a little girl in the 1940s. Mom was born on an apple farm in Claverack, New York, during the Great Depression and lived there for only a few years. She recounts that my grandfather could not sell an apple for a nickel and had to move the family back to the Bronx. At that time, the Bronx was still quite rural and people and families lived in a tight-knit neighborhood with everything within walking distance.
Here’s how Saturday was spent in my mother’s young girl’s life: shopping for food with her mom (my Nana). The journey, as my Mom recalls, was a stroll down the “Avenue.” Mom and Nana first visited Mrs. Green’s coffee shop. Mrs. Green would make custom blends for all her customers. My grandmother liked a light blend for her stovetop percolator. The aromas were so keen, and my mom recounts that whenever she is confronted with the smell of fresh coffee today it still triggers the memory of Mrs. Green’s coffee shop and the Saturday morning treks with her mom.
The next stop was the butcher shop, where customers stood two deep and where my future mom watched in fascination the knifework and dexterity of the butchers. This was what she wanted to be, a butcher, and as a little girl she wrote a paper about it. My mom has amazing knife skills, and it’s probably in her blood as my grandfather owned a butcher shop in the Bronx before his foray as an apple farmer. A butcher shop back then was a different place. Sawdust covered the floor to absorb the meat and blood drippings while the butchers worked their magic. Once up to the counter, my mom would watch the butcher cube and then grind the beef, veal and pork they would then use to make meatballs. Nothing was prepackaged in those days, and the meats were from local animals.
Then on to the produce store, where only local, in-season fruits and vegetables were sold. My mom says it was like a photo—she was in awe of the abundance of all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She notes that she had never had a strawberry out of season and that the fruit was not shiny.
Their next stop was the cheese shop, where they bought fresh ricotta and mozzarella and other cheeses. Imagine, next, stepping into a shop entirely dedicated to butter. Butters of all kinds were sold from large barrels by the pound—sounds heavenly to me.
The bread store was perhaps my mom’s favorite. After all, the smell alone made her feel warm and cozy and hungry. When she became old enough to shop without my grandmother, Nana would give my Mom an extra four cents to buy the fresh-out-of-the-oven warm loaf, which she would then nibble on or devour all the way home. My grandmother knew this was a special treat for my mom, and to this day warm bread and butter is one of her absolute favorite things.
And come to think of it, it’s one of mine!
Last but not least on the shopping extravaganza was the poultry shop. Saturday was soup day. One Saturday when my grandmother wasn’t feeling well, she sent my mom and her sister, my Aunt Margie, to get the chicken. They were still little girls. They selected the live chicken and waited patiently for it to be killed and packaged to bring home.
While walking home the bag started to jump. They so wanted to drop the bag, but being the obedient kids that they were, ran as fast as their little legs could go all the way home, imagining as only little girls could what kind of spooks were in that bag. When they delivered the jumping chicken bag to Nana in a whirlwind of excitement, panic and fear, Nana giggled and told them, “Sweet girls, there are no spirits in the bag. It’s rigor mortis setting in.”
One of the weeknight go-to meals in the Italian-American household is chicken cacciatore. This was never made on the Sunday “roast” day. It was a casual braise. And, as a general rule, it usually tasted even better on day two. What is it about leftover Italian food?
Also, while this is a “recipe,” please take liberties to add other herbs like rosemary, oregano and basil, which are abundant during the summer. If you don’t have leftover red wine, use white or a little balsamic vinegar. I was always the “taster” in my family. So give it a taste and doctor it to your liking, and ENJOY!
While my mom clearly describes the rich palette of textures and smells of the Saturdays of her youth, she also revels about the joys of being connected to her neighbors and friends. She says they were having a great time because all the neighbors, relatives and friends were out on Saturday. This ritual was not a chore; it was an exciting day—it was the social fabric of creating the family meal.
I have even heard stories of recipes being shared at the butcher counter. One Jewish lady I know learned how to make killer Italian meatballs from the Italian ladies at the butcher shop. So, while we seem far removed from the 1940s Saturday shopping trek, I implore you to think about this question:
Is not the farmers market in your neighborhood or community a social hub of sorts? Modern society has changed the way we shop for food and interact at the grocery store— often with blinders on as we roll our carts down the aisles. But at the farmers market you make eye contact, chat with the farmers and purveyors and smile and chat with your fellow shoppers.
I think we have found the “Avenue” of my mom’s youth!
CAROLE MURKO is a culinary artist who learned how to cook by observing her mother and grandmother. Carole has emulated their passion for entertaining, cooking and feeding friends and family and translated it into her own way of honoring traditions by creating Heirloom Meals, a storytelling platform to share treasured family recipes, stories and tips.—“Savoring yesterday’s traditions today”—on the web at HeirloomMeals.com, on the radio (NPR) Robin Hood Radio, 91.5 FM and on TV (PBS). Previously, Carole had successful careers on Wall Street and in interior design and decoration.