“Bread and Olives” and “Farfalle Spinach”, by Joan Leotta

Bread and Olives

Until age six, every Saturday, I went to the Cuda Company, my grandfather’s business, in nearby Braddock with my mother. Upon arrival at the warehouse, Mom began work on the adding machine and dispatched me to walk one block to the Italian bakery where I exchanged a one-dollar bill for a warm loaf of bread in a white paper bag.

After giving the bread to my mother, I worked on my coloring books until the siren call of brine-filled olive barrels pulled me out from my mother’s office, into the small sliver of retail space between cases and counters.

My pattern was unchanging—a short walk past the barrels, quietly mouthing the names of the olives as I went, bringing their names to my lips from long experience: nero piccolo, nero normale, nero gigante, nero siciliano, (dry, wrinkled, no brine), verde piccolo, verde normale, verde gigante. These green giants were my favorite.

When I was sure my mother was on the phone or occupied by her adding machine and my aunt up front was talking with a customer, I would stop by the green giants. Then I pushed back the lid and scooped up as many as the pierced ladle held.  With my left hand, I grabbed out as many as I could. Leftover olives splashed back into the barrel. I replaced ladle, closed the lid.

Quickly, still furtive, sure my aunt or mother would scold me for eating olives so early in the morning, I hid in a tiny nook behind the cases of DeCecco pasta bounded by cases of Six-in-One canned tomatoes. It was my favorite spot—out of sight of retail customers, my mother’s glass windowed back office, and my aunt.

One by one, I dropped each olive into my mouth. Each was so big it barely fit in that space where my tongue could enjoy that briny saltiness and my teeth could begin to strip their firm yet delicate skin from the pit. When I had chewed the flesh and sucked the juice form the pit, I spat out the used olive, hid the pit in my sweater pocket to throw away later, and repeated the process of attempting to satiate my unending capacity for olives.

One morning, after a bit, I heard my mother’s footsteps down the wooden planks. Mom walked right up to my hiding place, two pieces of that crusty bread in one hand and a few black and green giants in a small bowl. At least two of each for her and two of each for me. Somehow, she knew just where to find me and knew I was eating olives. 

She sat down beside me, and we alternated—a bite of olive, a bite of bread. We talked about the olives, about my week at school.

Finally, I asked her, “How did you find me?”

“Easy,” my mother laughed. “This is where I used to hide to eat olives when your grandfather brought me with him to the store.”

Previously published by Potato Soup Journal in 2019

Farfalle with Spinach 

Butterfly pasta with spinach cream sauce is a family favorite. I “collected” the recipe as a souvenir on a trip to Sicily.

By   Joan Leotta

My doctor assured me that at six months pregnant with our first child, I would be fine on a trip we describe to him as a traipse through Rome,  south to Sorrento and a drive around of Sicily.

Had a bit of trouble on the slippery gravel on Mt. Vesuvius, but otherwise, all went well— until we made the drive from Palermo to Agrigento. We had a lovely lunch in Marsala on the way and arrived at our reserved hotel in Agrigento around six in the afternoon/evening. One small problem. The Agrigento hotel did not have any record of our reservation.

The desk clerk hastily called around to other hotels in the area. However, this landmark sight with more well-preserved Greek ruins in one location than even in Greece (Sicily was a Greek colony two thousand years ago), is under-built when it comes to modern hotels. I looked and felt very tired. I also looked and was very pregnant, a fact which did not escape the sympathetic clerk.

“I have one room that has not been claimed. I am obligated to hold it until eight,” he told us.

I collapsed on a chair in the lobby making sure I was in the clerk’s direct line of vision and Joe sat nearby. A few minutes after eight, I hoisted myself up. The room was ours.

We took the elevator to our room, unpacked and hurried back down to the hotel dining room just in time for the last serving of dinner. The first course, a pasta was a shape, farfalle, (butterflies) not widely sold in the USA at that time. The sauce was creamy, unusual for Southern Italy. The taste was divine.

I don’t know what second course was offered because I repeated the pasta. (Pregnant ladies are allowed such eccentricities.). I asked the waiter what made the white sauce so tasty. He shared the “secret” and I wrote it in my trip journal before collapsing that night. Once home, when I finally found farfalle pasta, I duplicated the sauce. Jennie, our daughter says it is one of her favorites. She claims she learned to like it in utero. Of course, even though she is an adult now, living on her own,  I make it every time she visits.

Family Recipe: Farfalle with Spinach

Ingredients

4 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup milk

½ cup pecorino Romano grated cheese

2 teaspoons, freshly ground nutmeg

I package, 10 ounces, of spinach, cooked and drained

Method

Make a roux with butter and flour. Add milk. Add the cheese, slowly, stirring while you add it.

Put in the nutmeg and a dash of salt and pepper. Allow the sauce to thicken and then add the cooked spinach. Stir and then put it over the cooked and drained farfalle. Serve.

Note—I use DeCecco pasta. Trust me, the quality of the pasta makes a difference in the taste.

Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. Her poems, articles, essays, and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ekphrastic Review, Pine Song, A-3 Review, When Women Write, Verse Visual, and Verse Virtual, Mystery Tribune, anti-heroin chic, Drunk Monkeys, and others. She has been a Tupelo Press 30/30 author, and a Gilbert Chappell Fellow. Her chapbook, Languid Lusciousness with Lemon, is out from Finishing Line Press. Her chapbooks Nature’s Gifts is free from Stanzaic Stylings. Dancing Under the Moon and Morning by Morning, mini-chapbooks are free through Origami Press. As a performer, she tells folk and personal tales featuring food, family, nature, and strong women.

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