Sunday dinners with Loraine
I know what you all are thinking... like do we really have to get into this debate? Well, in our house, it’s gravy and that’s because my great-grandmother Suzie (Mazzeo) Presti came from Sicily—Messina to be precise. That’s what her daughter Anna (Presti) Morano “Mom-Mom” called it; that’s what my mother Joan (Morano) Shincarick calls it too. So, there is no debate in our family; if you put meat in it and it simmers all day, it’s gravy.
As a child I remember Sunday dinners fondly—not just for the pasta, but because it was the one time a week the whole family gathered. My Mom-Mom did Sunday dinners for years and it truly made such an impact in our life. I remember running up the steps into her home. I would enter right into the kitchen to be greeted by my Pop-Pop in his apron and my Mom-Mom in hers. Pop-pop was usually on bread and gravy check duty, which meant he was the taster, while Mom-Mom was smacking his hands “Enough! Mike, get... get!” To which he would respond back playfully, “Alright Annie!”
Mom-mom would call my mother and say “Call me when you’re on the way so I can put the pasta in.” Dinner would be ready ten minutes or so after our arrival. The smell of garlic and basil filled the air. The table layout was always in the same order: garden salad with homemade Italian dressing, meatballs covered in gravy, plain meatballs for those who just enjoyed them fried, a large bowl of pasta and a cheese shaker filled with Locatelli cheese. Once everyone took their seats, Mom-Mom would serve the salad to those who wanted it. My grandfather would prep with his handkerchief tucked into his collared while shirt to avoid getting his shirt dirty. The humorous thing was he always got splatters of gravy around his bib, so after dinner the spots were usually treated with Lestoil (It’s a fabulous stain remover; I still use it to this day).
Spoons and forks were always on the table. We learned how to twirl our pasta at a young age. My sister Laura would usually slurp her pasta to the displeasure of my mother rolling her eyes, but making my grandfather laugh out loud. The table was always full. It usually consisted of me and my sister Laura, my mom, my Uncle Mike and Aunt Sylvia. It was never quiet, and stories were always shared, loudly. After dinner the table was cleared and wiped clean. And about 30 minutes later hot coffee and cookies or some-kind of dessert was served. I loved dessert, mainly because my Pop-Pop allowed us to have coffee. I felt so grown up. Mom-Mom would pour 1/4 cup of coffee, followed by at least a 1/2 cup of milk and a tablespoon of sugar. The second she turned around my Pop-Pop would put another tablespoon of sugar in, put his finger up to his lips in a shushing manner and smile. Laura usually went for the third scoop of sugar and always got caught but didn’t care as she dunked two biscotti at one time. Laura always did what she wanted; I envied her for that. I was always too scared to push too much. But the older we got the more I appreciated her spontaneity and determination.
As kids, we were blessed to have both grandparents teach us the traditions of Sunday dinners. But as everything changes in life, so did our dinners. In 1995 we lost my grandfather Mike to esophageal cancer. Mom-Mom went through a small bout of depression, as any widow would. My Uncle Mike stepped up to the plate and took on the role of man of the house. He would go over early with my Aunt Sylvia, and they would help prep for dinner. Our arrival was much earlier than on time as years prior. From 1995-2008, our family basically tripled. My Mom-Mom’s three children had their own children. Mike has three boys, Michele had a boy and a girl but lived in upstate N.Y., and my mom had three girls (God bless her; I now know that struggle). What used to be loud was a quiet memory because the table was now full of children who were laughing, and slurping pasta. The format of the table didn’t change except for the addition of buttered spaghetti for the littles who didn’t care for gravy. My new husband John was getting used to the noise after three years of dating, and looked forward to our Sunday dinners too. But again, as time goes on so does change.
Flash forward to 2021; my little cousins are full grown adults, I have three children of my own and my mom and sisters, Laura and Amber, have relocated to Egg Harbor Twp. We don’t all get together anymore for Sunday dinners, and it sparks a sadness because it’s one closed chapter of our life and another addition to our family collection.
I do still make my gravy on weekends occasionally. I’d be lying if I said I did it every Sunday. Sometimes I make a fresh pot on Saturday, but as soon as the garlic and basil hit my nose, I cherish every single childhood memory I have. As cliche as it sounds, I feel my Pop-pop with me when I make my gravy, and I hear my grandmother in my ear: mince the garlic and onion and let it simmer in the olive oil first. Each step of my gravy-making is important because there is no specific recipe. I watched Mom-Mom make it for years, so I basically close my eyes and remember steps. When my family sits down to enjoy the gravy with Mom-Mom approving of my meatballs and gravy, I feel like I have successfully carried on Suzie’s legacy and continue to make my Mom-Mom and Mom proud because I’m continuing my family tradition. There is truly nothing better than growing up Italian.
Loraine Griffiths is a fifth-generation Hammontonian, graphic designer, wife and mother of three. She can be reached through email at LifeWithLoraine@gmail.com.