Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Long Pull of Family Meals

The following is my self-created mentor text for my students. They took a favorite photograph and listed things they noticed on the surface and then started to dig a little deeper--they listed the things they wondered, speculated, and remembered. Turning that list into a poem, they were charged with trying to find what was important to them about their picture.

Next week, we are taking our poems and converting them to essays--narratives, vignettes, memoir--that should fill the reader with a strong sense of the meaningful nature of the photograph. In order for my students to produce what I would like to see, I try to create a mentor text, a real example, from my own pen.

As an aside, the yellow highlighter is also a part of the assignment. I ask them to mark an example of the grammar and/or writer's tools current in class. In this class serial commas, appositives, prepositional phrases, and participial phrases are our global concepts:

The aroma of homemade meatballs greeted us. By us, I mean family, friend, and guest. It isn’t that Bepa fried meatballs every day, but she did cook something every day in that same pan. Seasoned black with time, the pan, a cast-iron palette, seemed too heavy for an old woman. Yet, Bepa, forever 80 years-old in my memory, handled the pan with the discerning patience of an artist.

Emerging from the pan were meats crusted with a rustic char of brown, while evidence of her choreography--chopped green herbs rimming a knife’s edge—layered their cleansing aroma atop the crisped sweetness and heat of Italian sausage, bragiole, and pork ribs. The crusted meats, steeping in a pot of red gravy, seasoned the air we breathed.

Our family’s concept of gravy, red and spiced, has been simmering for decades. I can still smell it bubbling in her familiar silver pot. Like a trusted friend, she knew its imperfections and knew its strengths. She let the old pot do its thing day in and day out—even with its dents, it worked the gravy, it worked the gravy, it worked the gravy…nothing else.

Spread across the dinner table, our family feasts welcomed anyone—literally. Family and friends walked into her house as it were their own; neighbors turned the doorknob, warm with use, with nary a knock. The air around her table, the air filling each room, and the air around her home was rich with our family history—hard-handed Italian immigrants, and the children of these pioneers, and their children’s children, the grandchildren, all breathed this same sweet air. It is in our lungs today.

We ate simple salads with a splash of red wine vinegar and oil from a plain round dish. Bowls of pasta coated with homemade gravy passed from hand to hand, and never emptied—they were simply refilled. And we always encouraged the next guy to take more. Long platters of tender meats, round and hot, traded hands in the opposite direction. Glasses were filled with wine or water across each path of plated food, and crusty bread was sawed with a sharp edge beneath it all—beneath this familiar dance of hands and arms, dish and spoon, laugh and wink.
Our arms continued the ballet that would have made La Scala graduates envious—we twirled the delicate capellini around the tongs of our forks. Some pulled the long strands and twisted high in the air, while others swirled low against the dish. Silence fell and we ate. In all the right places we leaned in close to listen, or dipped our bread in gravy. We never refilled just one glass or one plate—everything about the slow meal was a pas de deux of food.  Our family song was one of familiar tastes complimenting the familiar aromas complimenting the familiar setting complimenting the family—the long pull, across the decades, of eating food prepared and served with love—the long pull, across  the decades, of eating with family.

Today, I see those images in my head and I raise a simple glass. It would be appropriate to raise an old jelly glass in this case—filled halfway with red table wine. I raise a simple glass and I salute the long pull of family, and I think to myself, “here’s to what we knew.” Salut!

Here’s to what we knew
Brian Kelley

Here’s to what we knew…

We knew the comforting aroma of brown
                  meatballs frying in a crowded pan
seasoned black with time.

We knew the cleansing scent of green
                  basil chopped fine into fragrant flakes
                  lingering on the knife.

We knew the deep sapidity of red
                  gravy simmering for generations
                  in your tired pot, loved and full.
Here’s to what we knew.

We knew the precise scrape of your knife
                  against the warm bread.

We knew the pull of the long pasta
                  on family.

Here’s to what we knew.

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