He calls me il vagabondo because he never knows when I will show up to visit. I have heard that I am “better than an Italian boy” and this is because I show up all the time. It is the way it is. It is not so hard to learn. He is used to me by now. There are many years of the marriage in my voice and I am pleased now to reveal the great secret of la vita è bella. If you know it, you will be a part of la famiglia forever. It is like a – how do they say it? —it is like an ingredient; essential, and if you leave him out, there is nothing.
I say it simply: cod trumps turkey. There it is. Now, you know. My Canadian friends think this is the blasphemy. For a long time, I fought the laws of the pesce. “Maria, how can you put the fish in tomato sauce?” I say. “Why does the celery taste like licorice?” “Olives are green and do not come in cans.” “Dio Mio, there are no gherkins!” “Why can we not just steam the cauliflower? Why do we dip it in eggs and farina and boil them in oil? Maria, it is not right!”
I am not proud of it, but for a long time I fought the laws of the Church, as well. “Maria, if mass is over at one in the morning and we go back for panettone e espresso, you know we will not get out of there until easily 2:30 a.m. It will be snowing. It is always snowing. They will want to play scopa. There will be chestnuts. I will want to drink more vino. The carabinieri will be out in full force. I do not want to go to the jail on the Christmas Eve. The kids will wake up again and besides, we have to get the bird in the oven by 7, if we are going to serve at 3. Okay, Okay, I get it! Yes, of course. You are right. Ti amo, amore.”
I tell you this in confession, so you might see, that I am not the perfect man: and that I should go to the church more often and not like it is the holiday. Mamma Mia! Here is another thing that I must tell you. In the laws of the pesce, there is only one fish and he is Cod. I will explain it to you. First, you do not learn the Cod Law from the instruction, you learn it from the experience. The experience is everything. Instruction is for la scuola. To learn to do the thing, you have to do it yourself. Then you will know. Capisci? “Ah si, you are getting it. Bravo!”
Observe: Go to the Italian grocers and get the dry cod. He looks like white leather with powder on him. Bring him home. Call up your wife’s zia to find out what to do next. She will tell you that you don’t listen! “Ehh! You should have bought the cod two days ago to soak it and change the water regularly. Gawd, what are you, a testa dura?” Do not panic. It is okay.
The Cod is a forgiving fish. So is la famiglia. Go back to the Italian grocery store and get the soft version. It is wrapped in the cellophane. No one will know. Bring him home. Take off the cellophane and cut the pesce into small cubes. In a large pot you are heating some Carapelli. That is the oil my mother-in-law uses, so it is the only oil I will use to eternity. It is good and it is always on sale.
Put in the onion and now and I will tell you the great Canadese secret. (We like to call it the segreto). Add the three great spices! Ripeti: sage (sage); savory (savoury) and thyme (time). Your mother-in-law will probably not have the sage or the savory (“Ehh, what is that?”), so it is best to bring your own. Stir him all together and now add the sauce.
(After 33 years, brother, you should know how to make it yourself.) At minimum you should have been down there to watch it be done. If you are not a buffone, you should have helped to make it at least 14 times. This way, you will have 50 or so jars, stacked in your basement, regardless. (Trust me on this.)
The sauce is not like the sauce we have in the tins. It is waterier so remember to add the paste. Two cans. They are small and thin and cute. Perfetto. Oh yes, add any bouillon cube that is not the beef. You do not have any meat on the eve of the holy day.
Before she died, my mother-in-law used to smack me when I threatened the sauce with the beef. She would take the wooden spoon and say: “panga, panga!” I tell you this! You must take your time to grieve. After six-seven years, you will be okay. You will get used to it. Trust in the Divine Sistemi. Take the long view.
By now, your sauce, or the sauce you have been given to make at home, like the tourist, is starting to bubble. Add the pesce now. I can see you wince; I know. I can see your head shaking: Mi dispiace. If it is after 12 noon. Have a shot of the rye to steady yourself. You will learn to like it. Stir him all together, put on the lid, bring to a boil and after 30 minutes, let him simmer.
Do not rush! Quickly, listen to me! When the Italians have left the room and no one is looking, lift the lid and pour a generous splash of Kitchen Bouquet into the sauce. They will never know. Stir it in quickly. It is dark, like the worchester and turns the colour into a, a – how do they say it? – an inglese shade of Italian: Yes, that’s it: An inglese shade of Italian. Bene. Remember to save some KB for your gravy, tomorrow. Si?
So now you know how to make the thing. Next year, I will show you how to make the cauliflower. They are so fussy. If you steam them for longer than four minutes they will fall apart. If the oil is too hot, you will burn them. If the oil is not hot enough, they will go too pale. Remember, when you try it yourself, you will learn the way to do it. It is the way I have been taught. Magnifico! Soon, I will show you the brand of black olives to buy, the little bottles of pear juice that are so good and the type of torrone we always eat. You will forget about your gherkins. It is a gift to know this. You will see.
Dio, geezis! I am rushing now. We are too late. It has already started to snow. Make sure the kids are wearing something nice. Did they bring their present for nonno? Don’t forget their slippers. The floors are cold in the downstairs kitchen. They will catch a chill in the cantina. Hurry. If the lid is cool, put a rubber band across it to keep the pot stable. Be careful when you load it in the car. Mamma Mia! Don’t forget the pasta! With the cod, you should bring le farfalle: the butterflies. Trust me on this. The little memories are the most beautiful.
And when you get there, the furnace will rumble on. You will stamp off the snow. Your father-in-law will shrug his shoulders. He will perk up. He will be glad to see his fam jammers. He will hug the nipoti so tight-like. They will run upstairs to the tree and look at the presents around the nativity. For you, he has a twinkle in his eye. He knows what you know. It is an ancient thing.
Later, when you are full and the chestnuts are in the oven, there will be time to go out with Maria to light the candle for her. The tiny ruby flickers are so beautiful. You will stand together and pray and later, find space in the pew to wedge in. Take a moment to rub the sorrow from your face. I tell you this! You will notice the faint scent of the pesce on your fingers and when your eyes stop weeping before Gesù, you will chuckle and be so quietly thankful for your gift from cod.
Glenn Carley is the author of the urban opera, Polenta at Midnight: Tales of Gusto and Enchantment in North York (Véhicule Press, 2007). His creative non-fiction, Good Enough From Here, set on the stage of the Arctic, is soon to be published by Rock’s Mills Press (2019). New operatic work is around the corner with Guernica Editions (2020) and Glenn’s epic poem: La Casa di Riposo (The House of Rest) is currently on offer and awaits its home. Glenn resides in Bolton, Ontario with his family. Gcarley@rogers.com