Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Code of Broccoli Rabe

When I was a boy, my paternal grandmother made broccoli and spaghetti that was otherworldly. When it was in season, she substituted with broccoli rabe, which was equally delightful. Often utilizing the most basic ingredients, my grandmother had a knack for turning out taste sensations. And her dishes always turned out as expected. She was nothing if not consistent. When broccoli rabe and spaghetti was served, I knew what it was going to taste like. For some inexplicable reason, spaghetti was only used with the garlic and oil fare: broccoli, broccoli rabe, and Christmas Eve’s Aglio E Olio. Her pasta dinners—likewise singular and unmatched—were typically of the homemade variety, but never what you would classify as spaghetti.

As with so many things in life, broccoli and broccoli rabe don’t seem to be packed with the same flavor punch as I recall from my youth. I prepare the aforementioned spaghetti dishes from time to time, but the end-results vary greatly. Sometimes the broccoli and broccoli rabe are practically flavorless, even when utilizing half a bulb of garlic. I remember when broccoli rabe was a seasonal vegetable, available during certain times of the year only. Now, just like countless other fruits and vegetables, it’s a year-round food. Does this contemporary growing fact have anything to do with the flavor drain? Only Andy Boy knows for sure. Of course, my grandmother isn’t around anymore. She would have managed, I’m certain, to extract the maximum flavors out of today’s unpredictable broccoli and broccoli rabe.

Shifting gears somewhat, but in keeping with this essay’s title, I was riding the subway recently when I had the misfortune to be in the same car with three generations of boors: grandmother, mother, and daughter, I surmised. Of course, the family elder in this instance was probably in her late thirties or early forties at the oldest. Anyway, they were misbehaving on public transit, which is very annoying indeed. Outrageously loud and vulgar, the threesome was getting on everyone’s nerves. One man sitting very near them—too close for comfort, as it were—got up from his seat and went into an adjoining car. This move angered the family. I mean—really angered them. Why? Because they lived by a code, you see, and felt dissed by this fellow passenger. The trio could actually see the man sitting in the next car. While contemplating whether or not they should confront him, the three generations made threatening faces. There are codes and there are codes. My grandmother, who grew up in genuine poverty in a rocky mountain town in Southern Italy called Castelmezzano, lived by a strong code of right and wrong. She literally counted her blessings, too.

I would be remiss if I didn’t recount a warped code story that is a personal favorite of mine. After a shopping spree at the Cross County Mall in Yonkers, New York, my elderly neighbor—pushing eighty at the time—returned to her car for the drive home. As she opened the driver’s side door, a complete stranger sidled up on the passenger side and demanded to be driven several miles to an address in the city of Mount Vernon. Justifiably fearing for her well-being, my neighbor reached for her pocketbook, which was on the front seat. The woman hijacker was indignant. She no doubt felt she was being profiled and said: “What are you reaching for that for? I ain’t gonna steal your bag!” And let me just say for the politically correct record: Warped codes recognize no race, creed, or ethnicity. They are at once bizarre and infuriating to behold.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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