Better, Worse + Lunch

There was a time when the Curmudgeon made his own lunch and brought it with him every day.

It was always the same: peanut butter and jelly on raisin bread, an apple and three oatmeal cookies. He’d buy chocolate milk from the roach coach – those shiny trucks that went from place to place at breakfast and lunch before Uber Eats and gourmet food trucks became a thing. He pinched pennies so hard that he used the same raisin bread bag to pack his lunch until it fell apart.

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">There was a reason for his frugality: he was in law school and we were poor, subsisting on my ridiculously low reporter's salary. Still, I was impressed that he never changed it up. He could eat the same thing day in, day out, and never get tired of it. I can't do that. I need variety in my life and in my meals, unable to have the same thing two days in a row. This may explain why we rarely eat the leftovers that the Curmudgeon meticulously packages in plastic storage containers after every dinner.There was a reason for his frugality: he was in law school and we were poor, subsisting on my ridiculously low reporter’s salary. Still, I was impressed that he never changed it up. He could eat the same thing day in, day out, and never get tired of it. I can’t do that. I need variety in my life and in my meals, unable to have the same thing two days in a row. This may explain why we rarely eat the leftovers that the Curmudgeon meticulously packages in plastic storage containers after every dinner.

I don’t like leftovers. I know, I should, and I probably fall in the minority of people, but I don’t. My father refused to eat them, so we can blame him. At one point, he told my mother to stop making baked sausages and potatoes because the dish reminded him of when he was a poor medical resident. He made a similar proclamation over filet of sole Almandine, not because it reminded him of being poor, but he was simply sick of it.

As eaters go, he was a tough nut, the only person I ever met who didn’t like condiments on his hotdogs and hamburgers, and hated all cheese, even the smell of it. My mother used to prepare separate trays of “lasagna in the boat” for my dad at holidays without cheese. That’s the way he ate his pizza too. Before he ordered fish and chips, he always asked if it was made with cod, refusing to order it if it was. He didn’t order it very often.

One day, my dad thought it might be nice to come home for lunch to see my mother without seven kids around, but my mother quickly put a stop to it. She wanted an uninterrupted stretch of time to herself while we were at school to get things done and whatever else moms did while they had the house to themselves. As a mom myself, I understand this completely.

“I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch,” she declared one day, repeating a quote attributed to Wallis Simpson, wife of Edward VIII, who abdicated the British throne for his lady. Aside: I think Prince Harry takes after his great great uncle in the love department, washing his hands of the monarchy for Meghan. I doubt Meghan would tell Harry to get lost at lunch, but who knows? We all have limits to our togetherness.

Wallis Simpson didn’t want her husband home for lunch either.

My father was not amused by my mother’s proclamation; in fact, I think his feelings were hurt, but he got the message. From then on, he ate peanut butter crackers at lunch, arriving home like a maniac at 6 p.m. ready to eat anything in sight.

It never occurred to my mother to pack a sandwich for my father, though it certainly would have been easy enough: most mornings she stood at a thick cutting board and made seven sandwiches for us to take to school before lining us up and combing our hair, mostly into braids and ponytails. From there, she added cookies and a bag of chips, even after I implored her to hold my chips. Of course, we sometimes had hot lunch too, but what I remember from those days is her sandwiches: cream cheese and jelly (and “a punch in the belly,” she always added), ham and cheese and when she was really desperate, cold veal cutlets on a hard roll. (Those were immediately tossed in the trash.)

I don’t have lunch with the Curmudgeon, though there was a time that we ate it together every day. That’s one of the benefits of dating and then marrying a co-worker: you have a built-in lunch buddy to explore the delis and diners within a 10-mile radius of your workplace. We had about 10 establishments in our lunch rotation, from a hamburger joint that served Afghanistan cuisine (fantastic!) to Mr. Sizzle, home of the pastrami nightmare.

Today, the Curmudgeon eats lunch with a few friends at work. They go to a few delis to pick up sandwiches every day, mainly to get out of the office. I understand the need for a change of scenery. Eight or more hours in the same place can drive you nuts. I never brown-bagged my lunch when I worked full-time, mainly because I needed to leave the premises.

But the other day, these guys drove around for 45 minutes in search of their lunch. Their favorite deli in Branford, CT., was closed due to Covid 19, and they had to wait about a half hour for tuna fish sandwiches at another place. So I did something I’ve never done in nearly 40 years of marriage: I offered to make the Curmudgeon a sandwich to take to work. I was feeling so generous that I offered to make one for his co-worker too.

I agree that a sandwich from a deli always tastes better than one made at home, but I figured I could handle tuna salad, about the only option available during Lent if you don’t want egg salad or a PB&J. By Wednesday, I had all of my ingredients: tuna fish, celery, shaved carrots, lettuce, tomato, Spanish onion and hot red peppers for his friend. Despite my supplies, the Curmudgeon was initially dismissive, saying he could handle his own lunch, but thanks.

By Friday morning, he was cautioning me that he only wanted lettuce and tomato on his sandwich, while his friend hated lettuce so I’d better not dare put any on his sandwich. I offered to pack the lunches so he could take them with him, but he worried that the sandwiches would be soggy sitting for hours. This seemed a reasonable concern, though plenty of other people, including school kids, must contend with this every day.

“Come at 12:15 p.m.,” he said. I felt like an Uber Eats delivery person. But at least they don’t have to make it too. To get myself in the mood, I washed the lettuce, sliced the tomatoes and assembled the tuna salad early, throwing it in the refrigerator so the flavors would meld. I’m not sure why deli tuna is so good, but it’s one of those things that’s hard to master at home. Mine is never quite mushy enough, lacking the distinctive texture that makes deli tuna so great. I even used an ice cream scoop like they do at Subway, flattening the mounds of tuna with the back of it.

A few hours after he left, he phoned to say his friend was out of the office, so he wouldn’t be needing lunch. He then suggested I pack my own tuna sandwich and join him at the picnic table outside their office. This surprised me on a few levels: he deplores eating outside, and he hasn’t invited me to have lunch with him in at least 10 years. Then again, I was bringing the sandwiches, a definite plus in my column.

The weather cooperated, a balmy 60-something degrees in mid-March, and the dog limited her begging to me, knowing better not to bother the Curmudgeon when he’s eating. It was pleasant, fun, and best of all, he saved a little money. It was nice eating out with him, even if it was next to the office parking lot and a garbage can.

Some of his office co-workers ambled by, and commented on how cute it was that we were picnicking after all these years. But just as quickly as it began, it ended. When I offered to make tuna sandwiches again, he brushed me off.

“It was nice, but I’m all set,” he said.

I’m back to eating alone, just as Wallis and I like it.

Mrs. Murphy’s Brisket

Corned beef from a crockpot, the best way to do it.

St. Patrick’s Day is a pretty big deal in our house.

The Curmudgeon starts playing Irish folk songs once March rolls around, imploring me to stop vacuuming so I can hear the words to his new favorite song on his omnipresent I-Phone. It may have something to do with the fact that he’s 100 percent Irish, but I like to think it’s because we started dating after a St. Patrick’s Day party 39 years ago.

We co-hosted the party in his apartment for a group of newspaper co-workers, including a young woman from Chile who’d been interning as a photographer. It was primarily a going away party for her, but we served corned beef and cabbage because it coincided with the holiday.

As I recall, I did most of the work while the Curmudgeon holed himself up in a bathroom with the phone, talking to a girl he was foolishly dating instead of me. Though he quickly came to his senses, he still has a knack for making himself scarce when we’re hosting big parties. He can usually be found in the shower just as guests are about to ring the bell no matter how much I beg him to dress earlier.

We won’t be hosting a big St. Patrick’s Day party this year because of Covid 19, but there was a time when it was the social event of the year for us. For many years, we invited everyone we knew – and some we didn’t that well – to our house for a traditional feast of corned beef, potatoes and cabbage. For me, it was a celebration that winter was over and spring was here, though more than one party was accompanied by snow.

A test run last week. Note to self: add some dark green leafy vegetables, or carrots, for more color.

There were some years we wondered if we could afford to throw the party. One year the party began without us because the Curmudgeon was dizzy and ended up in the emergency room due to dehydration.

My sister and her husband filled in for us as hosts while we were at the ER, slipping into the role with ease. While we were there, I received a call from the babysitter telling me that our dog had toppled five corned beefs cooling on the counter to the floor, devouring two and leaving the other three pierced with shards of glass.

When I got off the phone and told the Curmudgeon what had happened, the ER doctor said, “I’m sorry, but you really are having a shi—ty day.” At one point, it was suggested that the Curmudgeon stay in the hospital with an IV drip, but he commented, “If I don’t get out of here, she’s going to kill me so you better just let me leave.” He did, promising to drink gallons of Gatorade instead of beer that night.

One of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had is driving up to my house and seeing a party in full swing. No one noticed we were missing, or if they did, didn’t much care. All I really wanted to do was have everyone leave so I could go to bed, but it was still early so I rallied.

And then there was the year we wondered if we had the emotional energy to host it. It was 2004 and my mother-in-law had just died from Lou Gehrig’s disease, ending a six-month battle that began innocuously the previous summer with fatigue.

We didn’t feel like hosting the party, but had sent out the invitations weeks before her death. We wondered if we could send out something canceling the party, figuring everyone would understand. And then we decided that she would want us to have it because before it was our party, it was her party. For everyone else, it was our usual St. Patrick’s Day party. For us, it was an Irish wake, a way to honor a loved one by remembering the good times.

For years, she invited family and friends to her house for corned beef and cabbage, serving the most tender slices of corned beef I’ve ever tasted with spicy mustard and homemade horseradish sauce. My biggest dilemma in those days was coming up with a good green blouse to wear because she did everything, never asking for any help.

Though she often disparaged her cooking – “I don’t know how to time it so everything comes out at the same time,” she’d complain – she was a master when it came to corned beef. She knew to buy the lean “flat” cut, leaving the heftier point cut behind in the refrigerator bins. She knew the importance of slow simmering for hours, aware that boiling the meat makes it impossibly tough. She knew how to tent it with foil, allowing it to rest on the counter for about an hour to let the juices settle and make it easier to slice. She knew how to cut it across the grain to ensure intact slices instead of messy chunks caused by slicing meat with the grain.

Though my mother-in-law always simmered her corned beef in her biggest pot over low heat on the stove, I shifted from the stove to the crockpot several years ago because I got tired of checking the pot and seeing that it was always starting to boil, or so low that it wasn’t bubbling at all. The crockpot eliminates all the “minding” needed to simmer slowly. I just toss the meat in with the flavor packet that comes with it, a few cloves of garlic, a sliced onion, a carrot, water, and a can of Guinness, set it on LOW, and let it do its thing. Eight hours later, it’s so tender it’s breaking in half when I try to remove it.

Some tips: always rinse off the corned beef, and add enough water so it surrounds the meat, but doesn’t cover it. Cook the meat with the fat side facing up. Cook for eight hours at low, making sure you have enough time to let it sit to make slicing easier. You can keep the sliced meat moist with a few spoonfuls of the cooking water.

At one point when my parties reached 50 guests, I cooked 10 corned beefs at a clip, borrowing crockpots from family and friends. I put a few crockpots in the kitchen, but stationed some in the basement and my screened-in porch to control the pungent smell of simmering corned beef wafting through the house. It was quite a production, renewing my faith in people’s willingness to share cooking appliances and the capacity of the electrical system in my home.

Today, I know enough to avoid certain brands. Hummel’s has always disappointed, though I love their hotdogs. I don’t understand that at all. I usually buy any brand but Hummel’s, studying the packages for the right amount of fat: not too much, but enough so it won’t be tough. Only the flat cut. I’ve learned the hard way that good corned beef is often a crapshoot, that it’s quite possible to cook a tasteless corned beef through no fault of your own. This is why I often buy two corned beefs in hopes of getting one good one. And don’t forget, those suckers shrink when cooked, meaning extra meat probably is needed anyway.

I don’t profess to be a great cook, but I’ve cooked at least 200 corned beefs over the years and consider myself proficient in this area. I’m so committed to the crockpot method that I now own three crockpots, two more than most rational people. I cook corned beef throughout the year, grabbing it whenever it makes a cameo in the meat section, not just around St. Patrick’s Day. I often cook one or two the week before St. Patrick’s Day as a test run, as I did last week.

My crockpots are working overtime, getting more use than they have in the past year. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wooster Square Cooks

A generous bowl of Cavatappi, inspired by Wooster Square Cooks.

I may be the only person who isn’t watching Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” series right now.

I’ve been hearing rumblings about it, but am watching the first season of “Bloodline,” a family drama set in the Florida Keys on Netflix. I overheard a woman telling someone about it at the dog park, listening unabashedly when she described Kyle Chandler as a “hottie.” With spring still a few weeks away and no immediate travel plans, seeing palm trees, sand and the glorious blue-green water of coastal Florida on TV is my only escape. Kyle Chandler? Impossibly cute in a “Dad body” kind of way.

I got my first Covid 19 shot this week, a milestone that I treated as a major life event, a trophy to celebrate outrunning this virus for the past year. I washed and styled my hair, wore street clothes and two matching socks, something that’s been unnecessary up to this point. I brought the dog, whose gone from faithful companion to my appendage. When I had to drop her off for tests at the vet last week, I wondered how I’d survive two hours without her.

Note to self and anyone getting the vaccine: wear a T-shirt. I wore a pullover sweater and a button-down blouse, meaning I had to practically strip to find my left shoulder. Embarrassing. Like everyone else, I was thrilled that vaccine day had arrived, so I wasn’t thinking clearly. One kind woman brought the Yale-New Haven staffers manning shot central a bag of goodies to show her gratitude. I may copy her when I go for the second shot on March 25th.

So I’m not watching Stanley, at least not now. But I’ve done the next best thing, joining the Wooster Square Cooks, a lively Facebook page with 24,400 members and counting. My childhood friend Don invited me to join the fun, and I accepted, maybe the best decision I’ve made in the past 6 months.

I was so appreciative of Don’s invitation that I FaceTimed him, reaching him at his North Carolina home. We were once neighbors and good friends in Orange, CT., but I haven’t spoken to him in 40 years. This is what I love about cooking and being Italian American: it breaks down barriers, making it seem perfectly rational to call someone up after four decades.

Don told me that he was invited into the group about three weeks ago, and in turn invited about 25 friends to join. To his surprise, everyone accepted. Unlike me, Don is having no trouble finding cooking inspiration: for him, it’s a relaxing hobby, a way to tap into his Italian heritage and unwind after hours of screen time working remotely.

He posted his first dish to Wooster Square Cooks this week: chicken cacciatore which he likes spicy, adding a few jalapeño peppers to the sauce for kick. I asked Don if he was nervous about posting with so many great Italian American cooks on the site. I know I’m a little intimidated, the way I feel when I cook for other Italian Americans.

“A little,” he admitted. “But then I decided to just post it anyway. Everyone is very supportive on the page.”

For me, the page has rekindled my interest in cooking, something that’s been waning for the past few months. Like it or not, the past year has put enormous pressure on home cooks, particularly during the winter months when many of us refuse to dine inside restaurants. Take-out is nice, but we try to limit it to once a week, mostly pizza from the closest parlor. That means the other six days I’m on deck, often at a loss at what to cook. I’ve apologized more than once in recent weeks for my lousy dinners, and no one has argued with me.

I know about the New York Times “What To Cook” Column and I get that it’s helpful, though I could have come up with its lame suggestion of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on my own. What I love about Wooster Square Cooks is that people share photos of what they’ve rustled up for lunch, dinner or dessert, whetting my appetite with big bowls of linguine with white clam sauce stacked with little necks, or chicken cacciatore with meaty thighs swimming in red sauce.

Unlike “Foodie” photos of food prepared by restaurant chefs that can be so grating, you get the sense that the folks on Wooster Square Cooks are proud of their creations and want to share their joy, perhaps even inspire people when we all need a little inspiration, both in the kitchen and in life. I’ve never gotten the sense that anyone is bragging about their culinary skills; rather, they’re just putting them out there, assuming everyone is just as capable of making zeppole as they are.

So much of cooking inspiration is gleaned in casual conversations, explaining why so many of us are simply at a loss right now. Stuck inside our houses still, we lack the day-to-day interplay that often inspires us to try something new. Wooster Square Cooks is a virtual coffee klatch where people swap ideas and inspiration, igniting the palate and stoking desire for Italian dishes that we’ve forgotten about. It’s a little like looking at an extensive menu, being reminded how good certain dishes are and wondering what to order.

I’d expect nothing less of a group based around Wooster Square, a New Haven neighborhood that’s home to some of the best pizza parlors, Italian restaurants and pastry shops in the world. Sally’s Pizza and Pepe’s Pizza are both on Wooster Street. Need I say more? And though many of the group’s members have Italian last names like my maiden name, it’s thankfully not a prerequisite for membership.

Besides the impossibly tempting dishes, I enjoy the dialog and the questions among members:

“Can I mix white and red wine for chicken piccata?”

The consensus: absolutely NO.

“I want to make escarole and bean soup, but don’t have white beans. Can I use black beans?”

“NO!”

“My prize lemon. Now I have to decide it’s best use LOL,” wrote my old high school classmate Lisa Sorrentino Rehm.

At last count, she had 576 likes, three shares and 105 responses ranging from lemon cream pie and chicken piccata to scallops over angel hair pasta. Your mouth is watering right now, right? I told you this page is the bomb.

“Artichokes on sale for 99 cents each at such and such store, in case anyone is interested.” (Um, who isn’t? Thanks for that tip!)

“What’s everybody making for dinner tonight?”

I remain silent, not wanting to admit it’s hamburgers – again. That’s not what this group wants to hear, what it’s all about. It wants evidence that some imagination, effort and love was involved with trays of homemade lasagna or manicotti hand stuffed with good ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Posting hamburgers would be akin to admitting you’re making a McDonald’s run.

Lately, there’s been a lot of broccoli rabe with garlic, olive oil and sweet sausages, one of my favorites because it’s so easy. I always serve it over ziti or spaghetti, but have been surprised that many people serve it with Italian bread. You learn something new every day.

The other day after scrolling the page, I went to an Italian specialty food store about five minutes from my house for the first time. I was craving imported Italian pasta and red sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes, the kind you crush yourself in the food processor. I walked into the store and was surrounded with pastas of every shape and size stacked on tables and shelves. Looking around, perhaps to show that I am no neophyte when it comes to macaroni, I asked the saleswoman if they had cavatelli – pasta shaped like tiny hotdog buns. They did not, but I bought something that looked like it. It was flat, without the distinctive channel that runs along the center and catches the sauce so nicely.

I added to my haul, buying pasta twisted by hand to look like long pieces of licorice, and tight thin spirals called cavatappi that look like springs. The pasta is imported from Italy and about three times as much as I’d spend in the grocery store, but it’s worth it, like the difference between store brand ice cream and Ben & Jerry’s. I may never go back to Ronzoni. Who am I kidding? Of course I will, but it’s nice to dream.

I haven’t dared told the Curmudgeon how much I spent at the Italian store, but I don’t think he’d mind too much. He had three bowls of the imported pasta with sauce, meaning he liked it more than my usual stuff, sometimes referred to as “Irish sauce.” This sauce was thick and meaty, cooked slowly for three hours with sweet sausages to meld the flavors. It may have been the best pot I ever put up, and I have the Wooster Square Cooks to thank for it.