Mama Mia, Atsa Some Spicy Meat-a-Ball! (Alka-Seltzer TV Commercial*)
By Phil La Borie
In the midst of enjoying a great dinner at one of the terrific Italian restaurants in our area the other night, I thought back to my grandmother’s cooking.
When I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to have two grandmothers. First off, there was Grandma Gertrude who was my father’s mom, and Grandma Josephina was my mother’s mother.
Grandma Gertrude was of German ancestry and, I have to say, about as stubborn as could be – especially so when it came to cooking. Despite the many great German recipes for creating delicious ethnic food, she just wasn’t interested in following any of them. And even further, after a while, she wouldn’t cook a single item in her house – Nein, Nicht, Nix!
It hadn’t always been that way, but when her children were old enough to handle it, they took over the culinary chores. My father, his two brothers and his sister did all the cooking; apparently with indifferent success. At least that’s what my mom told me.
She was “keeping company” with my dad at the time, and was a frequent dinner guest at my dad and his family’s modest house in the Germantown section of Rochester, New York.
At one point, in answer to my question about how she liked my dad’s culinary efforts, she sat thoughtfully for a minute and then quietly said, “Well, it certainly was filling.” Talk about damning with faint praise!
On the other hand, Josephina, who had emigrated from Italy with her kids in tow, was an amazing cook! Il meglio! (The best) She and my Aunt Minnie (yep, her name really was Minnie) did all the prep, cooking and clean-up in their house on Mohawk Street.
In addition to her fabulous cooking skills, Grandma Josephina had an amazing green thumb. Any and everything she touched, flourished. Her tiny back porch was crowded with miniature orange and lemon trees, herbs in planter boxes and huge tomato plants. The tomatoes in particular were so big and juicy that one summer I ate so many tomato sandwiches that I developed a serious rash!
The Mohawk Street backyard was packed with a big, carefully organized vegetable garden and several fig trees. Now, fig trees don’t like Rochester winters, so every fall Grandma J. would carefully bend the slender trees down to the ground, secure them to the earth and cover them with generous piles of leaves to protect them from the savage winter weather. And every spring, she’d uncover her treasures, and the trees would snap back
to attention and in due time yield a great amount of wonderfully tasty fruit. Tasty, that is, if you like figs.
Like most Italian households in the Rochester area at that time (1950s/’60s), Josephina and family kept two kitchens – one upstairs and one in the basement. The one upstairs was utilized when the weather was cooler; the one in the basement was employed during the hot and humid summer months.
The basement kitchen also featured a tasty variety of hanging smoked sausages and fragrant cheeses as well as rows and rows of Mason jars packed to the brim with preserved peaches, plums, apricots and other goodies.
As part of her culinary skills, Grandma J. made all the meals from scratch – everything from hand-made pasta, tomato sauce and meatballs to enormous Easter cookies in the shape of a chicken, complete with a hard-boiled egg in the middle!
Grandma J. couldn’t read or write in English, in fact, she barely spoke it. When I was in fifth grade, I read to her from my Days and Deeds social studies book on an almost daily basis. Eventually, I taught her how to read simple sentences, and she took great delight in reading about Davy Crockett, Wild Bill Hickok and other heroes of the old west. To the end of her days, she remained firmly convinced that these characters were alive and well, and that the old west was still somewhere out west.
But despite all the historical reading she did, I never saw her crack a cookbook. All her secrets were in her head.
Now, after a big noontime meal, everyone in the house wanted to relax, especially on Saturday afternoons. In fact, relaxation was mandatory for us kids. My Uncle Albert, (Grandma J.’s youngest son) commanded my cousins, my brother and me to sit with him in the living room and listen to whatever opera was being broadcast that afternoon live from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
As you might imagine, Uncle Al was asleep in minutes. Rossini’s Le Nozzi de Figaro was especially effective. But, even more amazing than his ability to instantly fall asleep was his ability to detect any subversive action by his captive nieces and nephews. One false move by any of us, such as trying to slip away or pinch one another, and his eyes would immediately fly open.
Basta, (enough) he would bellow. It was a command you’d ignore at your own peril. It stopped us dead in our tracks and brought Grandma J. on the run! You’ll hear more about Uncle Al in a future column.
Finally, the name Josephina means “God will add” in Hebrew. Whatever special ingredients that great woman added to her recipes was a secret she took to her grave.
My memories of her great cooking, the warmth of a big family meal around the kitchen table, the coolness and quiet of the cellar kitchen and sunny days surrounded by the fruit trees and herbs she had planted comfort me like a bowl of her wonderful pasta.
* Quote from a 1969 Alka-Seltzer 60-second TV commercial. The spot was genius in that George, the character who was on camera, could never get his one line right. “Mama Mia atsa some spicy meat-a-ball.” With his patient mother serving him huge helpings of pasta and meatballs, he went through take after take trying to get his line right. The oft-repeated line hammered home the product’s benefit – upset stomach relief right now!
About this writer
- Phil La Borie is an award-winning writer/artist based in Garden City, South Carolina. His work has been published in AdWeek, The Kaiser-Permanente Journal, Westworld Magazine and online at smilesforall.com. Phil is the 2015 winner of the Alice Conger Patterson Award offered through the Emrys Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.