Olives and Bread

By Joan Leotta

Until I was six, going to work with my mother at her family’s warehouse store was a regular Saturday occurrence. Upon arrival, I was dispatched to walk one block, no street crossings, to the Italian bakery where I would exchange a one-dollar bill for a warm loaf of bread wrapped in a brown paper bag.

Back at the store, after giving nominal attention to my coloring books, the siren call of the brine-filled olive barrels pulled me out from my mother’s glass-walled office, onto the wooden floor of the small sliver of retail space in the store.

Lined up against the window of the refrigerator case of salamis and wheels of tasty cheeses not found in the supermarket, those seven wooden barrels, almost as tall as I, awaited my weekly visit. Square wooden tops fixed with a block-of-wood handle topped the barrels which were armed with a yard-long pierced aluminum ladle hitched casually to the side, like a gunslinger’s weapon.

My pattern was unchanging – a short walk up, walk down, past the barrels, quietly mouthing the names of the olives as I went, not really reading them, but bringing their names to my lips from long experience: nero piccolo, nero normale, nero gigante, nero siciliano, (dry, wrinkled, no brine), verde piccolo, verde normale, verde gigante. Verde gigante (green giants) were my favorite. When I was sure my mother was on the phone, or occupied by her adding machine, and my aunt was talking with a customer, I would push back the lid of the green giants and scoop up as many as the pierced ladle held and grab out as many as I could into my left hand, leaving the right free to return the leftover olives to the barrel, replace the ladle and close the lid. Quickly, still furtive, for I was sure my aunt or mother would scold me for eating olives so early in the morning, especially so many. Eight fit carefully into my left hand. My hiding place to savor my secret treasure was a tiny nook behind the cases of DeCecco pasta bounded by cases of six-in-one tomatoes – promises of delicious dinner yet to come – out of sight of retail customers, my mother’s glass windowed back office and my aunt.

One by one, I dropped an olive in my mouth, each so big it barely fit in that space where my tongue could enjoy the briny saltiness of the oval taste treat and my teeth could begin to strip their firm yet delicate skin from the pit. When I had scraped the goodness off the pit and sucked it dry of brine, I would spit out the used olive, hide the pit in my sweater pocket to throw away later, and repeat the process of satiating my unending capacity for olives.

I heard my mother’s footsteps down the wooden planks.

Well before the last olive made its way from hand to mouth, my mom would often walk up to my hiding place, two pieces of that crusty bread in one hand and a few black and green giants in a small bowl. At least two of each for her and two of each for me. Then, we could alternate – a bite of olive, a bite of bread.

She did not begrudge me a handful or two of olives, but worried that I would overload on their briny goodness and pickle my insides with accumulated ingested brine. Somehow, she knew just where to find me and knew that I was eating olives. Sometimes we talked about the store. Sometimes about the olives.

One Saturday, I finally asked her, “How do you always find me, no matter where I hide behind all the boxes?”

“Easy,” my mother laughed. “This, the little open places among the cases of pasta and tomatoes, this is where I used to hide to eat olives when your grandfather brought me with him when I was just your age.”

About this writer

  • Joan Leotta

    Joan Leotta

    Joan Leotta of Calabash, North Carolina, has been playing with words since childhood. She is a journalist, playwright, short story writer and author of several mysteries and romances as well as a poet. She also performs folklore and one-woman shows on historic figures.

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6 Responses to “Olives and Bread”

  1. Rose Ann says:

    I can almost taste the olives. A delicious story!

  2. Barbara Ann Paster says:

    What a lovely piece, Joanie. Can really see you and Florence and those barrels of tempting Italian olives of every variety known to the Italian palate. Such a moving memory of your younger self at the Italian provisions warehouse! Kudos to the Cudas!!

  3. Lynn Darby says:

    I bet those little fingers were precise excavators of only the top olives in those barrels! Surely we miss the tearing of that old time Italian bread, too. Thanks for telling the story as only you would.

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