Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas for the Fogies

     It’s about time I got out the Christmas DVDs.  I identify with Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”  Like him, I always wanted to do Christmas up big.   At one point we had all the relatives to dinner.  We cooked a turkey according to a complex Italian recipe and bought a ham through the mail from Virginia.   We had to soak the ham to reduce the salt, and then we simmered it in a pot we borrowed from a restaurant.   When the restaurant closed, we acquired the pot, and it’s still in the cellar.  When the ham had been soaked and simmered, we glazed it with brown sugar and baked it in the oven. The ham kept for a long time.   We’d turn the bone into pea soup about the time the crocuses started to bloom.  
      Now we spend Christmas visiting the grandchildren.  It’s great to be around them, but things have changed.  As it so often happens after the onset of fogiedom, much has dropped away.  I’ve learned a thing or two over the years.  With the prediction of a cold snap, I went out to the garage and took the tree out of its bucket of water so it won’t be frozen in, when I want to set it up.  I’ve enlisted outside help getting it into the stand. Annette and I could manage to get it to stand straight, but probably not without cross words. 
     I’ll still watch “Christmas Vacation,” and laugh at the funny parts, but it’s mostly to relive the past.   I’ll decorate the tree to songs that were old when I bought the CDs years ago.  You know, Gene Autry doing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Bing Crosby crooning“White Christmas.” We just received a Stilton cheese from England and soon we’ll have some friends over, light a fire in the fireplace and pour the port. 

      I was out in the woods yesterday gathering greens to decorate the mantelpiece and windowsills.  I bought poinsettias.  When the house is decorated, we’ll have guests in to see it, but now the lights and greens are mostly for us.  Like everything else, the display is simpler now, but we haven’t let Christmas slip out of our lives.  My motto is one word – persevere.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Neptune Oyster

My father-in-law, Arthur Sirrico lived as a boy in Boston’s North End.  Some men visited his apartment and demanded money to get an associate out of prison.  His mother gave it to them.  When the child asked why, she said she had to.  Later the family moved to Plymouth where Arthur could work outdoors.  He managed the gardens on the Hornblower estate, and later became Park Superintendent for the town.  He owned a garden center on South Street near the playground that bears his name. 

When I visited the North End as a young adult, I remember groups of men in tailored top coats and pearl gray fedoras who we liked to think were Mafia. If they were, they had their own lawyers and didn’t have to extort bail money from the locals.

When I taught history in high school I had a class on World War II.  My students were all boys, and if a girl signed up for the course she felt uncomfortable and transferred out.  I used to collect first person accounts of the war.  I would bookmark lurid passages, and once a week I would read them to the class. I called this gory story time.  One student said, “Oh Mr. Talbot, that’s gross! Tell us some more.” 

Gory story time was so popular; I tried it in a U. S. History class.  It didn’t go over well, and one girl in particular complained it made her sick, so I abandoned the practice.  I took the kids on a field trip to the North End.  They found the neighborhood more interesting than the Paul Revere’s House and the Old North Church.  I happened to be walking next to the girl who had complained about my stories, and I noticed a pig’s head on a plate in the window of a butcher shop. I didn’t mean to tease her; I just thought it was interesting and I said, “look.”  She turned her head and fainted.  I caught her under the arms before she hit the pavement.  The North End was a foreign place.   
I hadn’t been back for years, but a short while ago Annette and I made the trip.  Gone are the butcher shops with skinned rabbits hanging in the windows with their paws left furred so shoppers could be sure they weren’t cats.  Gone are the lambs hanging on hooks, and I saw no pigs’ heads.  The buildings looked different.  Bricks had been power washed, and buildings reinforced and renovated.   I heard no Italian spoken and the school children were a mix of ethnicities.  Some of the stores that used to cater to the tastes of the Italian population are gone, and those that remain have a gourmet shop quality. 

We had coffee in a cafe and there were two men at a nearby table who looked as though they might have been Italian.  They were contractors, but not the kind who were going to whack cousin Sal who is skimming off the top and has no respect; they were going over building specks and talking about subs and portions of the job which would cost hundreds of thousands.

There are more restaurants than there used to be, and we headed for Neptune Oyster at 63 Salem Street.  There was such a long line waiting for the restaurant to open for lunch we worried that we wouldn’t get seats, and, indeed, we were the last to be admitted to the small space.  I missed the European feel of the old North End, but we gain and we lose as time goes by.  When I tasted an appetizer of yellowfin “coyne” crostini, I didn’t pine for veal cutlets accompanied by pasta and red sauce. The raw tuna was heaped on a toasted slice of fresh Iggy’s bread that had been spread with avocado.  The chunks glowed like jewels and were the best raw fish I ever ate anywhere.  Another best was a tentacle of Spanish octopus with a Marcona almond Romanesco sauce, and Basque pepper. I’ve eaten octopus on Mykonos bathed in sunshine with a view of the Aegean Sea, but this was better.  

Fried clams are everywhere, but those at Neptune Oyster were freshly opened and expertly fried, making them a rare experience. We asked the waiter about the tartar sauce, and he said it was made with mayonnaise.  Perhaps so, but the Neptune Oyster version was lighter and full of flavor.  It was light years away from the clam stand version you get in the little paper cup, and if the restaurant comes out with a cookbook I’ll buy it for that one recipe.

The Neptune Johnnycake was sweetened with honey butter and topped with a pile of smoked trout topped with caviar.  You got sweet corn meal smoky fish and salty sturgeon roe.  It was lovely. 

Back in the times I’ve been reminiscing about you couldn’t have found food like this in the North End or anywhere in the whole city.  A short distance away from the Restaurant the trees on the Rose Kennedy Greenway were coming into leaf.  It is certainly an improvement over the dirty gloom that lay under the old Central Artery.  I’m not a fan of the tunnel that’s under your feet, but as I said, time changes and you gain and you lose.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When There Were Letters

     One thing I promised myself I wouldn’t do in this blog is rant, so I won’t.  However, I think we fogies may be happy in our hearts that there are things we were born early enough not to have missed.  I read today that the student mailboxes will be closed forever at my Alma Mata, Bates College.  It seems that due to email , Facebook , and texting, letters are a thing of the past. 
     When I was at Bates, there were three students to a box.  Mine was assigned to Rushforth, Swarthchild , and Talbot.  David  Rushforth  and I ended up in Plymouth.   Actually Caroline Tabor preceded me alphabetically in the class of ’62, but Bates was very straight laced, and I guess they thought coed sharing of mailboxes was indecent. 
     When the mail was in, a crowd gathered around the mail boxes with people dialing the three digit combinations and the sound of the little doors being slammed in frustration if they didn’t get any.  Letters were for the most part hand written.  There was no spell check.  Our teachers told us if we didn’t know how to spell a word we should look it up.  Dictionaries didn’t give your their best guess of what you were trying to write, so you did the best you could. 
     There was something about a letter that has been lost.  There was the paper, the handwriting, the ink (or pencil), and even the spelling.  The effort it took to write a letter was part of the pleasure you got from receiving it.  Some one cared enough to write it, seal it, put a stamp on it, and mail it.  You touched what they touched.  You could picture the person at his or her desk or kitchen table writing to you. 
     It may be that the slowness of the job let us think more carefully about what we said, although I won’t swear to it.  When I was a teenager, my mother advised me, “Never say anything foolish to a girl, and if you do, don’t put it in writing.
      Letters could be kept and often were.  I love to read John Adams’ letters to Abigail and her letters to him.  I enjoyed Harry Truman’s letters to Bess.  People reveal themselves in letters.  One of the great losses to my family history was the time the letters of William Talbot, who was a sea captain and a Mississippi River pilot, were put out into the garage where the dampness turned the old paper to powder. The one that escaped described New Orleans during reconstruction.  Captain William was sympathetic with the suffering of the people, but he said, “Bostonians, with their love of liberty, would never stand for it.”  I quoted that to a modern day New Orleans steamboat captain, and he was not amused
     There were the letters of Michelangelo and the love letters of Abelard and Eloise, but the best book of letters I ever read was by E. B. White.  I think if he wrote a shopping list, I’d want to read it. He was a prolific correspondent.  Usually when I’m reading a long book, I’m happy to come to the end, but I was sorry to close that one.  One of these days I may start again.   

     I don’t know what future historians will do.  Will people someday read The Emails of Hillary Clinton? Perhaps it will be The tweets of Kim Kardashian.  I’m glad to have lived in the age of letter writing.  It’s nice to get an email, but it was better to get a letter.