On Easter Sunday, 1986, Nana served chicken.
After weeks of wringing her hands and asking, “….but what does he eat?” and “….what shall I make?” she appeared around the corner, into the dining room, with a huge platter filled with chicken. After the soup, after the celery dipped in olive oil and pepper, after the antipasto of proscuitto and cheeses, vinegar peppers, olives, after the pasta, was the Chicken Course. So plain, the skinless chicken drumsticks, roasted with just some olive oil and garlic. Too many drumsticks to count. She went back to the kitchen and reappeared with an equally large, shallow bowl of roasted baby potatoes. There had to have been a ham on the table, and an Easter omelet and a bunch of side dishes, but I remember nothing but the heap of chicken and potatoes.
The usual suspects were assembled around the table. Auntie Livina, having arrived early with her gallons and gallons of soup and her Easter breads, Auntie Amelia, with her pink pantsuit and her white hair and papery soft hands. Uncle Archie, Aunt Connie, who was so high strung that you could take off your shoe and graze her leg under the table (or in earlier years, just go for it with a rubber snake) and watch her scream in horror. Dad, quiet. Uncle Bob, stealing ice cream before dinner and planning his next prank. Nana, presiding over the whole thing, timing dishes perfectly in her two ovens and getting them to the table, serving us seconds before we could protest.
This was the year I brought my Jewish boyfriend home for Easter dinner.
This was after we had dated for a few months, after I knew him pretty well, but before that time when I said to him, “Oh, you’re such an atheist? Then eat this bacon!” It was after I had met his mom and his sister and his high school friends in Michigan, visited their home and saw Detroit and heckled his prominently displayed bar mitzvah portrait, but before I broke his heart and spent six miserable weeks without his friendship and then reunited with him with letters crossed in the mail and were the best of friends. It was after that winter of him being smitten with me and me being madly whirled by him. Going to New York and Boston and driving without destination, going to movies and plays and music venues, slipping on the ice and snow, eating all of the hamburgers, all of the ice cream.
The first time Nana met him, around Thanksgiving, we stood in her kitchen. She was charming and kind as always, but her hands fluttered as she said the inevitable. “So you’re…Jewish?”
“Yes!” he said, making devil horns on his head with his fingers. “And I’m going to burn in hell!” he added. I nearly fell on the floor laughing.
Nana followed with the most logical next question about their religious differences. “So you….don’t eat pork?”
There should have been nothing exotic about a Jewish friend—Nana’s neighbors were all either Jewish or Italian and she had Jewish girlfriends to meet for coffee and take exercise walks with. It was equally weird that he found my folks in any way out of the ordinary. I realized that beyond seeing Moonstruck, he had not been in contact with many Italian-Americans, ever. We had a lot of good laughs about this.
By Easter, Nana knew that this poor soul did not know from food, particularly Italian food, and she wanted to make him something special. Something that was not ham. She could not fathom a more picky eater than I was, and yet here he was. Would he like baked macaroni? Omelet? Veal cutlets? No. Would he eat salad? Marinated mushrooms? Fish? We had a full blown Green Eggs and….well, Ham situation going on. Finally, I said, How about those little potatoes from the can [full disclosure, they were my favorites]? And some really plain chicken? Like, just pieces of chicken? No, not with rosemary, just chicken. She was baffled. How could she serve this to him on a holiday? This was not right.
Everyone looked expectantly at him. Even I didn’t know if he’d like the chicken. He didn’t eat anything but plain hamburgers sprinkled with (even more) salt, and maybe pizza. I had told Nana to just keep it simple and very plain. He took some to be polite, added salt, and then, before a table of beaming Aunties, devoured so many of the drumsticks and so many of the potatoes, and even tried some rice pie.
Somewhere in Heaven, Nana is following Mike around and asking if he has eaten, offering him various foods,and he is politely declining–then trying some and having to admit, “I do! I like them, Nana-I-Am.”