Pages

The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. Every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Why Ancestry.com Can Be Dangerous


A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

What a ridiculous concept! Ancestry.com dangerous? How can America's most beloved genealogical resource that has allowed more than two million members access to nearly sixteen billion records since its inception back in the 1980s possibly be dangerous? Isn't that a bit hyperbolic? Well......maybe.

Thank goodness Ancestry appears to have abandoned – for the moment, anyway – the execrable marketing ploy “you don't have to know what you're looking for; just look.” The online ancestor hunting service now has a new gig going in the DNA business: spit in a tube and they'll tell you all about yourself. It's interesting. I tried it and the resulting ratios were about as expected. No twists, no turns, no surprises. Unlike the poor schmuck in the TV commercial who had to trade in his lederhosen for a kilt. Or the stunner some lady got when her Ancestry DNA test revealed that the doc who ran the local fertility clinic turned out to be her biological daddy. Ooops!

Please don't misunderstand. I love Ancestry.com. It's an amazing resource on which I have heavily relied for many years. What I don't love is the potential for misuse and abuse that can make it – as I said – dangerous. Let me explain.

Have you ever said something like “I know just enough to be dangerous?” Or maybe you've heard the old expression “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” (Even though the actual quote is “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”) In either case, the idiom refers to people who gain a modicum of knowledge about a given subject and then believe themselves to be experts capable of managing much more than they actually can, often to the detriment of themselves and/or others. Many times, this is the case with Ancestry.com users.

Ancestry.com and its many derivative competitors are like tools. When employed by skilled hands, they can yield fantastic results. But when wielded by clumsy amateurs.......well, it ain't gonna be pretty. That's why I got so exercised over that stupid slogan. Of course you have to know what you're looking for! Just going online and plundering and blundering around in the dark is a sure recipe for disaster. It's like giving a five-year-old the keys to a Lamborghini and telling him to take it for a spin. The resulting carnage will be unpleasant.

I spent more than forty years skulking around dusty archives, courthouses, churches, libraries, and newspaper morgues and stomping about in dozens of remote cemeteries in search of my ancestors. I turned over the odometers on several cars. I interviewed scores of old relatives, old friends and old neighbors. I spent more money than I care to think about on photocopies, certified copies, fees, and postage. I squinted at dark, grainy photographs until my eyes blurred. I attempted to decipher illegible records recorded by people who could barely write. I found out that a surname with four or five letters can be spelled forty or fifty different ways. In short, I dotted every “i,” crossed every “t” and empirically verified every jot and tittle of available information. Then and only then, after I had established a rock solid base and knew what the hell I was looking for, did I begin to utilize resources like Ancestry.com. Through Ancestry and other Internet sources, I was able to cap off decades of work, adding details and finishing touches I would otherwise not have been able to access. Like finding out the name of the ship that carried my great grandfather from Liverpool to Boston. Or finding his name in nineteenth century English census records. I published the results of my quest in a profusely illustrated and exhaustively researched book that thoroughly chronicled the roots of the family back to the early eighteenth century.

Then a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a distant cousin who informed me that he had started working on the family tree online as a hobby seven or eight years ago and had traced us all the way back through British kings and queens to the ninth or tenth century and he was willing to share his work. I was too busy weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth to really pay much attention. To think I had wasted forty-five years and all that money and tire rubber and shoe leather when all I really had to do was spend a few minutes sitting on my ass in a chair and punching a computer keyboard. Wow!

And kings and queens yet! My old Aunt Tootsie warned me at the start of my journey that I might find “some old horse thieves.” Guess what, Auntie? Moonshiners? Yes. Old men who married their young step-daughters or got their teenage nieces pregnant? Yes. Liars, philanderers, relatives who hung themselves in barns and in mental institutions? Yep. Found them, too. But no horse thieves. Lots of farmers and a few craftsmen, but no kings or queens.

Of course, everybody wants to be related to somebody famous. And that's part of why Ancestry and its ilk can be so dangerous. If I had a nickel for everyone who wanted to be related to a Founding Father back when I was doing professional genealogical research during the years surrounding the 1976 bicentennial, I'd be a rich man today. Disappointingly for many, not everybody gets to be famous. Most people walking around today are descended from common farmers, merchants, tradesmen, and the like. And unless you can conclusively trace your lineage to some of Europe's patrician families, the chances of finding any records predating the sixteenth century or so are pretty slim. Ancestry has enormous resources documenting about two hundred countries. But even Ancestry can't get you back to Adam and Eve; their data well bottoms out in the 1300s.

A lot of those earliest records are sketchy and sparse and come from church collections. Don't go on Ancestry expecting to find your great-great-great grandfather's birth certificate all framed and waiting for you. Birth, marriage, and death records weren't required to be kept on a civil level until the early twentieth century. You might find a few on a catch-as-catch-can basis dating from about the mid-nineteenth century. Before that you're largely at the mercy of ecclesiastical records of various sorts. Census records aren't very helpful much before 1850. Prior to that, censuses usually named only the head of the household; anybody else living in the dwelling was a number, i.e. “4 males, 3 females.”

But I'm wandering off topic. Let me get back to why I consider Ancestry.com to be dangerous. In a nutshell, Ancestry and similar services allow people to practice what I call “make it fit” genealogy. Let's say you've talked to Grandma and gotten a few twigs to populate your family tree. Now you go on Ancestry, armed with these vague references, and start searching. Lo and behold, little “leaves” start cropping up. Admittedly, some of those “leaves” don't exactly jibe with what Grandma told you, but, jeez, they're awfully close and they would enable you to leap back another generation or two in your search, so you just take the questionable data you've found and “make it fit” in order to branch out your family tree. Never mind that you may have inadvertently grafted an entirely different species onto your root stock. It's close enough and it gets you back to the kings and queens of England.

I have seen published references on Ancestry to women giving birth to children fewer than nine months apart. I have seen records of children born more than a year after their father died. I have seen instances where a person dies but is still listed as living in a particular locale six months later. Some careless, clueless clown killed my great-great grandmother thirty or so years before she actually died. How did that happen? Simple. There was a reference recorded in somebody's incomplete online genealogy that said she died “after 1875” because that was apparently the last this person had seen of her. Well, the next person in line sort of forgot the “after” notation and just listed her date of death as “1875.” And the next person and the next person and the next person perpetuated the error. Now you've got a dozen published records on Ancestry.com that swear this woman died in 1875. Of course, the fact that she lived until 1907 is immaterial. People saw it on Ancestry so it must be true.

Ancestry.com has something it calls “OneWorldTree.” It's described as “one big community family tree. OneWorldTree takes family trees submitted by Ancestry members that were 'stitched' together with family trees and historical records from other sources. OneWorldTree identified probable name matches between these sources and now displays consolidated results in a worldwide family tree that can help you with your family history research.”

Okay. That sounds just ducky. Well, I found one of my uncles hanging on this “community tree.” I'll call him “Uncle Joe.” According to OneWorldTree, “Uncle Joe” was married twice within a four year period. His first marriage in 1922 was to a woman named “Sarah.” According to the tree, he married again in 1926, this time to a woman named “Jane.” So, let's say I'm a “newbie.” I don't have to know where to look, I'm just looking, right? And here I just found good old “Uncle Joe” on “OneWorldTree” and now I know that he was married twice to women named “Sarah” and “Jane.” I'd better write that down in the old family tree! It's on Ancestry so it must be accurate.

But wait. As it turns out, I knew “Uncle Joe” really well when I was growing up. Used to visit him nearly every day. And I knew all his kids. And I knew and really liked his one-and-only wife, my aunt “Sarah Jane” whom he married in 1924 and with whom he remained until his death fifty years later. Think maybe somebody ought to prune that branch on the old community tree?

So my cuz has it all figured out, eh? Ninth century kings and queens, eh? He probably stumbled on somebody's “wonder tree.” These are full-blown genealogies all researched and written out for you. Just cut and paste and pass it on to the kiddies.

But who's to say that the author of that tree knew his genealogical ass from a hole in the ground? I found a couple of these “wonder trees” while researching a detail about my great-grandmother. According to one of them, she died while giving birth to my grandmother. Hmmmm. Then whose obituary did I read in newspapers dated seventeen years later? I'm sure my great-grandfather would have been astonished to find that the woman he buried in 1890 after a long battle with cancer had actually died in childbirth back in 1873. Better still, another “leaf” lead to a tree that correctly identified my great-grandmother's birth year as 1836. Unfortunately, it also showed that her mother was born in 1832. Ooops! Somebody must have missed that little detail. Another genealogical gem mined from Ancestry.com noted that my great-grandmother had four daughters. This much is true. But the tree went on to list them chronologically by name, and here's where the branches began to shake. The girls were born in 1868, 1871, 1872, and 1873. Except that the daughter born in 1872 had a different last name than the ones born in 1868, 1871, and 1873. How does that work? The daughter that this idiot just threw in there to make her fit was actually born in 1862, the product of a previous marriage.

Be honest with yourself; if you knew nothing about your family and saw stuff like this on the Internet while you were just “looking around,” would you know what to make of it? Probably not.

And God help you if you try to correct somebody's error on Ancestry! I've had my head handed to me for trying to set the record straight. How dare I question somebody's painstaking research? Research that they undoubtedly spent hours online researching? Who was I to correct their work? Never mind the fact that the error I was trying to correct involved my own mother. What the hell did I know?

I have another cousin who means well. He's even made a couple of fact finding trips beyond his computer desk. The problem is he often jumbles the facts he finds. For instance, he published a photo on Ancestry that showed my grandfather, one of my aunts, and a little girl of about ten years of age. They were fishing. He correctly identified Grandpa and the aunt, but he labeled the little girl standing with them as my oldest sister. Sadly, my sister never stood a day in her short life. Born with cerebral palsy, she died when she was seven and never went fishing with anybody. The little girl in the picture was actually the daughter of another aunt and uncle, a cousin who happened to have the same first name as my sister. I tried to correct him, but the picture's still there for somebody else to reference and misidentify.

Genealogy is much more than entering a name in a search box and seeing what somebody else has come up with. Sometimes it requires detective work that would make Agatha Christie's “Hercule Poirot” proud. For example, I once found an error in an old memorial book from a relative's funeral. The date of death listed conflicted with official records and family memories. It was a year off. A call to the funeral home confirmed the error. The death occurred in January and apparently whomever recorded it in the funeral book just wasn't used to writing the new year yet!

Sometimes things carved in stone shouldn't be. The birth date is wrong on an uncle's gravestone because his second wife – to whom he had been married only a few weeks when he died – didn't know the correct date when she provided the information to the monument company. I knew that not because I saw it online, but because I had copies of his birth certificate and other corroborating documents obtained at the county courthouse.

I spent years butting my head against the wall of my great-grandmother's past. Try as I might, I couldn't find a thing about her beyond census records and some newspaper clippings. Not even on Ancestry. Then one day I was going over some of those old newspaper records I'd had in my possession for decades. There was a notation about her being visited by her aunt, “Mrs. Doctor So-and So.” Light bulb moment! The doctor being quite prominent in the community, let's see what we can find out about his wife the aunt. Bingo! Records back to before the American Revolution. In which, it turns out, a family member served. Seems that a few members of the family – my great-grandmother and her aunt included – had significantly changed the spelling of their surname for some reason, which is why I had been hitting the wall for so long. Once I found the right name, I found the right path. But I didn't find the beginning of that path plundering blindly around on Ancestry. It was a clipping from a local newspaper – an actual physical document in my hand – that got me started. Once I knew what I was looking for, Ancestry helped me find the rest.

A powerful tool. That's what Ancestry.com is and that's how it should be used. But in the same manner that you can't just pick up a hammer and a saw and build a mansion, you can't just log on to an Internet site and construct a family tree. When a sculptor creates a work in stone, he doesn't just go down to the masterpiece store and look around for a completed project. He cuts the stone out of a quarry then begins the arduous task of chipping away at it with rough tools. After months of backbreaking labor, he's ready to employ finer, more precise tools to bring out the features and polish the surface.

I could go on and on with analogies about going to kindergarten before you go to college or about not trying to climb your family tree from the top down, but I think I've made my point. You simply have to know at least a little bit about what you're doing before you start using resources like Ancestry.com. Otherwise you're going to spend all your time running up blind alleys and down dead-end streets before ultimately hitting a wall and either making egregious mistakes or just quitting outright.

Final illustration: I entered my grandfather's name into the search box on Ancestry. That's all you need to do, right? And all the answers will automatically come to you, right? Yeah, right. When I entered his name, I got more than seventeen thousand results. Only about a dozen actually related to him. Not only were there men of the same name scattered all over the world, there were several who were born about the same time and lived in or near the same place. And there's no way I would have been able to sort it all out if I hadn't already known what to look for.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and places like Ancestry.com can definitely be sources of a little knowledge.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Why Does Grilled Cheese Have To Be “Adult”?


Adulthood Isn't Everything It's Cracked up To Be

It's National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day again and in honor of the event, I'm going to whip up a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches for supper tonight. And you know how I'm gonna do it? I'm gonna do it in a manner that will make every hoity toity, highfalutin food snob in America cringe and squirm. I'm gonna take two pieces of plain white bread, slather them inside and out with some rich, creamy butter and slap two slices of American cheese between the slices of bread. Then I'm gonna toss the sandwich onto a hot flattop griddle and sear both sides until the surface of the bread is GBD (golden brown and delicious) and the cheese inside is nice and melty. And to be even more diabolically evil about it, I'm not even going to use expensive upscale deli American cheese. Nope. I got me some cheap pre-sliced cheese from the restaurant supply – five pounds for ten bucks – and that's what I'm gonna use. Bwah-ha-hah! I will, however, draw the line at grocery store bread. I will be using my own homemade white bread, thank you. I do have a few standards, you know.

Frankly, I don't know when everybody went nuts. When I was a little kid – admittedly, a long, long time ago – the aforementioned procedure was the one and only way to make a grilled cheese sandwich. It's the way my mother made it, it's the way my grandmother made it, and its the way every restaurant, diner, and drive-in in town made it. You asked for or ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and that's precisely what you got: cheese inside of bread, grilled. Nowadays, they call such a preparation a “kid's grilled cheese” or a “junior grilled cheese.” If you want to be seen as a grownup, you have to have a “gourmet grilled cheese” or an “adult grilled cheese.” I'm sorry. Maybe it's just the weird places my increasingly feeble mind tend to wander, but whenever I see “adult” used as an adjective, I start thinking of “adult” beverages or “adult” movies or “adult” toys. And that's just not someplace I want to go with my innocent little slice (or two) of comfort food.

Besides, who's to say that adults can't enjoy the same things they enjoyed as kids? I've never stepped into a Dairy Queen and seen an “adult ice cream cone” on the menu. Or an “adult” root beer float at A&W. What, pray tell, is “adult” about over complicating a simple pleasure like grilled cheese?

Oh, but the adult palate is so much more evolved.” Poppycock! Yes, my palate is a great deal more refined these days than it was a half-century ago and I can detect a lot of subtle flavors and nuances I couldn't back then, but you know what? I've never outgrown “unsophisticated” comfort foods like a grilled cheese. Or mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese or a good plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce, for that matter. Hell, those things, too, have to be tinkered with and upgraded to some cockamamie “gourmet” status because, apparently, the old fashioned way mama made them just isn't good enough anymore once you “grow up.”

Taking a timeless classic like grilled cheese and adding avocado and peppers and mustard and mayo and ham and pickles and salsa and pesto and tomatoes and God knows what else is not making the sandwich “adult.” It's adulterating it! Okay, occasionally I'll put a couple of strips of bacon on a grilled cheese sandwich. And when I do, I don't call it a “grilled cheese” anymore because it's not. Only a grilled cheese – cheese and bread, grilled – is a grilled cheese. Adding bacon makes it a “grilled cheese and bacon” sandwich. Throwing ham on a grilled cheese doesn't make it an “adult grilled cheese.” It's a frickin' ham and cheese sandwich! And adding peppers and pickles and such doesn't elevate it to “gourmet” status. It just paints a mustache on the Mona Lisa and junks up a classic.

But American cheese isn't even cheese!” Oh, get your nose down before you drown in a good rain. Sometimes I'll “fancy up” a grilled cheese by adding some Cheddar or mozzarella or provolone or some other less “pedestrian” cheese product, but good ol' American remains the foundation and the basic building block. If I really want to go upscale, I'll butter the outside of the bread and coat it with some finely grated Parmesan – the real stuff, not the crap in a can – before it hits the grill, producing a nice crispy, cheesy crust on the outside of the sandwich. But it's still just the two essential elements: bread and cheese.

I've baked my own bread for many, many years. Better tasting, better quality, and far healthier than the chemical and preservative laden bread-like substances that populate supermarket shelves. I can bake any kind of bread you want, but mostly I use King Arthur bread flour to bake the plain white sandwich bread that I use for grilled cheese. I don't use wheat or rye or seven-grain or pumpernickel or brioche or challah or ciabatta: just give me plain white bread. Is it “healthy?” Probably not. Is it delicious? Damn skippy! And I'm not eating them three times a day seven days a week, so who cares about “healthy?” Show me a doctor or nutritionist who'll tell me a plain grilled cheese sandwich with a nice steamy bowl of tomato soup once a week is going to contribute to my early demise and I'll show you a quack.

I don't need a $15 “grilled cheese” with a pedigree tracing the origins of the cheese back to a particular cow on a particular farm outside a particular French or Italian village. I don't need “comte” or “boschetto al tartufo” or “raclette” or “toma” or “chaource” or any other cheese I can't readily identify or even pronounce on my grilled cheese. Kraft is fine, thanks. Maybe Borden in a pinch. I read someone who waxed rhapsodic about a place that served a grilled cheese made of Annelies cheese, caramelized onions, thinly sliced pickles and coarse grain mustard on sourdough bread. They referred to the cheese – of which I have never heard – as “dreamy” and called the sandwich “life-changing.” See why I wonder when the world went nuts?

Do yourself a flavor: if you've got a bakery in town or a supermarket with a real bakery section, go get a loaf of quality white bread. While you're at the supermarket, nip over to the deli and splurge on a half-pound or so of decent American cheese. Yellow or white, doesn't matter; they both taste the same. When you get home, take out two or four or six or however many slices of bread are necessary and spread them lightly with real butter. Not that plastic abomination that is margarine. Real butter, please. Salted or unsalted as you prefer. Only butter has certain proteins that will produce a wonderful nutty flavor when heated and browned. Now place one or two slices of cheese – three if you're feeling particularly bold – between the slices of buttered bread and form your sandwich. Butter both sides of the outside. Don't overdo it. Greasy is not good. If you have a griddle of some sort, great. If not, a skillet will do, especially if it's cast iron. Now heat that sucker up and spray just a little butter-flavored cooking spray on the surface or melt just a little more butter on it to help lubricate things. Place your sandwich on the hot cooking surface. Restaurant trick: we use something called a “domed lid” to cover things like burgers and sandwiches as they cook. It helps retain moisture and speeds the melting process by concentrating the heat under the dome. Try it; you'll like it. Leave the sandwich in place long enough to get a nice golden color on one side then flip it over. Press it down a little with your spatula to flatten it out a bit and to help the melting cheese get nice and gooey and spread around inside. When the other side is golden, take the sandwich off the cooking surface and put it on a plate. Cut it across or diagonally as you prefer and then as you take your first bite, allow the innocent, child-like peace and tranquility that is a good grilled cheese sandwich to fill your stomach and soothe your soul. After all, sometimes adulthood – like an “adult” grilled cheese sandwich – isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Restaurant Review: Castiglia's Italian Restaurant & Pizza, Strasburg, VA


Six Thumbs Up!

Having left Thomas Jefferson's Monticello behind and with Washington, DC still ahead, we were road-weary travelers when we checked into our hotel in Strasburg, Virginia. But we were also hungry and I had noticed an Italian place down the road as I was driving in. I was assured by the young woman at the front desk that it was “pretty good,” and, bolstered by that enthusiastic recommendation, I headed out into the early spring Virginia night in search of sustenance.

Castiglia's Italian Restaurant & Pizza is located at the end of a nondescript strip mall on a busy highway near Interstate 81. But that's okay: some of the best Italian and Italian-American fare I've eaten has come out of strip mall kitchens. I'm not prejudiced about location.

It was late when our party of three arrived, well past whatever dinner rush there might have been. We pretty much had the place to ourselves. One table of guests was leaving as we arrived and another came in shortly after. Obviously, we were seated promptly by a very pleasant hostess. Our waitress was equally pleasant and engaging.

The d├ęcor was typical faux-Tuscan and the menu was standard Italian-American. I have long since given up hope of finding much truly authentic Italian food in such places. Even though the owners are from Naples, they, like the majority of their paesani, have bowed to the necessity of serving an American clientele that believes heaping piles of spaghetti and meatballs to be the height of Italian cuisine. I don't blame them: they do what they need to do to stay in business.

The menu was, as I said, typical, with lots of pasta dishes, chicken dishes, veal dishes, seafood dishes, an assortment of hot and cold appetizers, soups, salads, steaks, subs, wraps, burgers, and a few vegetable offerings. And, of course, pizza, calzone, and stromboli along with the usual selection of dolci. We were pleasantly surprised by a fairly decent wine list. The ladies chose a nice Moscato. I was pleased to find Peroni on tap. Most “Italian” places serve it in bottles and it's just not the same.

Knowing that we were traveling and would not be able to carry out the usual half-ton of leftovers, my wife and her mother opted for appetizers, which the server assured us would be adequate as entrees. They both chose something called “shrimp Margherita,” and I just ordered a small cheese pizza.

The complimentary fresh bread and garlic spread we were served while waiting for our meal were exceptional. You could tell the bread was fresco fatto in casa and not some warmed over frozen travesty. We wolfed it down and asked for more. I know it's not authentically Italian to serve bread before a meal, but who cared? We were hungry and it was delicious.

The appetizers/entrees were excellent as well. The sever was right: the portions were huge. The shrimp Margherita turned out to be succulent, perfectly grilled shrimp served over a bed of fresh spinach that had been sauteed in garlic and oil. My wife and her mom agreed that maybe a tad less spinach would have been better, but overall the dish was quite successful. And my pizza was fabulous. I always judge a place by how well they execute the simple things, and this simple pizza was buonissimo. You could tell the crust was expertly scratch made. The sauce to cheese ratio was perfect. You may ask “how do you screw up a cheese pizza?” Trust me, I can answer that question with a hundred examples. Not here, though. I don't know if it was pizzaiolo Salvatore Scotto, Gino Scotto, or Luigi Illiano who made it, but I did some serious damage to half a pie and it broke my heart that I couldn't take the rest with me. I mean, I guess I could have had cold pizza for breakfast instead of the hotel's “continental” offering, but......

There was no room for dessert, which is sad because I'm a sucker for cannoli.

I would like to have been able to sample more of the menu, but from what I had and what I observed, I can say that Castiglia's Italian Restaurant & Pizza serves up good Italian-American food, skillfully made by a real Italian family of cooks. The place was clean and tastefully decorated, service was fast, efficient, and unwaveringly friendly, and prices were more than reasonable. It's a casual dining, family-friendly place with adequate convenient parking.

The location of Castiglia's Italian Restaurant & Pizza that we visited is at 33820 Old Valley Pike, Ste 8 (US Hwy 11) in Strasburg, Virginia, just off I-81 exit 298. Open Monday though Thursday 11 am to 10 pm and from 11 to 11 on Friday and Saturday, Castiglia's offers free area delivery. Call them at (540) 465-8777, check out their website at www.castigliasva.com, or find them on Facebook. Apparently, there's a second location in Port Royal. Maybe I'll head over there next time.

Castiglia's promises fresh, made to order food cooked with passion. And from my experience on this occasion, they definitely fulfill that promise. Six thumbs up!