Sunday, June 20, 2021

"Rolling in Dough"

By Jerry Zezima


If I were to write a book about my adventures in Italian cooking — the highlight being a dish called Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger, which did not, I will say for legal purposes, kill legendary actor Paul Newman — I would title it “Remembrance of Things Pasta.”


And the pièce de résistance (a French phrase meaning “resist a piece of anything I make”) would be my delicious homemade linguine.


Actually, I only had a hand — and a messy one at that — in a macaroni marathon that included my mother, Rosina; my sister Susan; and Susan’s adult children, Taylor, Blair and Whitney.


All of us contributed to a meal for the ages, the greatest age being 96, which is how old my mother is. Even now, she’s a kitchen magician who was inspired by her late mother, affectionately known as Nana, who began the family tradition of making pasta from scratch.


One of my remembrances was when my sister Elizabeth, then just a kid, sneaked into my bedroom and scrunched up strips of uncooked macaroni that Nana had carefully laid out on a large cloth on the bed.


Elizabeth wasn’t sent to bed without dinner, which I also remember as being delicious, but she must have learned her lesson because she resisted the urge to scrunch up strips of uncooked macaroni at the recent culinary confab.


One family member who was not known for his pasta prowess — or his cooking skill at all, unless you count toast or boiled water — was my late father, the original and best Jerry Zezima, who nonetheless was famous for his salads and often made a great dish of macaroni (from a box) with oil and garlic.


I got my skill (or lack thereof) from him — with the exception of my one gastronomic triumph: About 20 years ago, I created Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger, for which I was first runner-up in the pasta sauce division of the Newman’s Own and Good Housekeeping Recipe Contest, a national competition that featured thousands of entries.


Before I brought a dish of the stuff to New York City for Paul Newman to try, I fed some to my dog, Lizzie, who wolfed it down and begged for more.


When I told Newman about the canine taste test, he asked, “Is your dog still alive?”


“Woof!” I replied, at which point his blue eyes sparkled. Then he dug in and wolfed the stuff down himself.


On the advice of my attorney, I am obligated to say that Newman’s death several years later cannot be attributed to food poisoning.


And I am happy to report that everyone survived my admittedly modest contribution to the homemade pasta dinner that was created in my mother’s kitchen.


The enthusiastic eaters included Taylor’s wife, Carlin; Elizabeth, an excellent cook who sat this one out, and her sweet pooch, Lucie, who was more than willing to wolf down a dish but had to settle for a bowl of dog food.


My mother started the macaroni making by pouring flour onto a large board on the counter and creating a powdery circle. Then she cracked two eggs, plopped the yolks and whites into the center, added a pinch each of black pepper and nutmeg, and used her fingers to slowly and carefully mix it all together until it was a softball-sized mound that she continued to knead until the consistency was just right.


Next it was Whitney’s turn and she did a terrific job.


“I need to knead,” I declared.


So I stepped up to the counter and, with all eyes on me, poured the flour, cracked the eggs, added the pepper and nutmeg, and proceeded to make a gooey lump that looked like spackle.


With the help of Whitney, who was Julia Child by comparison, and Susan, a wonderful cook who had made the sauce (we call it gravy) and fried up a bunch of meatballs and sausages, I finally got my dough ball mixed well enough that it didn’t have to be used in a bocce tournament.


Taylor and Blair, the Boyz n the Range Hood, showed brotherly love by running all the dough balls through an attachment on my mother’s Mixmaster to make the strips of linguine that Susan and Blair boiled and we all avidly consumed.


Afterward, my mother said to me, “You did a good job.”


“Thanks,” I replied. “Nana — and Paul Newman — would be proud.”


Copyright 2021 by Jerry Zezima


Sunday, June 13, 2021

"Poppie at the Bat"

By Jerry Zezima


If, as a former sportswriter, I could vote for players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, I would cast ballots for a pair of superstars who deserve to have plaques alongside the greats of our national pastime.


I refer, of course, to my granddaughters Chloe and Lilly.


The girls, who are 8 and 4 and a half, respectively, recently showed off their hitting and pitching prowess during the first sleepover they have had at my house since last year.


Our activities, most of which also involved my wife, Sue, included baking cookies, eating pancakes, drawing pictures, watching movies (“Zombies” and “Zombies 2”), going out for ice cream, riding in a kiddie car, zooming down a slide, blowing bubbles and, the highlight of the visit, playing Wiffle ball.


One player who definitely won’t get into the Hall of Fame (unless he buys a ticket) is yours truly, who proved to be even worse at playing sports than I was at writing about them.


That was sadly evident when the girls and I set up a Wiffle ball field in the backyard, where they clobbered my pitches and made me whiff at theirs.


But first, we had to have spring training, which entailed showing the girls how to hold the plastic bat.


“Are you a righty or a lefty?” I asked Chloe, who held the bat on her left shoulder but with her hands transposed.


“OK,” I said after I had corrected her grip. When Chloe stood facing me, I said, “Turn a bit, hold the bat up, look over your right shoulder and watch the ball.”


Two seconds later, after making an underhand pitch, I watched the ball rocket past my head.


“Good hit, Chloe!” yelled Lilly, who picked up the ball and, with her right hand, threw it back to me on the fly.


“Good throw, Lilly!” I said.


“Thank you, Poppie,” Lilly replied modestly. “Can I hit?”


“Let’s give Chloe a few more chances,” I said.


My next pitch was low. Chloe didn’t swing.


“Good eye,” I commented.


Chloe fouled off the next pitch, which was inside. She chased an outside toss before digging in.


“Two strikes,” I said. “One more and you’re out.”


My next pitch was down the middle. Chloe parked it. In fact, the exit velocity must have exceeded the speed at which cars blow through the stop sign in front of the house.


“Home run!” I exclaimed.


“My turn!” said Lilly, also a lefty with whom I had to go through the same routine: hand placement, correct stance, raised bat, watchful eye.


She pulled my first pitch down the line for what would have been a ground-rule double.


“Nice hit, Lilly!” yelled Chloe.


Lilly missed the next two pitches.


“One more?” she asked as I went into my windup.


The word “yes” was barely out of my mouth when Lilly’s batted ball almost hit me in the mouth.


“Home run!” Lilly declared.


If I had been the starting pitcher in a major league game, I would have been sent to the showers. So I decided it was my turn to bat.


Chloe was the relief pitcher. Her first toss was low, but I swung anyway — and missed.


“Strike one!” Lilly yelled from what passed for the outfield.


Unfortunately, I never got the ball out of the infield. Chloe’s baffling assortment of pitches sent me down on strikes.


Then Lilly came in to pitch. The result was pretty much the same, although I did foul off a couple of pitches and actually hit one, but it went directly to Chloe, who scooped it up and tagged me.


When the game was called on account of pain (I hurt my knee), Chloe and Lilly had made a strong case for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.


As for me, being sent down to the minors was the only option after being beaten by a couple of minors.


And the poet who penned “Casey at the Bat” might have concluded: “But there is no joy in Oldville — mighty Poppie has struck out.”


Copyright 2021 by Jerry Zezima


Friday, June 4, 2021

"The Cult of Poppie"

By Jerry Zezima


After a year and a half, which was how long it had been since I had seen my twin grandchildren, I can finally say, with great pride in my corruptive influence as a silly grandfather, that the toddlers have joined my other three grandkids in the Cult of Poppie.


This was one of the highlights of the recent visit my wife, Sue, and I paid to our older daughter, Katie, and her family: husband Dave; older son Xavier, who is 4; and the dynamic duo, Zoe and her younger (by 25 minutes) brother, Quinn, who will turn 2 next month.


The twins were only 5 months old the last time Sue and I saw them in person and had not yet fallen under my spell. But they are now full-fledged fans, along with Xavier and our oldest two grandchildren, Chloe, 8, and Lilly, 4 and a half, who are the daughters of our younger daughter, Lauren, and her husband, Guillaume.


Because all the adults in the family have been vaccinated, it was safe for Sue and me to drive to Washington, D.C., to be reunited with Katie’s clan.


After sharing hugs and kisses with Katie, we drove a few blocks to get Xavier at school. He also greeted us with hugs and kisses. It was like we picked up where we left off the last time we saw him, when he was only 2 and a half.


Even though the twins have often seen us on FaceTime, which has given me a marvelous opportunity to act stupid from a distance, they probably thought we were TV celebrities who stood only three inches tall. Katie warned us that Zoe, in particular, was skittish around unfamiliar people.


Those fears melted away a few minutes after we saw the kids back at Katie and Dave’s house. Following an initial reticence, Quinn and, yes, Zoe opened up with smiles and giggles. They especially liked my shenanigans, marveling at the fact that I could act stupid in person, too.


I continued my foolishness the next day, when we all went to a park to celebrate the birthday of one of Xavier’s friends. I chased Xavier and his pals around the playground, nearly collapsing in the broiling sun, then did kiddie lifting with Quinn and followed up by pushing Zoe on the swings.


Later, Dave and I cooled off with beer.


That frosty beverage also hit the spot the next day, when Dave and I took Xavier to Nationals Park to see the hometown Washington Nationals play their Beltway rivals, the Baltimore Orioles.


But first, Sue, Katie and I took the twins to another park for morning soccer. It was athletic competition at its finest, coordinated by coach John Jenkins, who at the beginning of the season had named Zoe the captain of the group because, he told me, “She took my hand the first day, so I said, ‘All right, she’s the captain.’ Zoe is our best player.”


All the kids — except Quinn, who was off to the side, munching on a bag of Goldfish — paid attention as Coach Jenkins asked, “Do we touch the ball with our ears?”


“No!” the little stars responded.


“Our noses?”


“No!”


“Our hands?”


“No!”


“Our feet?”


“Yes!”


“Very good,” said Coach Jenkins, who turned around and told the adults, “Nobody listens to me at home.”


What followed wasn’t exactly Olympic-caliber play, but it was entertaining. At the end, Quinn finally decided to participate, kicking a ball the length of the soccer area into a goal.


“Better late than never,” Sue commented.


Chaos ensued, prompting Coach Jenkins to admit, “I see I’m losing control here.”


We subsequently went to another area of the park, where the kids cheered a couple of sanitation workers as they loaded trash into their truck.


“Poppie makes messes and these gentlemen clean them up,” I told the twins.


“I like that!” one of the guys exclaimed.


Zoe and Quinn also met Teddy, a 150-pound Great Dane.


“He’s even better than a Mediocre Dane,” I said.


The big dog barked in approval.


In the afternoon, there was the baseball game, which Xavier thoroughly enjoyed, not so much for the action on the field, where the Nats prevailed, 6-5, but for the hot dog and ice cream that Poppie bought for him. In return, Dave bought me and himself the aforementioned frosty beverages.


Katie, Xavier, Zoe, Quinn, Sue and I went to the zoo the next day. Xavier liked seeing an alligator that had just its eyes sticking up above the surface of its mossy pool and the twins enjoyed seeing a massively tusked elephant throw dirt on itself.


We also saw an otter, which prompted me to ask, “Where’s the otter one?”


A couple of fellow grandparents chortled and said, “The otter one? Very good!”


After a sea lion got my seal of approval, Xavier said, “I’m finished.”


“Me, too,” I said. “This place is a real zoo.”


The following day, Katie, the three kids, Sue and I went to West Potomac Park, where Xavier and I had a riverside picnic.


“There must be a lot of fish in the water,” I said.


“What about sharks?” he asked.


“I don’t know, but what other creatures do you think are in there?” I asked.


“Maybe crabs,” Xavier replied.


“How about worms?” I wondered.


Xavier stopped eating his cheese puffs, looked over at me and said, politely but firmly, “Worms live underground, Poppie.”


Still, I managed to worm my way into the affections of all three children. I also managed to see a good deal of Washington, including the aquatic gardens, the arboretum, the art museum and, from a distance, the Capitol.


In our week there, I also saw approximately 1,387 cicadas, five of which were still alive.


All in all, Sue and I had a wonderful visit. It was a long time coming but well worth the wait.


On the last day, we hugged and kissed Katie, Dave and the kids, who didn’t want us to go. By that time, the twins were completely converted.


“You’ll be happy to know,” Katie told me, “that Zoe and Quinn have officially joined the Cult of Poppie.”


Copyright 2021 by Jerry Zezima