Joyce Davis

My house had been torn up, to one degree or another, for six months. What started as a straightforward bathroom remodeling that any contractor could finish in his sleep had morphed into a many-headed monster fueled by drywall and home equity. Every day I came home from work and went upstairs to the mess, shaking my head at the weird stains, holding my nose at the weirder smells. Every day I hoped that Floyd, the only employee assigned to our job, the lone island in a sea of subcontractors, had actually arranged for work to be done. He never seemed to do any himself.
    The more days that passed without any hint of progress, the more elaborately I cooked. I knew where this came from: I was trying to exercise control, to work with my hands, to become the competent artisan I could not seem to hire. My husband, Mark, had developed an affection for the slimy streaks on our kitchen ceiling, where the badly installed toilet had leaked through. Because of those stains, I haunted the Laurel Meat Market, asking for fresh bones with a little something still on them. From these bones and a few short ribs, I made brown stock. From the stock, I made sauce chasseur, the rich herb-and-mushroom proof that I knew what I was doing, that I, unlike Floyd, could transform basic materials into a flawless finished product.
    Tackling any of the venerable mother sauces (sauce chasseur is a variation on the basic brown espagnole sauce) is an exhilarating experience. The cook has to work purposefully, with a confidence that may not be felt, and if it all comes together, can step back and bask in the glow of the burners (though not for long, because the sauce congeals quickly). I started living for the moment when I could admire the perfectly cracked peppercorns that speckled the sauce, the varnished look of the plate after I stirred in a final tablespoon of butter and rippled it over a grilled tenderloin. My bedroom might smell like an open sewer. That didn’t matter; here was beauty.
    But beauty, as W. Somerset Maugham remarked, is a bit of a bore. Once captured, there is nothing to do but admire it—or, in the case of food, chow down and start all over again. The eye starts to rove, and in my case, it roved toward younger conquests. Having had my way with beef, I started flirting with veal. Osso bucco, to be exact: the alchemical transformation of veal shanks, tomatoes, and white wine into the perfect peasant food.
    Osso bucco has a postmodern flair, peasant food that peasants couldn’t possibly have had time to cook. “We always eat like this,” it says with a wink, “when we’re not tilling the hillsides.” Maybe that is why osso bucco is so popular; it tastes like a whole range of activities nobody has time to pursue. Not only does it take all day, but it tastes of the garden that took all summer.
    The osso bucco itself turned out to be surprisingly straightforward, little more than a gussied-up stew. I almost felt that I was cheating, because the cracked veal shanks imparted sheen and texture to the finished product so effortlessly. At least I had used homemade stock.
    Mark told me he could eat this every night. I loved it, too, but I knew something was missing from the experience—some element of time, as well as taste. While I washed my pots, I realized that though I had recreated a dish from my favorite Italian restaurant of the present, my heart was really in the Italian restaurants of my past. I began turning menus over in my mind, considering and rejecting dishes as they appeared on my mental table. Finally, I had it.
    “Minestra!” I said.
    “Huh?” he answered from the couch.
    “Minestra,” I repeated, mostly to myself. “I have to find out how to make it. It’s what we’re missing.”
     “What we’re missing,” he said, “is a functional toilet.”

Minestra is a very simple dish: white beans, olive oil, escarole, garlic, and broth, peasant food that the peasants might actually have eaten. White wine may be added, possibly lemon, but they are not really necessary. Its signature characteristic is the buttery smoothness of the beans against the greens’ bitter tang. Minestra requires a gift for proportion and a sense of texture. It is a dish that must be built architecturally, so it was exactly the project I wanted.
     I couldn’t find a recipe that seemed right, though I admit that I didn’t spend a lot of time looking. I relied on memory—which was, after all, the whole point.
    Minestra entered my life through Carmen Peruzzi, who entered through his brother, Tony. Carmen and Tony ran competing restaurants, in Kingston and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, respectively. The establishment of identical, competing businesses was a common Italian variation on sibling rivalry, at least in northeastern Pennsylvania when I was a child. One son took over the family enterprise, while another—the second, or at any rate less favored—struck out on his own. I remember competing florists (the Mauriello family), funeral homes (the Gubiottis), and masons (the Santasanias) as well as the Peruzzi brothers. It is obvious to me now that the sibling an old patron chose to patronize reflected a preference for continuity or innovation, a consistent standard or a talented individual. This was certainly true in the flower and building trades, a little less so in the restaurants. About the undertakers, I couldn’t say.
    The Peruzzi brothers ran very different establishments. Tony, the younger, catered to the businessman, the banker, and the night on the town. Rotund and sardonic, he could usually be found at the bar, diamond tie tack and pinkie ring flashing, chatting with the customers—they all sought him out to pay their respects, as in The Godfather—and drinking glass after glass of Romana Sambuca. Deep red vinyl banquettes ringed the dining room; each table seemed to reside in its own little cave. His walls were decorated with photographs, mostly of himself, including a couple taken at Alfredo’s (yes, that Alfredo) restaurant in Rome.
    People came to Tony’s restaurant at least in part to see Tony. People came to Carmen’s so that others could see them. His dining room was very open, allowing the judges and doctors who frequented his restaurant to nod at each other across the room. There were no photographs on the walls, just pairs of gilded sconces bracketing standard restaurant oil paintings of peasants and gondolas. And Carmen was not the star of his show. Slim and anxious, he dressed like a maître d’, in a red dinner jacket, and took the drink orders. This gave him a chance to hobnob without actually socializing. Where Tony held court, Carmen was the faithful, uniformed retainer.
    My family mostly patronized Tony’s—my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary was celebrated there—though my parents occasionally went to Carmen’s alone. For many years, the two restaurants coexisted peacefully on opposite banks of the Susquehanna River, like rival Renaissance city-states. Both menus featured a tour de force of the house, obviously formulated in direct competition: at Tony’s, tripoletta, a three-meat feast of house-made sausage, veal Francese, and porketta; at Carmen’s, the house platter of lasagna, veal parmigiana, and his own house-made sausage, plus a side of minestra—no substitutions.
    While I was in college, Tony’s health began to fail. He had no children, and a nephew (not, of course, one of Carmen’s children) tried to run the restaurant while he recovered from surgery. It burned down. Tony then retired to Florida on the insurance money, but he died after only a few months. My father said he had heard that Tony was planning a comeback when his final illness—prostate cancer—hit; he just didn’t enjoy sitting at somebody else’s bar.
    Carmen’s flourished. My mother and I continued to go there now and then after my father’s death. Even if I wasn’t hungry enough to do justice to the house platter, I always ordered a side of minestra. Inevitably, sometime during the meal, one or the other of us would sigh and remark that we missed Tony. Being in one place made us yearn for the other, which we missed all the more now that it had disappeared.

My own efforts began with a chicken (for broth), a bag of spinach (for economy, because escarole cost three times as much), and two cans of Progresso cannelini (though I knew I would end up soaking and cooking my own in the end). I just wanted to see if I could luck out with the proportions. A couple cloves of garlic, smashed, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the spinach and sauté until wilted, keeping the released liquid in the pan. Then, add chicken broth, stirring and stirring like risotto, trying to incorporate the oil and the garlic into the broth, and finally the beans. Heat through, and serve.
    Nothing doing. It tasted flat and oily, and the spinach disintegrated into little more than food coloring. “I don’t think this is it,” my husband said, and pushed his plate away. He was too kind.
     I tried to deconstruct the problem. What I remembered most about Carmen’s minestra was the smoothness, the way it slid down my throat, leaving behind a complex taste that was almost a memory of taste. Eating it, I had been enchanted by the idea that once I surrendered the plate, I couldn’t even be sure I had eaten it at all. It was both like and unlike risotto—the similarity lay in flavors blended so skillfully that they glided into one another, but the difference lay in each ingredient retaining its identity. Minestra was not about incorporation; it was about complement.
    So, back to the cutting board. Obviously, all that stirring either had to go or had to involve something other than the greens. I altered the proportions—less oil, more broth—added oregano, added basil, put the beans in earlier and later. None of it helped. Some essential element was still absent.
    In the meanwhile, Floyd convened a summit on the state of our plumbing. “You got real problems,” he said. “There’s no way we’re gonna get that toilet fixed without going up through the kitchen ceiling.”
     “I think we already knew that,” Mark said, looking up at what was now a brownish bulge above the breakfast table. “I think we’re lucky it hasn’t fallen in yet.”
    Our luck ran out the next morning. I was drinking coffee when about a quarter of the ceiling—the part directly over the kitchen table—joined me. Fortunately, I was not seated at the time. When the dust settled, I could see into the master bathroom. Mark peered into the kitchen from the opposite side of the hole, a towel around his waist. “Shit,” he said, which seemed redundant. “Are you okay?”
    “Sure,” I answered, “but I think they owe us a breakfast table.” The toilet had fallen on top of it.

When my mother had her kitchen redone in 1970, an Italian cabinetmaker named Frank took up residence in it for three months. All through the winter, my mother prepared lunch for three—myself, because the elementary school was only a block away, herself, and either Frank or Sal, his assistant. Both of them loved my mother’s meatballs (she made extra batches especially for these lunches, though she told me never to mention that). Accustomed to peanut butter and jelly, I hoped the job would last forever, except for a few days when the stove was being installed and my mother cooked dinner for six on two hot plates. Those were the years before microwaves were ubiquitous, and my father did not believe in takeout or other convenience foods; he really didn’t believe in convenience, either. My mother told me that although Frank argued his best on her behalf, my father refused to allow the kitchen work area to be extended two feet to accommodate a dishwasher. He said he had too many daughters to need a dishwasher, and that was that.
     My mother chose maple, because cherry proved too expensive. “No problem, Mrs. Davis,” Frank said. “You’ll be happy in the end.” And she was, because he stained the maple a rich brown with red undertones. He brought in two or three samples for her, in different shades—not chips, but scrap lumber that he had sanded, stained, and varnished at home. He didn’t trust Sal with stain. “He can hammer like a son of a bitch,” Frank confided to us at the lunch table, “But he’s color-blind.”
     The cabinets were lovely in the end, with the small variations that make handmade things lovely. Each upper door had a few inches of carved seashell scrollwork over the raised panel, and if one looked closely, chisel marks would appear. Frank presented the carvings, one by one, to my mother for approval before attaching them to the doors. “If you don’t like it, Mrs. Davis,” he said, always a little apologetic, “just say. I’ll be happy to do it again. I got enough wood; it won’t cost you extra.”
   “No, no, it’s perfect,” she said about each.
     And though he was proud of his work, he looked a little disappointed on the day when the last door was hung, and none had been found wanting. I think he wanted to prove that he could surpass himself.

Two mornings after the cave-in, Floyd and his sometime plumber removed about a third of our kitchen ceiling, half of the newly installed bathroom tile, the shower pan, and most of the upstairs water pipes. Before beginning work, he presented us with a change order. “Unforeseen circumstances,” he said with a grin.
     “Two thousand dollars?” my husband said. “That’s a lot of circumstances.”
    I knew what I had to do. I called in sick, filled the gas tank, and took off for northeastern Pennsylvania. Two hundred miles seemed like a short enough drive if I could find what I wanted at the other end.
    I stopped at my mother’s house and told her to put on some lipstick because we were going out. On the way to Carmen’s, I filled her in. Oddly enough, it didn’t seem to bother her that I had driven four hours for a plate of beans.
    “But it’s more than that,” I said. “I don’t just want to eat.”
    “What do you want to do?” She leaned over and grasped the door handle as though, at the next light, she might make a run for it.
    “I want to talk to the chef.”
    She actually gasped, which I didn’t think I had ever heard from her before.
    “You want them to tell you how to make it? I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
    “We’ll see,” I said. “I’m very determined.”
    “But why?”
    “It has a lot to do with Frank.”
    “Frank who?”
    “Your kitchen cabinets.”
    “Oh.” I could almost hear the thought turning over and over in her mind as we drove down Wyoming Avenue. Finally, we pulled into Carmen’s little parking lot. As I locked the car, our eyes met. “I know,” she said. “You want to make your own little seashells for the doors, so to speak.” I knew there was a reason I had brought her.
    Carmen Peruzzi’s business had not fallen off; the place was packed. But Carmen had a sharp eye for his faithful, if occasional, customers, and he called out, “Hello, Mrs. Davis,” from his post at the end of the bar. He moved toward us. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here for lunch,” he said. “A special occasion? Your birthday?”
    “No, just a little surprise,” my mother said. “My daughter came up from Maryland to see me.”
     “You here on business?” he asked as he led us through the dining room to what was clearly a nonjudicial table, right next to the kitchen.
    “In a way,” I said.
    Helen, who had probably been working for Carmen before I was born, took our order. We ate our lunch: chicken parmigiana for my mother, and sausage and minestra for me. That was a lunch-only special, Helen told me. Had I known, I thought, I would have started doing this years ago.
    As I ate, I evaluated. Was it really everything I wanted it to be? Was it really worth trying to get the recipe out of Carmen?
     Helen saw me studying a forkful of the minestra. She came over and bent down so that she could whisper into my ear. “It’s a little off today, I know,” she murmured. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but he”—a cock of the head toward the kitchen, which I assumed indicated the cook—“had to use some canned chicken broth. But very good quality.”
    “No, no, it’s great,” I said. “In fact, I was wondering how to make it. I’ve been trying, but it never turns out.”
    She straightened up and smiled. “Make it? Wait a sec, doll.” She took off for the bar.
    “Oh, boy,” my mother said. “Here we go.” She put down her fork. “I’ll take the rest of this home. I can’t eat now that the floor show has started.”
    Helen was back almost instantly, Carmen at her side. “You want the recipe for our minestra?” he said to me.
    “Um, yes, if it’s not too much trouble.”
    “Are you gonna open a restaurant?” he said. I couldn’t quite tell if he was joking; maybe he was thinking of Tony.
     “Oh, no. I just remembered how much I like it, and I’ve been trying, but it never seems to work.”
     He opened the kitchen door. “Vic, come out here a minute,” he called.
     This was all unfolding too easily for me to believe it was unfolding at all. Kind of like minestra itself, the event had just come together.
    Vic was tall, lean, and sixtyish. His black hair was mussed, as though he had left his toque on the counter. “What is it, boss?” he said, wiping his hands on his apron.
    “This young lady wants to know about your minestra,” Carmen said.
    “Come with me.” And he actually took my arm, as though I were his dance partner, lifting me from my seat and toward the kitchen.
    “Could you get my mother some coffee? Decaf?” I called over my shoulder.
    “No way,” my mother said. She was beside me before the kitchen door had fully opened. “I am your mother,” she said, claiming all the usual rights and privileges.
    “Helen, watch our purses.”
    Carmen’s kitchen was surprisingly neat. I had imagined a commercial kitchen full of mess and din, pots slamming and spilling all over the place, but this was actually calm. Trays of breaded chicken and veal cutlets waited politely on the steel counter to be sautéed and sauced. A vat of prepared salad greens and pots of dressing stood opposite; salad plates shivered in their refrigerated case. Two hairnetted assistants were busy, one at an oven, one at a sink, but I couldn’t see what they were doing. And of course the sweet-sharp smell of long-simmered tomato sauce hung over everything.
     “It’s winding down,” Vic said. “An hour ago, no way I could have done this.”
    He took what must have been a five-gallon pot off the range, where it was warming between sets of burners, and dipped a big steel spoon of minestra. “Not my best, not my worst neither,” he said, looking into it. He put it back and turned to me. “I start with the sausage. Fifteen links, usually, unless they came up small that day. Then, maybe seventeen. So. You take the oil, just enough to coat the bottom of the pot, and then the sausage. Cook it good, get all the fat out. It’ll end up in the lasagna, here, anyway. Then, in the fat, you put the beans—soft, you know, but not real soft. I use maybe three pounds dry. Then the garlic—”
    “Fennel!” I interjected. “I knew something was missing!”
    “Ah, you pay attention.” He hooked a stool with his foot, pulled it toward him, motioned for my mother to sit. Then he talked to me for an hour. He taught me to smash garlic “The only way that makes any goddamn sense” (slip the peeled cloves into a sandwich bag, then whack them with a meat tenderizer, open the bag, and turn it inside out over your pan). He taught me to crumble oregano into a custard cup, then add a drop of olive oil and swish it around before adding it to the dish (“twice the flavor”. He taught me that store-bought broth is acceptable only if it doesn’t smell tinny (“buy it in the paper carton, soak quarters of an onion in it for ten, fifteen minutes, and don’t nobody know the difference”). I didn’t repeat what I had heard from Helen, but I made him laugh—a deep, ringing laugh that bounced off the dirty pans in the sink—when I told him about stirring the spinach around and around in an attempt to meld the flavors.
    “No, stop, you’re killing me,” he said, wiping his eyes. “You put the escarole—escarole—in for two minutes, tops, at the very end. Then take it off the heat. That’s all. You’ll end up with garbage if you do any different.” He turned suddenly serious, and I saw the passionate craftsman who had kept this successful kitchen going so long. “You see, doll, the flavor comes from the sausage through the beans. The beans are like a carrier. It don’t have to be the best sausage—what you can get in the supermarket will probably work out fine—but the trick is to leave the beans hard enough so that they finish cooking in the fat. They soak up most of it, anyway, and so adding the broth is no problem. That’s why you don’t end up with a puddle of grease on the top. Remember”—he tapped for emphasis on the lid of the pot—“otherwise, it’s just sewage.”
    I nodded vigorously. He had no idea.
    When he had warned me to let the minestra stand for ten minutes off the burner before serving, he simply walked into the huge refrigerator and emerged with a huge pan of veal chops in his arms. “We got a deal on these today,” he said. “So I got work to do. Saltimbocca for the special tonight.” He put the pan in his work area and picked up his knife. We were finished.
    “I don’t know how to thank you,” I said awkwardly. “What can I do?”
    “Stay away from the spinach,” he said, and turned back to his veal.
    The restaurant had emptied out. We went up to the bar to retrieve our purses—Helen had put them behind it for safekeeping—and pay for lunch, but Carmen waved us away. “You made his week,” he said. “I won’t need to give him a Christmas bonus this year.”
    “You’re kidding,” I said, slipping on my raincoat. “I would have thought he did this all the time. He’s a wonderful teacher.”
    “You’re the first customer who ever asked. These judges, these doctors, they just eat. Sometimes they send back their steaks, to show who’s boss. And their wives? The only thing I ever hear out of them is, ‘It’s not like my mother’s.’” Carmen looked over his shoulder, as though he feared that one of his best customers might have lingered in the men’s room. Seeing no one, he shrugged. “Vic was talking about retiring the other day, told me his legs are going, he can’t stand so much. But I think we both got another five years in us. Who wants to live in Florida, anyway?” He held the door for us. In the daylight, he looked very old. “You take care now, Mrs. Davis,” he said to my mother.

Although I got home late, I put a bag of white beans to soak. The next morning (after calling in sick for the last time, I swear), I shopped and made a huge pot of minestra, which was difficult because I only had running water in the utility room. I fed Floyd and the plumber their lunch. “Wow, that was fantastic,” Floyd said. The plumber and I agreed.
    When they were winding down for the day, I asked Floyd how it was going.
    “Not too bad,” he said. “A day or two more, and we’ll put you back together. I called José and he agreed to retile on Monday. You know that feature you wanted on the floor? He’s got an extra box of tile laying around, and he can do it for you. I told him you guys have put up with a lot. No charge.” Yes, I thought, two grand should about cover it.
    I would like to believe that I solved something with a pot of beans, served craftsman to craftsman, but I don’t really think so. Floyd had put that call in to José the day before, while I was in Carmen Peruzzi’s kitchen. He had intended to do right—or the major-metropolitan-area, subcontractor-heavy version of right—by us the whole time.
    Through the remainder of the project, which only took another two months, I made minestra often. My husband never loved it the way I did, but he didn’t complain. If I had had time to get to the meat market for chops and prosciutto, I served it with veal saltimbocca, which he adored, and for which minestra seems to have a natural affinity.
    On his last day with us, a Monday, Floyd delivered a very nice kitchen table—made, he said, by a friend who did some woodworking on the side. “We’ll just call it overhead,” he told us. As a tip, I gave him a big jar of spaghetti sauce with meatballs, a double batch from Sunday, which I had planned to freeze, and told him to have his friend over for dinner.
    “Well, geez,” he said, holding the jar against his chest, like a baby. “That’s a first.”

Joyce Davis tragically died on August 8, 2009, of a brain aneurysm. A resident of Columbia, Maryland, she had worked in the criminal justice system for twenty years. “Minestra” was her first published essay.

“Minestra” appears in our Autumn 2008 issue.