Thursday, September 25, 2008

Easy as Pie

Dad was a great guy. I don't think I ever heard anyone with a bad word to say about him... even Mom (and she divorced him after 6 years... so, you'd think...). He worked in some of the roughest areas of the Bronx and never had a problem... Dad was just a nice, soft spoken Irish guy from Inwood (that's on the northern tip of Manhattan, for the geographically challenged) He liked to read, was a gifted singer, and had a killer voice with a serious vibrato that got him some work for a breif period doing voice-overs. Apparently God has a sense of fair play, because while I got stuck looking an awful lot like him (JUST KIDDIN DAD!!), my saving grace was I got his voice too... I still remember when I'd call him at work as a kid... before he knew it was me, he would drop his voice an octave and say "Hi, this is Mike Tomatoes"...

I guess to me, like most kids, my Dad was about as cool as it got. Me and my older brother got to do so many things other kids didn't get to do- we learned all the city games Dad played growing up, like box-ball, king/queen, curb-ball, and ring-a-livio. He was teaching me and my older brother to drive in the church parking lot on Saturday afternoons when we were 11 and 12 years old. We were taught every part of the City and most of the outer-boros, and the best way to navigate them either by train or in a car (including the dreaded Cross Bronx Parking Lot). We knew how to use most of the crossings on the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers to avoid traffic on the West Side Highway, the Deegan or the FDR. The radio in his car was always tuned to 101.1 WCBS FM, the quintessential New York station that played the music from his youth- Dad loved doo-wop and we used to listen to Cousin Brucie, Don K Reed and the Doo-Wop Shop, and Mr Music Norm N Night... all old school "real" music. Cagney was a big favorite of his too- Angel's With Dirty Faces, Each Dawn I Die, White Heat... All in all, I am hard pressed to find a bad memory... and that's great because I have come to find that it is true- we do become our parents. (my epiphany on that came when, during a lengthy commute in some heavy traffic, I found myself yelling "Awlright pal... drive it or park it!!" at the driver in front of me... a classic line from Dad)

Much later, Dad confided in me that he never stopped loving or missing Mom... and I knew it was true. He always asked how she was and stuff... One thing he was always after was old recipes, things she had cooked for him when they were on their National Tour (courtesy of the US Army). One of Mom's old recipes that I loved was for Hamburger Pie. It was great and satisfied my carnivorous side pretty well. And it was easy to make, too. One night Dad asked what I had made for dinner, so I told him and gave him a shopping list and directions on how to put it all together.

Here is where I need to pause and let you know something about Dad. He was smart man... he spoke four languages... he could effectively debate almost any point... and he made helluva pot of coffee. But he was no cook. Couldn't do it if his life depended on it. This was an easy one though- a pound of ground beef, a small onion chopped, some flour, a few tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, two eggs, a package of shredded Cheddar cheese, and a frozen pie crust. That is essentially the shopping list I gave him. Then the directions: Chop the onion and start sauteing in a pan; brown the meat in the same pan with the onion, drain it; add 2 or so rounded tablespoons of flour (to help bind it) and at least three tablespoons of the W sauce (not gonna try to spell that one again!).. more if you like a little zing to our Hamburger Pie. Mix it all up in the same pan, then pour it into the pie crust. Now beat the two eggs in a bowl and throw the cheese in, then pour the whole mix over the top of the meat, spreading it out to the edges. Bake it in the oven at about 375 for a half hour or so. When you take it out, let it cool for a little while before you cut into it otherwise it will fall apart. Thats it... easy right?

So I left these directions with my very intelligent, college educated father. Next night I get a call... whaddaya know?? The Old Man actually pulled it off... he had cooked it and it was cooling by the time he called me. It turned out just right. I got another call just a little while later; he had cut into it and was tearing through his first slice. And loving it. I couldn't help but be proud of him... this was a huge step for him. We talked for a few minutes, had a few laughs, and then I got back to whatever it was I was doing and he did the same. About an hour later I get another call. It's Dad again. "Johnny, my boy... I'm not sure how to tell you this... I ate the whole thing" he said with a little guilt to his voice. I couldn't help but laugh. I had, on more than one occasion, done exactly the same. I was sure he did it just like I did: the initial meal from the first sitting would usually account for a quarter to a third of the entire pie; as the night wore on and the pie sat on the kitchen table, I would begin to nickel and dime it to death... sliver by sliver till there was just a small piece left... "How could I leave that? What am I gonna do, tease myself with a nibble tomorrow?" I would justify it to myself as I cleaned the (pie) plate.

We had a lot of laughs, me and Dad... there were times when I would call him in the morning before I left for work- he was always up early to go to work too- if I thought of something funny... just a few minutes and the day was started with a laugh for both of us. He was a great guy, my Dad.

Nine years ago today, it was a Saturday night, Dad died. The big C snuck up on him and took him just a few days after it was found. I still remember going to see him on Friday night... and then Saturday, I brought him lunch from his best buddy's restaurant: a club sandwich, some well done fries with an ice cold Pepsi. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, or maybe because of it, we shared more than our usual amount of laughs. During a rare serious moment, I apologized for the times I had acted like a stupid kid, especially when I was old enough to know better. Dad looked me straight in the eye and told me to stop right there... I was just a young man growing up and those things were bound to happen... here he was, in the state he was in, giving me a pass, offering me absolution for transgressions that I knew then had hurt him so much... hell of a guy, my Old Man- he was all Man.

I know he's off somewhere with Mom right now having the longest picnic ever heard of. He brought the radio and she brought a basket with a little bit of all the things she ever made that he loved... and they're just catching up on old times, waiting patiently for their boys to show up.

So here's one for my Dad. If you find yourself in need of an easy recipe to follow, one that even my no-cookin' Dad could manage to throw together and enjoy, then try this one. I know you're gonna love it. And set out an extra slice... you never know who may drop in. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!


Proud Italian Cook said...

Hold on, I need a kleenex! What a great tribute you gave to your Dad Johnny T. But then the apple dosen't fall far from the tree, and after reading this I would say that statement is very true! You need to write a book, I love the sincere and gut honest quality of your writing. Please keep it up!
Take care,

Anonymous said...

Touching post, Johnny T. The love of family really shines through. Keep writing ;)

The Food Hunter said...

Johnny this brought tears to my eyes. What a nice memorial to your dad. I enjoy your posts so much. I'd like to share a blog award with you. Please stop by and pick it up.

I can't wait to read your next post.

Johnny Tomatoes said...

Thank you all so much... Dad really was a great guy. I'm glad I could share this with people... makes me feel good to pass it on.
Hunter- my first award... I am really grateful; it is nice to know that I may have contributed in some small way...
Thank you to everyone who stopped by... you keep reading and I'll keep writing

Johnny T