Little League

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In a corner of a little sandwich shop whose name I can’t remember, there is a typewritten letter on the wall less easily forgotten, an old timer recalling his childhood as the grandson of Italian immigrants. I went in there for a roast pork sandwich ten years ago and came back ten years later to find everything as I left it. It is a fine thing when one’s memory is vindicated and I got to thinking about the Italians.

“There was a definite distinction drawn between US and THEM,” it began, describing a world of backyard gardens, homemade wine, and huge, multigenerational family gatherings common in South Philadelphia in the early twentieth century. It was an image of a time and place so foreign to my own experience, as a boy growing up in the suburbs a few miles east, that it remained in the back of my mind all of that time. Reading it again sparked a contagious nostalgia that quickly gave way to my own.

*

It was the early 90s and Mayor Rendell had made good on his promise to clean up Center City, making it suitable for the suburban crowd to drive in on the weekends, leave the car with a valet, and come back from dinner a short while later. We were taken there for a few hours at a time, for shopping, for dinner, on school field trips, shepherded to its historic points of interest. On the fringes of this map were the places that came to us second-hand, described in hushed tones to lend the appropriate foreboding. Stories of petty crime, car radio smash and grabs, and low-rent muggings passed through the grapevine. We heard on the news about the slums of Camden and Germantown, the nightly shootings in West Philadelphia, sorority girls from UPenn getting hit in the ass with stray bullets.

South of downtown, a highly-publicized mafia feud unfolded in the old Italian neighborhood. New Jack City and Goodfellas had just come out, bringing organized crime back into vogue. Released from prison in 1992 around the same time the films hit VHS, young mafioso Joey Merlino was a product of these reels, strutting with his associates past local television cameras in ribbed mock turtlenecks and khaki pants, spliced in between cinematic murders, neighborhood charity events, and at the height of it all, a blockbuster shootout on the Schuylkill expressway in morning rush hour.

We were listening intently on the other side of the Delaware, in a suburb so tranquil that the nightly stories of crime and violence cruelly entertained us. Our neighborhoods were lassoed in by highways, forming green figure eights from an aerial view, intentionally cut off from the world surrounding. Long summer afternoons passed at the pool. We were too old to make believe, too young for girls, and too clever to take swimming laps all that seriously. We played cards half-heartedly and made up stories about going to the big city.

An Italian friend whose father had grown up in South Philadelphia took precedence in these conversations, regaling us in the cultural norms of this distant and exotic world. His stories exhibited a certain coolness, as if they might actually be true. They weren’t the shootouts of the nightly news, but stories of hanging out, watching the Phillies game, eating a sandwich. There was a new sandwich for every story: roast pork, prosciutto, and the cheesesteak, the local specialty which circulated in legend. He promised us that one day we’d see for ourselves, and that day finally arrived one lazy late August afternoon when his father took us all to a baseball game.

We crossed the Betsy Ross bridge into the city and I can remember Frankie Valli’s version of “Don’t Think Twice” came on the radio, Bob Dylan’s wistful lyrics in shrill falsetto, a surreal overture to our journey into the unknown. We took a different exit from the bridge, passing through a rougher, industrial side of the city, of acid rain-washed factories, rusted exhaust pipes exhaling plumes of white smoke. It felt like we were being set up, taken to an undisclosed location, to be robbed, to be killed, to be sold to the mafia. I rolled down the windows to the smell of city air, coolly fantasizing about the danger of every moment.

The Philadelphia Philles of that era were a lineup of mullet-headed sluggers, as cool as they were laughable, chest bumping dickheads and righteous bruisers with tattoos who racked up RBIs and DUIs indiscriminately. Next to the excitement of the trip, the events of the game are a blur. Lenny Dykstra stole home on a wild pitch, colliding with the catcher and knocking him into the dirt. The umpire called him out, clearing the benches and punches and kicks flew below the belt. Down a run in the ninth, Darren Dalton swung for the fences with one out and the bases loaded, grounding into a double play to end the game. It was something along those lines, a heroic loss, in the style of Philadelphia.

Hours of hot sun and roasted peanuts had stimulated the appetite, and we piled into the car to get something to eat. There was a discussion in the front seat as to where to go, some argument between Pat’s and John’s. Who were they? I thought to myself from the back seat. Maybe he was introducing us to his friends.

The narrow brick row homes of South Philadelphia were like nothing we had ever seen, heavy vinyl awnings covering half of each window like the eyebrows of the old men hobbling by. We made the block in search of a place to park, passing the emptied food stalls of the Italian Market, the visual poetry of the metropolis in glowing neon: Esposito’s, Fiorella’s, Giordano’s, advertising meat and fish, fresh vegetables. I began to realize it wasn’t the social call I had imagined. Every storefront was named after somebody, predictably taken from the New Testament and the patron saints of southern Italy. There is the joke that Italians only have a few names for their sons. Anthony, Joseph, Michael, Paul, or John, and these names were everywhere, on street signs and store fronts, memorials to the patriarchs.

Pat’s namesake was a modest wooden building papered with black and white photographs of Italian crooners and local celebrities, the smell of grilled onions thick in the air. We stood on our toes to get a glimpse, like seeing a naked woman for the first time. It was pure vulgarity, piles of chipped beef being shifted from one side to the other by men who seemed to relish in hacking at it, flipping it into an open roll. We took them across the street to the bleachers of a public park looking out onto a baseball diamond with an electric scoreboard, enraptured by this sandwich that seemed to have been designed for and by children, grilled meat slathered in orange cheese-substitute, asking him a thousand questions between bites.

“Is it true there are sandwiches made out of ostrich?” we asked him.

He nodded his head. We asked away, more nods.

“Did you used to play baseball here?” we asked him.

“No. We used to play in the street,” he said.

He grew quiet, gazing at the electric scoreboard above the bleachers and turned to us.

“You know what Joe DiMaggio said was the worst thing to happen to baseball?” he asked us.

A look of confusion.

“Little League.”

We stared at each other blankly. He was our little league team’s biggest fan, screaming at us from the stands to win one for the Gipper. I had no clue the depth of what he had said that day, with cheez whiz dripping from the corner of his mouth, but it stayed with me, being enigmatic, a latent mystery like the place itself.

*

Crossing the bridge I turned on the radio in search of some anthem to play me in and stopped when I heard “Al Di La,” a ballad sung by Connie Francis in Italian and English, as the scenery passed in slow motion. Al di la means you are far above me, very far. Every star will light the way above me, to where you are. It was a warm late afternoon and I spent most of the drive thinking back to the time when Philly seemed like such a limitless place. I was older and better understood its boundaries.

Without thinking I ended up at Pat’s, ordering the same steak sandwich I had eaten those years ago. Taking the first bite I experienced that tragic failure of memory that often happens when indulging in childhood nostalgia, a truly repugnant sandwich that probably always was. I was old enough now to realize the tragedy of processed, oil-based cheese, of cheese which could not legally call itself cheese. Eating a cheesesteak this way had become the cost of entry into the fraternal city, like some sadistic hazing ritual. Where did it all begin? The restaurant has a long history dating back to 1930; Cheez Whiz was invented in the early ’50s. The transition from the thirties to the present day had been dramatic and I doubted if the eponymous Pat would recognize the sandwich.

The taste had disappointed, but it stirred in me a rush of memories of that day, now almost two decades ago. Little League, I said to myself, finally understanding the meaning of those words. Of course Little League had ruined baseball; how far it had come from the spontaneous game in the street, or in the backyard, that we all had played as kids. Little League as an organization had granted the sport legitimacy, but sacrificed the authenticity of the original idea. We played not for ourselves, but for the crowd of parents who put us up to it. The cheesesteak wasn’t for “us,” it was for “them.”

In its original form, the cheesesteak was already a compromise, an American sandwich made with an Italian sensibility, provolone cheese, grilled onions, and a crusty roll, replacing the traditional roast pork as the symbol of Philadelphia’s Italians. It told the story of their changing world, their gradual embrace of the things they had once set themselves above: fast food, the supermarket, and the American idea of cheese. The long line of tourists proved the Italians had reached the mainstream, a victory, like their move to the suburbs, that seems bittersweet, if only for what was left behind.

That old Philadelphia still exists for those who seek it out. The Italian market is still open six days a week, selling produce, fish, and meat to passersby on the sidewalks. The signs at Giordano’s, Anastasi’s, and Esposito’s have kept their neon glow. DiBruno’s, having reached the ultimate in American legitimacy with their flagship store in Center City, maintains a small outlet in the old neighborhood, packed floor to ceiling with imported Italian delicacies. Beneath the surface, though, one can sense the change, for every bona fide old timer buying thinly sliced veal there are a handful of bright-eyed tourists from out of town. Gone are the backyard fig trees, the gardens of grape vines and tomatoes, replaced by murals and bronze placards, statues and memorials. The nostalgia for this commemorated age has taken away any sense of the present moment, leaving the imagination to wander through the relics of the past.

Thinking of this moment in history I had surrendered my hope of anything else, chalking it all up to a generational shift, that the world of the old timer’s memory had been erased by the suburbs, by Little League, by the desire to fit in, by time itself. As I walked back to my car, the sound of Mariachi offered something unexpected, and I noticed that 9th Street, the old center of Italian Philadelphia, was dotted on either side by Mexican tiendas, bakeries, and restaurants.

Hoy Rica Barbacoa Estilo Hidalgo read the sign in the window: delicious barbecue today, in the style of Hidalgo. I stepped inside, navigating the crowded tables, to find everyone enjoying long-simmered goat, a specialty served every Sunday after Mass, on warm tortillas with lime, cilantro, and raw onion, alongside the rich broth they call consomé. I ordered the complete set with three tacos but had to settle for two: only a few goats are prepared and it always sells out. I had arrived just in time.

Looking around at the tables covered with plates of meat, tortillas, bowls of broth, I was reminded of the Italian tradition of Sunday gravy, a long meandering lunch after the pre-communion fast. Their green, white, and red flags, their religious convictions, speaking similar languages evolved from Latin, made me consider if there were any sort of cosmic significance that they should be drawn to the same city streets.

I noticed that many of these little restaurants have the cheesesteak on the menu, a sign that the compromise is already taking place, finding a balance between the food for us and the food for them. As that line becomes hazy in the coming generations, I wondered what the fate of barbacoa would be, whether assimilation in the style of Little League is the inevitable future of the game that starts in the streets.

Ribollita

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It seems the groundhog was right and we’ve been cursed with six more weeks of the worst winter in recent memory. In the past, we’ve tried preparing chilled, summery foods, trying to trick ourselves with the taste and bright March sunshine streaming through the windows that we were really just sheltering ourselves inside from the unbearable July heat. But this year, that’s impossible; the snow piled on the balcony and in the eaves of neighboring houses won’t let us forget exactly how cold it is outside. This year, we have to make soup.

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Trapped inside by yet another snowfall, wanting to avoid digging the car out to go to the store, I surveyed our rations: a loaf of two day-old bread, a single potato, half a head of cabbage, some cannellini beans I had soaked with the idea of making a dip for carrots and celery. No meat. No other vegetables. The fates had decided that I would make ribollita.

Ribollita is traditionally made with Tuscan kale cooked in the soup pot with the other ingredients, and you could certainly make it that way with any variety of kale, collards, or cabbage, but having recently tried Marcella Hazan’s recipe for Venetian smothered cabbage, I knew that it would be perfect for this soup. Cooked until it has wilted into delicate, silky strands, this simple braised cabbage is elevated by the addition of a bit of vinegar, which cuts the usual sweetness of the cabbage and onions and sharpens the flavor. It tastes perfect on its own or over a salad, warm or room temperature, and it adds just the right acidic bite to an earthy stew like ribollita.

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Notes: The smothered cabbage recipe is quite open for adaptation depending on how you’ll eat it. You should use some sort of wine vinegar, but it need not be white—try it with red wine, sherry, champagne, etc. If making it for the soup, I’d stick to green or savoy cabbage, but if making it for another purpose, you could try using red cabbage as well.

For the Venetian smothered cabbage, adapted from Marcella Hazan:
olive oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb green cabbage, thinly sliced (about 1/2 head)
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
salt and pepper

For the soup:
olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
3/4 cup chopped canned tomatoes, or about 3-4 whole canned tomatoes
6+ cups water
3/4 cup dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight
1 or 2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 recipe of smothered cabbage
salt, to taste
stale bread, sliced and toasted

First, prepare the cabbage: thinly coat the bottom of a large, heavy skillet in olive oil and cook the onions over medium heat until very soft, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and the cabbage to the pan, throw in a big pinch of salt, and continue to saute over medium heat until the cabbage begins to wilt, about 5 minutes. Add a bit of freshly ground black pepper and the wine vinegar, stir well, then turn the heat to low and cover the pan tightly. Stir it every once in a while as it cooks; if it seems to be getting too dry and sticking to the pan, add a little water. Cook the cabbage like this for at least one hour, for the soup, or an hour and a half, if serving it by itself. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if necessary.

While the cabbage is cooking, assemble the soup: thinly coat the bottom of a heavy dutch oven or stock pot with olive oil and cook the onions, celery, and carrot over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Add some water, about 6 cups to start, then add the tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and thyme. Bring the pot to a boil, turn the heat to medium-low, partially cover, and simmer until the potatoes and beans have cooked, at least an hour. When the cabbage is ready, add it to the pot and simmer for at least another 30 minutes. You can eat it at this point, but it benefits from having time to sit at room temperature and let the flavors meld. When you’re ready to eat, reheat the soup, add more water if it’s gotten too thick, salt to taste, and toast your bread. To serve, place bread in the bottom of a soup bowl and ladle the ribollita over it.

Red Lentil Soup

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It is my opinion that no one should need a recipe to make a pot of soup. Sure, you might turn to a recipe if you have something very specific in mind; however, to me, soup should mainly be something easy and comforting, something that allows you to be creative and to use up odds and ends in the fridge. It’s impossible to make a small pot of soup; I’ve tried, and without fail I end up creating several meals worth without even realizing it. In this way, soup is unique in being the perfect dish to make for any sized group, from one to a dinner party. It keeps well, is easy to make in large quantities and in advance, and, if done properly, is always greater than the sum of its parts. It is a satisfying meal to prepare for vegetarians, and it can also be used to make a small bit of meat go further. It can be rich and hearty, or light and healthy, depending on how it’s prepared.

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite soups, all of which are easy to make and allow plenty of room for substitutions and creative adjustments. While the recipes are great as-written, I encourage you to use them as building blocks on which to develop your own go-to one-pot meals adapted to your own tastes and needs. The first soup I’d like to share is my classic recipe for mercimek çorbası, Turkish red lentil soup. There are many, many recipes out there for red lentil soup, most of which are unnecessarily complicated or add so many spices that it becomes more like a curry, so I developed this recipe through much trial and error to capture the light, refreshing taste of the Turkish soup that I love. The delicate earthiness of the red lentils flavored with cumin and coriander is perfectly complemented by the freshness of dried mint and lemon. It’s a soup for all seasons, just as good hot as it is cold.

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Notes:
This simple soup is easily adapted to what you have on hand, though I must say I do like it best just the way it’s written. This recipe makes enough for 2-3 people to have a light lunch, or for 4 people to have it as one component of a larger meal with other sides, but if you wanted to make it a heartier meal-in-itself, you could add about half a cup of rice or some other grain and increase the water to 6 cups. You could always use vegetable or chicken broth if you have it on hand, though I don’t think this soup needs it. The tomato paste is a nice touch, but it’s hardly necessary if you don’t have it. I’ve substituted lime juice for lemon before, and that gives it an interesting tang, more like a Persian dish. You could also add more spices and make it more curry-like and less Turkish if that’s what you’re into. Red lentils don’t have such a pronounced earthy flavor as black or brown lentils, nor do they retain their form as solidly as green or Le Puy lentils, so while you could substitute those, keep in mind that it will fundamentally alter the flavor and texture of the soup.

olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp Turkish red pepper
4 cups water
1 cup red lentils
1 tbsp dried mint, plus more to garnish
1 lemon
salt, to taste

Thinly coat the bottom of a 2 or 3 quart saucepan with olive oil and warm over medium heat. Add the finely chopped onion, celery, and carrot, and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for a minute more, then add the tomato paste and spices and saute until fragrant, a minute more. Add the water and lentils, give it a good stir, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it’s boiling, uncover and simmer over medium low heat for at least 10 minutes, depending on how mushy and thickened you’d like it (I usually do about 15 minutes). Turn off the heat and add about a tablespoon of dried mint and some salt, tasting as you go to get the amount right—start with a teaspoon and go from there. Serve and garnish with another pinch of dried mint, more red pepper, a squeeze of lemon, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.