“If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony.” — Fernand Point
Food is essential to life, but cooking great food is an artform. This was not lost on Gardiner resident Carol O’Biso, whose second book, “A Well Seasoned Life: A Daughter’s Tales From Her Father’s Kitchen,” is an often-hilarious memoir, as well as a tribute to a great chef: her father Gus O’Biso, who was born in Racalmuto, Sicily, in 1909 and emigrated to the US in 1921.
Asked how she might characterize her father — the subject of this poignant memoir, filled with both heartwrenching and laugh-out-loud stories, vintage photographs and mouthwatering Italian recipes — O’Biso pauses for a moment and thinks. “He was not an easy man,” she says. “He was stern, very principled and expected everyone to share his principles…But,” she reflects, “he was the most generous and giving person I’ve ever met. He did not have a selfish bone in his body.”
She explains how he would do all of the cooking and “set aside any piece of gristled meat, or a sliced peach that contained a bruise — anything that wasn’t perfect — and save it for himself. He gave the very best piece of meat or dessert to our mother, and then to us [Carol and her sister], and saved any poor remnants for himself.”
Another example of his “principled generosity” that she gives is when her father discovered that their house, set on a steep, rocky hill in New Jersey, was causing flooding for their neighbors below. “Our neighbors needed to install a drainage system to stop the flooding, but could not afford it. My father could not sit there day after day and see their property flooded, knowing that it stemmed from our home. So he and my mother paid for it. Not that we were well-off, but our neighbors had less than we did, and he believed it was his responsibility.”
She describes her mother and father’s marriage as a “black-and-white marriage,” as her mother was university-educated, from Milan, while her Dad came from blue-collar roots in Sicily. “They may have never gotten married if they met in Italy, as that would have made them social outcasts; but in America, it worked.”
One of many stories recounted by O’Biso is about when her mother, innocently enough, corrected her father in public on the pronunciation of a world in Italian, as he had a Sicilian dialect. “After that moment, he never spoke Italian again — at least not to us or in our home,” she says. “He was a man that could hold a grudge for a long time.”
He worked hard in the Diamond District in Manhattan: long hours, seven days a week. “We were not wealthy, but we were not poor,” she says. “Our parents were very frugal with money. We had a winter coat and a spring coat, a pair of winter shoes and spring shoes…they saved every penny and spent it on what we absolutely needed.”
Her mother started off doing all of the cooking, “taking the traditional female role.” But when she began going back to school to get her Master’s in Education, mostly taking evening classes, her father had to step in. “He and my Mom were always together in the kitchen, cooking, preparing meals; but when she had to go to class or study, he stepped into the main role and discovered his ‘inner chef,’” she says with a laugh. “It was a talent he didn’t know he had; but once he got going, it was art.”
Unlike many who believe that great cooking necessitates über-expensive cookware and pots and knives, Gus O’Biso had less than artisan cookware; in fact, he had “beat-up old pots, used knives that he would sharpen on a sharpening stone.” Yet with these he was able to create meal after meal that delighted and fortified his family and their guests.
Many of the recipes that her father utilized become almost characters in the book. They weave through the stories of a family in the 1950s and 1960s, the tumults and changes of the social/political landscape; yet the family meals and the preparation remain the most stable part of their lives. A few of these include Pasta Pasticciotti (little pastries) and Arancini (small balls of rice that when cooked look like miniature oranges).
Gus is a character, filled with talent, hard work, grit, guts, grudges: a man who could fix anything or solve any problem, with a great love of food and family. Carol recalls going fishing with her father and family at a cabin that they rented at the New Jersey shore. “We had this used boat that we had to navigate through a series of canals to get to the bay where the fishing took place,” she recalls. “We got through the canals and eventually made it to the bay. We weren’t expert fishermen; we just loved to fish. When we got out there, everyone was excited about all of the fluke that were running through the bay.” But they had forgotten their “fluke net,” as it was a very large fish with a weak jaw and needed a wide net to hoist it into the boat.
There was no time to navigate back through the complicated canal series and come back; the fish would have finished their run. Instead, Gus told the girls to all “keep fishing,” and when they caught something to all “lean to one side of the boat.” As they caught a fluke, their Dad ordered them to weight the boat on one side, keep reeling in the fish slowly and when it was close to the surface, he reached in, scooped it up and slapped it into the boat. “We caught more than 20 fish that day with Dad’s method!” she says proudly. “He always found a way and never gave up.”
This book has gotten rave reviews, and to boot provides palate-pleasing recipes that one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. It can be ordered at www.amazon.com and makes a perfect, unique local book for friends and family. ++