Life on the Farm
We once had a farm in Brookfield, Connecticut. It was back in the 40’s when people who lived there were real farmers. They drove 1920’s pickup trucks with huge round fenders, had wives and children that wore feed sack dresses, said things like “Yup” and “Nope” or “It’s a nice day if it don’t rain,” and had very different lives from the life we led in our suburban town 23 minutes from New York City.
But to my father’s father, Grandpa DiMenna, the land in that part of Connecticut had views that almost rivaled the ones he remembered from his youth in Agnone, a small Italian town perched high in the Abruzzi, so he built a grand Connecticut-style farm house on 72 acres of land overlooking a New England mountain range. As our family patriarch, he assumed that our family would spend the entire summer there. And for over 30 years we did.
My mother and her sister were married to two brothers and so my cousins and I were related on every side. We had the same two sets of grandparents and we were double cousins to each other. Since each sister had three children, at the farm we were six children and on the weekends, when both sets of grandparents plus an odd assortment of friends and relatives showed up, we could be thirty people for every meal. I remember my mother and her sister, both very young and pretty, wearing a sarong or halter top ( big looks during the 40’s), serving up five or six tender fried chickens from our own henhouse along with a fabulous creation they called Spaghetti Caruso, and three or four peach and blueberry pies for dessert. Along with that came huge ceramic salad bowls filled with garden lettuce dressed with vinaigrette made from our own wine vinegar, platters of freshly picked sweet corn, plates of enormous garden-ripe tomatoes and onions, bowls of fried zucchini and my grandmother’s famous fried zucchini blossoms.
Meals were served in a screened outdoor dining room my grandfather built near two ancient apple trees that stood beyond the kitchen side of our house. Everything had to be run out there from the kitchen and as children we often had to rush back into the house for a bottle opener or corn holders or whatever and hoped to heaven there would still be some chicken left on the platter when we got back. No one ever saved you anything; in fact, cousins were known to snitch it from your plate while you were gone and you just had to mourn the loss in silence because my grandfather didn’t allow children to talk at the table. Of course you could still give someone a good kick or pinch and then look wide eyed and innocent while your victim yelped in outrage.
Grandpa DiMenna adored his grandchildren, but he was also very strict about children helping, so while he was around we scurried around like little slaves. As soon as he wandered away with his guests, all activity ceased and we would sneak away to the swimming pool, sometimes leaving our mothers with a pile of dishes that would strike pity in the hearts of nicer children, but apparently not in us. Sometimes we would hear them calling us and the guilt was huge, but we found that diving under the water helped tremendously. By the time we finished swimming and went back up to the house, the dishes would be all put away and forgotten and our mothers were glad to see us. Our mothers would be sitting in the living room reading their books or doing embroidery, chatting away with each other sometimes in English, but much of the time in Italian. Both sisters were completely fluent and used Italian to gossip about the family, knowing full well we couldn’t understand what they were saying. My cousin Paulette (we were exactly the same age minus two weeks), swore she could understand every word, but when I begged her to tell me what they were saying she mysteriously wouldn’t say.
When they were speaking in English, the topic was almost always the same – the sad state of our living room décor. Our mothers attempted to achieve a New England look with soft chintzes on the wing chairs and lovely lamps and art objects meant to complement the country look, but Grandpa DiMenna preferred a European look – heavy leather topped furniture or colors on sofas more in keeping with Sorrento than New England- but no one dared to say a word to him. He put blinds on all the windows and a brown-checked hotel carpet in the living room. The carpet was a particular sore point with our mothers because nothing ever looked right on top of it. I know for a fact that people drove down our long drive, fell in love with the beautiful clapboard and stone house and couldn’t wait to get inside to see what it was like, but inevitably they would be so startled by the brown carpet and odd European-country look that they were left speechless.
Thankfully, few ever saw my Grandparents’ Art Deco bedroom. How Grandma DiMenna, a short, rotund woman with all the panache of a butterball, could long to recline on a chaise or perform her toilette at a dressing table in the shape of a suspended crescent astonished me. I would peek in there and see her walking around in her billowing nightgown with fuzzy slippers on her feet, creaming her face and generally enjoying that preposterous Art Deco bedroom as if she were Myrna Loy.
The dining room fared better. Our mothers had chosen the formal dining room furniture along with an enormous china cupboard that they quickly filled with Franciscan pottery that suited the tastes of all parties. We had fabulous dinners in that room served on the gorgeous pottery that seemed like Agnone to my grandparents and Nantucket to our mothers. My mother and my grandmother did most of the cooking with my mother’s sister Rosalie in charge of the laundry. They all shared the housework because no one who ever came up there to help would ever come back. Too many children, laundry, meals and chaos.
My mother, Jeannette, was an inspired cook and hostess, as was her mother. Their cuisine reflected the L’Aquila region of Italy where her mother was from. As the success maker in America, Grandpa DiMenna ruled the family, but in the kitchen L’Aquila reigned. The cuisine consisted of a lot of butter based sauces, unusual pasta dishes and a famous timbale with a flaky crust that was beyond imitation. People would ask my mother for her recipes, but halfway through her recitation their eyes would glaze over and it was obvious they would never attempt it. To look at her, you would think my mother was a princess or movie star who never lifted a finger. She had a beautiful expressive face with almond-shaped, black eyes, creamy white skin (she rarely could tan) and wavy auburn hair she inherited from her red-headed father. She had been brilliant in college, was very commanding and one of the few women that Grandpa DiMenna ever respected. She could soothe ruffled feelings between family members, marshal a herd of children into a working platoon, greet guests with the aplomb of a duchess, but was never beneath scrubbing her floors to a gleam. She had an infectious laugh and was almost always in high good humor.
While her sister Rosalie was a more difficult diva type, sometimes Auntie could be fun, taking us to the local golf club to take golfing lessons or buying us a record player and a stack of the latest 45’s. She loved to dance and she would put on the records and we would all sing and dance away. Those times were very nice. Auntie also loved to take us to the pool in the mornings and we could always count on her to heed our pleas when we begged to go there. She always wore a daring bathing suit much to the chagrin of my uncle, but my cousin and I thought it was very cool. Both of us were kind of plump then, but we looked forward to the day when we would have a figure like my Auntie and wear those daring suits ourselves.
If I close my eyes I can smell the sweet air of the country, the sunshine pouring in the window of our enormous country kitchen and imagine myself seated at the long wooden table eating fresh donuts for breakfast or in the dining room as the twilight softly fell outside and the fireflies were just coming out, we were passing around an enormous platter of grilled chicken, the mint wafting under our noses as it passed by. The door to the kitchen was revolving with young people rushing in and out to serve the first course, a dish of pasta topped with a sauce made from home-grown tomatoes, and then clearing that away to make room for the platter of grilled chicken and sausage, the pile of freshly boiled sweet corn, the fried zucchini salad, a buttercup-yellow mound of home-made butter to dress the corn, homemade bread with a lovely crusty top, earthy beets in a vinaigrette sauce, the beet tops in a separate dish boiled and then dressed with oil, baby carrots with butter and mint.
While the grownups were talking and laughing, in the background, Enrico Caruso was singing an aria on my grandfather’s old-fashioned record player. As the twilight deepened, dessert was served with my grandfather saying no, but quietly stealing bites from my dish because no one can resist the lovely peach and blackberry cobbler or my grandmother’s sponge cake, or the family favorite, Zuppa Englese, a sponge and custard creation that brought raves. Then out would come the espresso, a bitter drink we children begged to taste and always couldn’t swallow, or fresh green figs, or giant peaches that the grown-ups dipped in glasses of home-made wine. We always dared each other to sneak our peach slices into the wine, and then we were sorry when the taste nearly killed us. Other times we had grilled chickens that had been marinated in olive oil, garlic and mint or a young kid or pig roasted slowly on the spit. Grandpa DiMenna did the grilling while wearing a silk shirt with French cuffs turned back slightly as his one deference to any sort of casual look, using a steel grill that he bought from Abercrombie and Fitch that is still in our family to this day.
We played baseball on the front lawn with grownups and children alike sharing the pitching honors, while our mothers would lounge on the stone settees set around the rock gardens enjoying a brief respite between Herculean lunches and dinners. Or we would all gather under the awning of the big terrace off the living room and gaze at the mountains behind our house. The meadow was filled with wild flowers and several cows would be grazing. Beyond the meadow came the apple orchard and beyond, gleaming in the distance, lay the swimming pool, a bright blue D-shaped jewel set among the trees. Visitors found the scene charming, but we knew that getting back and forth from the house through the meadow to the pool was a challenge that few city folks ever face. Halfway through the meadow one of the cows would spy you and lower her horns preparing to attack. Then you would have to decide – go back or make a run for the orchard and the pool. On occasion one of us would be caught by the cow and tossed in the air like a feather only to land with a hard thud while our mother’s rushed to save us.
Often we would have picnics down at the pool. My mother would rise early and fry a huge basket of chicken. She made potato salad with onions and vinaigrette, we had thick hamburgers and sausages ground from our own steer, fresh buns from Ma and Pa’s Bakery in town, and a host of cookies and sweets. The food was loaded up in my uncle’s old-fashioned wood-trimmed station wagon and driven down through the meadow and orchard. We children were so happy to hop on and drive past our bovine enemies while we were safely guarded on every side by car doors.
The pool was fed by a spring and our fathers were forever rushing to the creek to fix the pump. We loved to go with them and splash about in the creek while our fathers cursed and perspired trying to get the pump going again. Finally the pump just gave out and they had to bring in a well driller to find water for the pool. The well driller dug what they call an Artesian well which is so deep into the ground that the water is always freezing. From then on it took two weeks for the water in the pool to warm up. I remember diving in and immediately turning blue with cold, but of course denying it to my mother who would be calling. “Children, children, for god’s sake come out of there. You’re as blue as death.” She couldn’t make us come out though because the awful truth was that neither she nor her sister could swim. The summer that I turned eight, our mothers hired a life guard to teach us all to swim. How we all tormented him, doing cannon ball jumps when we were supposed to be paying attention to his instructions or just fighting with each other and ignoring his pleas for a truce. But in the end we all learned to swim and to save each other should anyone be drowning. My older brother loved putting his arm under my chin and practically killing me with his grip, paddling me across the pool to safety.
My older brother was named Nicholas after Grandpa DiMenna and he was born with a dictator’s mentality. He decided the rules for every game we played and was the acknowledged leader for everything we did. Did we want to go down to the cornfield and play spies in and out of the budding corn? Did we want to go to the henhouses and scare the chickens, did we want to pick berries deep in the woods below the meadow, did we want to sneak off to the creek where the pool pump was to catch frogs? Every idea was his. We followed him faithfully with adoration and respect. There was always something frightening but exciting in all of his proposals. I was always the goody two shoes who pointed out that we weren’t supposed to go to the henhouse, the cornfield, the creek, the woods, but he always teased me into it. Then I would follow behind with my heart in my throat waiting for a parent to descend on us in fury before we could escape out of sight. The worst was when our parents did find out where we had gone and I had to take the same punishment as my brother even though he was always the instigator.
One time he convinced me to ride on the handlebars of his bike. He promised he wouldn’t go fast. As soon as I hopped on he started to weave in and out of the road speeding around shrubs and rocks so fast I was too terrified to speak. I just jumped off in mid air grazing my thigh along the edge of a rusty flashlight on his handlebars. I landed with a thump but felt all right, but when I looked down my thigh was split open like the breast of a chicken. I started to scream, the farm manager came running and rushed me off to town to be sewn up by a country doctor whose sewing skills were more like a butcher’s than a surgeon’s. My brother was very contrite, gazing on with tear filled eyes as the doctor sewed me up. When I got back to the farm everyone surrounded me with love and sympathy, whirling around making clucking noises while they brought me whatever I wanted. It was divine. That was the only time I ever felt noticed. In a crowd of six children it’s not easy to stand out.
My mother’s parents came up often and were devoted to my paternal grandfather. I always thought it was so odd that they were. My mother’s mother, (we called her Grandma Telli) came from a very old and prominent family, and so did Poppy, my grandfather, but neither of their families had done very well financially in America. It was my grandfather from Agnone who had made the fortune. People always were astonished at his graceful good looks and charming ways. My mother said there was a rumor in his hometown that a Duke had passed through and my grandfather was proof of the visit. It could be. He certainly didn’t seem anything like my grandmother, who was from the same hometown. She was an ordinary plump Italian lady without a shred of affectation. Grandma Telli was very different. In Italy, she had been raised as a wealthy young lady, educated in an Ursuline convent school and was expected to marry well, but while the family was still in L’Aquila, her mother lost her husband, her fortune and dowries for her four younger daughters. She was forced to come to America, where she hoped to marry them off. When my grandmother married my grandfather, the son of the Secretary to the Italian Ambassador to France (Poppy was born in France and always considered himself a Frenchman), her family thought she had made a good match. But circumstances and foolishness left my grandparents with a lovely family but very little money. No wonder they both worshipped my wealthy grandfather and were at his beck and call for as long as I can remember. They couldn’t help respecting success.
Another odd thing was the relationship between the two grandmothers. Grandma DiMenna never liked to lift a finger. She always had help in her house, she cooked for my grandfather only as much as she had to, and I never saw her do much of anything besides sit in a chair, her fingers flying as she crocheted. As we got older, she and my grandfather built themselves an apartment above the farm manager’s house to escape the insanity of six children. She would then come to the main house with a basket on her arm and “shop” in our cupboards for her breakfast and lunch items. “Joanie,” she would say, “get me two eggs, a cup of butter and the raisin bran.” She never helped with the cooking, but occasionally for family birthdays, she made a huge sponge cake filled with vanilla and chocolate custard and topped with whipped cream. My grandfather was always telling her what to do, which she seemed to accept stoically, but behind his back she knew how to fool him.
Once, while they were spending a weekend on the farm, he brought her a fresh bushel of garden tomatoes and told her to can them while he went off to town. After he left, my grandmother told Angelo, their man of all help, to bring up from the cellar last year’s jars of canned tomatoes and put them in her cottage kitchen. Then, ignoring poor Angelo’s look of astonishment, she insisted he dig a large hole in the back garden and bury the new bushel of tomatoes in the hole. After that, she wiped off the old jars of canned tomatoes and displayed them on her kitchen counter for my Grandfather to see when he came back from town. “See Nicola,” she beamed, “I made the tomatoes like you said.” Grandpa was living proof that a conqueror can never know just how conquered his subjects really are.
My other grandmother, Grandma Telli , was an inspired cook, an artist with the needle and an excellent gardener. Tall and buxom with an angelic face, she had a tendency to ask ingenuous questions that made everyone burst into laughter. She was always telling me “Joanie, listen to me. I know about life. You can’t put an old head on young shoulders, but I can tell you about life. Don’t get married young.” Even as children we never thought for one moment that she knew anything at all about life. She never drove, Poppy did all the shopping or took her shopping, she never had five cents to call her own and was reduced to browsing the five and ten, the one place where he would let her spend a little money. Sometimes her clothes were old fashioned, her makeup never quite put on right, but she sang opera while she gardened in her floppy straw hat and would fly about the kitchen making sure all was presented with style and flair. If we served a tuna salad, she had to shape it and dress it like a fish. Every platter wore a bouquet of arrugala or mint set beside artfully arranged spokes of vegetables. She was the first person I ever knew who introduced drama into everyday cuisine. She once created a stuffed galantine of boned chicken for the guests at her daughter’s wedding, and when the caterer saw her creation, he was overcome with admiration. “ Madame I have never seen anything like it.” When she entered a room she wanted people to admire her beauty, but it was her radiance of warmth and kindness that won her so many friends and admirers.
In spite of his philandering ways, Poppy loved her madly and was wildly jealous of her. She happened to have long show-girl legs and people were always remarking on her looks. This would send Poppy into an attack of jealousy where he would stride up and down shouting in Italian and French that she was shameless and he would now be watching her like a hawk. Their shouting matches were adorable. Never for one moment could anyone be afraid of Poppy’s shouting. He was a short, bald man with a Frenchman’s manner of gesturing, always wore a beret, and had the habit of punctuating everything he said with “eh”. I was once startled to find a picture of him at sixteen with a shock of red wavy hair falling down on his brow, but it was long gone by the time I was born. He had a great appetite, but never gained weight and ate everything with a Frenchman’s gusto. He raved that nothing compared to my grandmother’s sauces, or her lasagna made with crepes, or her roasted quails, or her exquisite egg noodle dough that she scored into the thinnest of strips, her knife strokes a blur as she cut. In the kitchen, he allowed her absolute rule.
Every morning he would make us sing The Marseillaise (he was born in Marseilles) and converse with him in French. If we did a good job he would promise to give us a Sen Sen. How we coveted that one Sen Sen. No one knew that a whole box of Sen Sen cost about a penny. The same with the lemon ice. Occasionally we would visit their apartment in Metropolitan Oval and Poppy would promise that if we were good he would buy us a lemon ice. We were always so thrilled. The lemon ice cost a nickel. It never mattered to us that Grandpa DiMenna took us to Roccano’s, a fabulous local sports store, to buy us whatever we wanted. In our eyes both grandfathers spoiled us. As for the friendship of the two grandmothers, I noticed that Grandma Telli was always fussing over Grandma DiMenna and was always trying to please her, but Grandma DiMenna accepted it all rather stoically. Grandma Telli was perplexed as to why she wasn’t more grateful for her attentions. She would always ask me. “Joanie, why do you think your grandmother doesn’t appreciate me? Don’t I always cook for her and make your grandfather everything he loves? She never says thank you. It isn’t nice.”
Usually as she moaned about this her fingers would be flying as she knitted practically with her eyes closed some gorgeous sweater or continued to embroider a tablecloth with such tiny undetectable stitches that you could use both sides and no one would know the difference. I think the real answer was that Grandpa DiMenna admired Grandma Telli and his wife couldn’t help feeling jealous. Of course her jealousy never went so far as to inspire her to ever do any work. And Grandma Telli continued to throw herself into all the work of preparing those huge farm dinners, picking in the garden and tending all the flower gardens around the house. Grandma DiMenna continued to sit in her rocking chair tatting away on her three-hundred-millionth doily while her daughters-in-law and others toiled away without her. The difference between the two women was that Grandma DiMenna didn’t care at all if people thought she was fabulous and my other grandmother did. A lesson for women everywhere.
What a strange assortment of characters passed through our outdoor and indoor dining room over the years. A host of my grandfather’s friends were invited to come up and see what his riches had bestowed on his family. My grandfather loved to inspire covetousness in the hearts of his friends. My parents had made friends with local folk like Gene Sarazen, the leading golf pro of his day, and Gabriel Heater, the leading radio anchor of his day, plus all their friends from our club back home. Occasionally the two groups would meet on the playing field of our dining table and the conversation was inspired. Mr. Morrocco, a friend of my grandfather’s who happened to start an oil company worth a billion dollars today, told us all at dinner that he only went to the third grade, but he “majored in mathematics.” We laughed then but we’re not laughing now. Another of his friends came with a six year old daughter and a kind of cheap looking wife who kept asking my grandfather to drop by. My grandmother didn’t understand English, but she more than understood the looks that woman was giving her husband and said some very unkind things about her in Italian. There was no mistaking the tone if not the words.
Then we had Dr. Capetta and his “secretary” Josephine who traveled everywhere with him. He remained devoted to Josephine for years until he went to Florida to visit my grandfather (both sets had a house down there not far from each other), fell in love with a neighbor’s wife and tried to run off with her. There was a scene in the local grocery store where the much respected doctor was chased and shot at by the husband. We still talk about that today. I had loved Dr. Capetta because he found me very charming when I would descend the staircase of our home dressed in a borrowed Scheherazade costume glued to my plump body and do a ballet while my father played The Skater’s Waltz on the piano. I mourned the loss of his admiration. Now, I mourn the loss of that time and place – the forties, a country house, a large boisterous family of parents, grandparents, children and friends that gathered together to enjoy a delightful cuisine that has largely disappeared.
Forties Farm Recipes
- Spaghetti Caruso
- Grilled Chicken, marinated in olive oil and mint;
- Boiled beets and greens dressed with olive oil;
- Sponge cake;
- Sponge cake custard;
- Fried Zucchini blossoms;
- Pasta with Genovese sauce;
- Peach or Blackberry Cobbler or Duff;
- Fried Chicken
- Zucchini Salad with vinegar, oil and mint;
- Zucchini with egg, lemon and Parmesan cheese;
- Stuffed Zucchini;
- Stuffed Red Peppers;
- Home Made Tomato Sauce with Meatballs;
- Sausage, peppers and eggs Frittatas;
- Peaches in Red Wine;
- Medluzza (white fish) with Oil and Lemon;
- Easter Tart
- Pizza Rustica.