Writing for Pimento

Tiptoeing across Aunt Josie’s living room, my brother Lou and I had only one goal in mind – the unique pantry Aunt Josie kept in her Chelsea apartment. We could hear our uncles playing scuba, a kind of Sicilian gin rummy. They had taken over the dining room table and the smoke from six fat Romeo e Julieta’s and their occasional calls of “scuba!” floated into us. The aunts were gathered in the kitchen, stirring the sauce pot, grating sharp parmigiano and discussing the latest antics of whichever cousin was on their current watch list. Dinner was miles away.

Scuba was fascinating to me primarily because no one else in my second grade class had ever heard of it and I could play pretty well for a seven year old. My grandfather had taught me to play that year using saltine crackers to place wagers. Things usually got pretty messy if I was winning.

My father’s father, Grandpa Jim had also introduced me to the miracle of stuffed artichokes and the delicate task of extracting the delicious heart from its many layers of spiny leaves. The process of preparing, cooking and then eating these bread crumbed beauties took on legendary proportions in our Sicilian household. My grandfather would regularly cook a batch and carry the whole pot, oven mitts in hand, down the one short block to our house. The largest, most stuffed artichoke would frequently have a small wooden toothpick inserted into the top. “That one is for my Caterina,” Grandpa Jim would growl in case anyone else got any ideas in their head.

Years earlier, my grandfather and his three siblings had purchased a four story New York City apartment building together, in the Chelsea neighborhood. Grandpa Jim, Aunt Josie, Uncle Sam and Aunt Rita had all chipped in for the building and they each claimed a floor to themselves, above the small market on the street level. It was here that our family spent many long Sunday afternoons, visiting, gossiping, cooking and most importantly, eating.

Aunt Josie had converted a small coat closet into a kitchen pantry. During a robust game of hide and seek one day, my brother and I had discovered the trove of 1960’s canned goods. Tins of Spam, Heinz 57 and anchovies soaked in oil all waited in storage but we went right for the Best of Shelf, the jars of green Spanish olives stuffed with red pimento. We couldn’t believe our luck!

Lou and I took turns, jamming our fingers into the cool vinegar juice and pulling out one after another of those little salty treats. When we had our fill, we simply covered the jar and placed it back on the shelf. It was many years before I finally wondered what Aunt Josie had done with all those half-eaten jars, the ones with the cloudy juice and the little red bits floating at the top.

And it’s those little red bits that keep me going. This story swims in me like pimento in vinegar water. I’m writing for pimento. I’m writing for the aunts in the kitchen and that boy and girl with olive juice dripping from their fingers. I’m pretty sure I’m writing for the whole darn pantry.

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