Every few months, San Franciscans seem to pounce upon some new kind of culinary fad that much of the rest of the world has known about for years. In this city, though, we like to market the “new” food or drink to an upscale crowd and imply that it is appreciated only by the discriminating connoisseur.
For awhile we had a polenta craze. Polenta is basically cornmeal that, over the last few centuries, has been eaten as a staple by poor and working-class Italians because it was cheap and filling. We ate it all the time as kids, boiled one day and fried as leftovers the next. However, restaurants over here can throw some truffles on it to fancy it up and then charge an arm and a leg for a dollop of the stuff because it’s “artisanal.” Right now it seems that cauliflower and pork bellies also are beginning to dominate the more lavish menus.
Along these dubious lines, a couple of weeks ago the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article highlighting the recent popularity of bitter liqueurs called amari. (Amaro, the singular, means “bitter” in Italian.) The article said that 70 percent of the amari in the United States are consumed in San Francisco. Entire bars are now devoted to amari, some of them even offering “amaro flights.”
The cool, glamorous amaro liqueur that everyone in the “bitters cult” orders is called Fernet. I tried it a few years ago, and I would say that you, too, will love it if you enjoy the memorable taste of chewed-up aspirin.
Needless to say, I hate Fernet. And for the most part I have not been able to figure out what all the fuss is about. I have had no amore for amaro.
However, not long ago Julie and I were dining at Poesia (pronounced “Poh-eh-ZEE-ah,” Italian for “poetry”), our favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco. Mistrustful of most recommendations, a number of years ago I had asked an off-the-boat Italian teacher from Bergamo to tell me which SF Italian restaurant she found to be the most delicious and authentic. She suggested Poesia and I’ve found her advice to be right-on. It’s not in North Beach – the ever-changing once-Italian neighborhood – but it sits on 18th Street, in an old Victorian home in the Castro. Classic black-and-white Italian movies are projected silently on one of the walls. The food is consistently delicious, and the owner and some of the servers are bona fide Italians.
Anyway, the cocktail menu that day included a drink called Vecchio Amaro del Capo, which means Old Amaro from Capo, a town in the Italian region of Calabria. I had never heard of it, but the ever-adventurous Julie ordered it as her dessert.
We each had a sip, and our lives changed instantly.
Vecchio Amaro del Capo is an aromatic, amber-hued mix of 29 herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers in a secret blend that tastes like orange, cinnamon, cloves, caramel, ginger, sarsaparilla, and a hint of licorice. It is both bitter and sweet. It is spicy, piquant, peppery, and complex. It smells like cedar. It jazzes up your taste buds. Essentially, it’s Christmas in a Glass.
At 70 proof, the drink is strong, so like all luxurious beverages, it’s best sipped in small amounts. Because it carries a moderate measure of bitterness, the people of Calabria (according to the waitress) like to cut its potency with a few squeezes of fresh orange and serve it on the rocks with a slice of orange dropped in for a celebratory garnish. That’s how it came to our table that fateful night. But it can also be savored straight. The important thing is that it must be poured frosty cold, right out of the freezer.
Take time with it. Cherish it.
A few years ago, I was talking to a cherubic nursing home resident who told me that he envisioned heaven as being a place where he would float in the air above a beautiful meadow, holding a cocktail in each hand. I smiled at that image. My cocktail of choice would be Vecchio Amaro del Capo.
I believe in heaven. My Catholic school stint undoubtedly cemented that belief, but my convictions had settled firmly into place in my heart years before I first set foot at St. Victor’s Elementary.
It wasn’t until my parents passed away that I earnestly petitioned for some kind of confirmation of the afterlife. My father went first, in 2009. He had suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for about 15 years – an eternity. Mom cared for him at home for 14 of those years, as he slowly lost his mind. For a good while he knew it, too; I remember clearly the time he asked me, pleadingly, “Will I ever get better?” I lied to him, as you have to do with Alzheimer’s patients. “Oh, you’ll definitely get better soon, Dad,” I reassured him. Then I ran into another room and bawled. In his last year, when he moved into the anger stage, he had to be placed in a dementia facility. Neutered by anti-psychotic drugs, he lived there until his organs shut down many months later. He didn’t know me at the end, and Mom didn’t think he knew her, either, but I swear that the last thing he did before he died was stare piercingly at her face, as if he wanted to silently declare to her his love and recognition.
I drove Mom back to her house in the hours after Dad died, and when we got there we agreed that we needed to have a glass of wine. I took a bottle of sauvignon blanc out of the refrigerator and set it on the kitchen counter. Then I went out in the garage and, out loud, asked Dad if there were any possibility that he could show me a sign that he was finally free and happy. (With the firm caveat that the sign NOT be scary!) Hand to God, just as I came inside and walked back into the kitchen, the cork loudly popped off the bottle – all by itself.
Two years ago my mother died. It was very different. She and I e-mailed each other nearly every day, although we’d skip a day every once in a while when she had a doctor’s appointment or when she was otherwise occupied at the local casino. She had completely beaten bladder cancer a couple of years earlier, so there were no immediate health issues to alarm me. It didn’t concern me, then, when a day or two went by and she didn’t return my e-mail or answer my phone call. But on the morning of the third day an unexpected chill went through me, and I called her friend and neighbor Linda, who said that Mom hadn’t shown up for a planned outing with her that morning. Certain of the outcome, I asked Linda to go check on Mom, whom she found lifeless on the dining room floor. Mom had smoked heavily since the age of 19, and although we don’t know for sure, we believe that she died suddenly of either a heart attack or a stroke. It was how she would have wanted to go, and she had prepared all of us in every way possible, both logistically and emotionally. She had let all of her wishes be known and had purchased a plot next to my father. And she had shown me great faith and strength by example. I will always be grateful for the life I had with her and the tools she left me with.
A few days later, a slightly freakish natural event occurred outside my bedroom window. A huge bird – I have no idea what it could have been – whizzed so low and loudly past the window that I was dumbstruck. It was like a shooting star in bird form. Even though nothing like that had ever happened before (or since), I didn’t ascribe any special meaning to it. But that afternoon my sister called from Washington and mentioned that a huge bird had whizzed low and loudly past her window, startling her. I asked her when that had happened, and it turned out that both birds had hurtled past our windows at the same time.
Still not completely convinced that there was anything more to that potential coincidence, I decided to ask Mom to show me a “sign” as I had asked Dad to do so. I was about to start ironing at the time (yes, I still iron!), and I turned on the television as I always do. And there was Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. No particular significance there, I thought. But then he started singing to her: “Heaven, I’m in heaven . . . .”
Now, I’m no fool. All of these events easily could be explained by science or sheer coincidence or the mathematics of odds or my wishful thinking. The bottle of white wine had a plastic cork that probably – because of expansion, contraction, condensation, or some other physical principle I don’t understand – was destined to loosen itself from that bottle anyway. The astoundingly dramatic low-flying birds were happenstance. Fred Astaire crooning those “Cheek to Cheek” lyrics about heaven? Sheer coincidence.
And I also know that many of us need to believe in the afterlife because the idea of it comforts us and allows us to make some sense out of mortality. The notion of our nonexistence is just too difficult to bear.
But it’s the timing of the cork, the birds, and the song that has stayed with me.
When I asked Dad for a sign, he did the very thing that Gerald Bocciardi, if alive, would have done. It was clever. It was passionately Italian. It was brilliantly symbolic. I believe he was saying to me, “I am finally free. Don’t grieve for me, my daughter. Raise a toast to my liberation!”
Mom loved Dad, fiercely, until the day she died. He was her absolute one and only. I believe that, during the last couple of years of her life, she secretly hoped to be with him sooner rather than later. Perhaps she sent the two birds as symbols that their love had once again taken wing.
As for the Fred Astaire moment, well, the lyrics are obvious. Mom was telling me to stop my doubting.
I have friends and family members with all manner of religious affiliations, or lack thereof. I carry absolutely no judgment of other religions, or of atheism or agnosticism. I consider spirituality to be a private matter. (Until, that is, I decide to discuss mine in a public blog, for reasons I frankly can’t explain.)
More importantly, though, I strongly maintain that our values and beliefs, whether religious or secular, have to be accompanied by humility.
On the one hand, I don’t want to be bludgeoned by fanatics of any stripe. Do not wield your religion as a cudgel. Your God might not resemble my God; your scriptural interpretations might not resemble mine; your imagined heaven might not resemble my own. Please don’t tell me that you know what does or doesn’t happen after our time on earth because you don’t know. No one does. It is arrogant of you to fancy yourself to be in possession of the secrets to the universe.
On the other hand, please don’t dismiss me as ignorant, or as a naïve, polyannish idiot, because I subscribe to Christianity. I’m strongly disappointed by the arrogance of judgmental nonbelievers who seem to feel that science disproves the existence of God and have no problem telling me so. In my view, science and religion can easily co-exist because science is about knowledge based on proof while religion is about faith in something that by its nature cannot be proved. Faith requires humility because it involves a belief in something that we, as coarse and limited human beings, cannot even begin to imagine.
I’ve had people explain to me that it is the amount of cruelty and suffering in the world that prevents them from embracing the idea of a loving God. But for me, it is the very unfairness and inequity governing our lives that supports my belief in something beyond our mortal coil. In my mind there has to be the prospect of an ultimately level playing field and universal happiness for everyone. Otherwise, our disparate life experiences would be so unfair as to be beyond all reason and purpose. Why should I have been as privileged as I have been?
And by the way, science actually bolsters my belief in God. As my family members can groaningly attest, I have been yapping for decades about how my college Entomology class not only was absolutely scintillating but also provided me with proof about a much higher power. I won’t go into details about the physiology of every kind of bug, but there are up to 30 million species of insects in the world. Not individual insects, but species! And each type of insect has complex and flawless physiological, nutritional, and reproductive patterns and systems that would blow you away. Did all those millions of species just spontaneously emerge from the primordial muck, or did they all, as I believe, evolve in a beautiful piece of divinely guided choreography?
Whatever your own beliefs may be, I am thinking about you, my friends and family, this holiday season. I am inhaling deeply the frosty air, the mulled spices, the food, the drink, the music, the love and friendship. I am reflecting on the choreography of our lives, and I am grateful for our differences.
You know, Dad loved to dance, but Mom was shy and would typically demur. I choose to believe that somewhere they are dancing together now, gliding effortlessly along a meadow – each holding a golden goblet of Vecchio Amaro del Capo.
It is, after all, Paradise in a Glass.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1971 and 1987.
“Today we went up to Mrs. Moore’s and Miss Azama’s cabin in the Sierras. They have a lot of records, including one by the Four Tops which has ‘Reach Out – I’ll Be There’ on it, a fantastic song which I almost never hear. Mom said maybe I could take it home and record it. [They also have] a color T.V. and a stereo set with radio, record player, and 8-track tape player. Also it has headphones. Wow, what class!”
“Mrs. Dossa [our neighbor] asked Jan [my sister] and me to go to S.F. with her and her sister. What a day! I got up at 7:00 so I could go to San Francisco at 9:00. The bath alone took an hour. It was tiring. I don’t have the money to shop around, and I don’t really like it. We went to Union Street. Big deal! She made us pay for our own lunch and made her sister pay, too. Jan and I had a sandwich and a Coke, $1.67 and .50 apiece respectively. I would much rather have gone to the Wharf. There they have shops, plus you can take a Bay Cruise, walk along the dock and smell crab and stuff and eat Fish ‘n’ Chips.”
(Ed.’s note: this was a full 18 years before I first picked up a drumstick)
“Sue Lajon came by at about 2:00 today to talk. It’s good to talk to her because she laughs at just about anything. Rudy has arranged for Bruce Tambling to give me free drum lessons. I think it might be neat to have the beat.”
“Today (Sunday) the rest of the family went fishing. Until 1:00 I watched T.V., took Baron [our dog] out, read, and listened to the radio. Before the Gallos came I had an entire package of graham crackers, root beer, and two buttered corn tortillas. They picked me up and took me to a little carnival they had and I ate an entire package of licorice, a hot dog, and a Coke. We stopped back at Gallos for a few minutes, and I called Mrs. Rosales [our neighbor] to ask her to PLEASE lock our downstairs door and close the garage because they’d kill me if they came home to find I’d forgotten. Then we went back to the carnival and we played basketball with these guys. Then I ate an ice cream bar and a mess of sunflower seeds. At 7:00 the Gallos took me home, and on the way we stopped at MacDonald’s and I had a Big Mac, Root Beer, and some candy. Nourishing, huh? Oh, by the way, I won a goldfish.”
“I used to like to believe that the first time somebody asked me to go steady would be very romantic, and I would be very shy. But it wasn’t like that. Rudy asked me tonight while we were playing ‘capture the flag’ in the orchard. I guess it didn’t really count.”