Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Family Reunion or The War of the Rice Pudding . . .

Me and my cousin, Len
Len's rice pudding
My cousin Maria hosted a family reunion of sorts at her house during Easter week. She loves to cook and they love to eat. The day before Easter six of my cousins, Arlene and five of her children, arrived from Florida. I’m sitting on my sofa at 10:30 am Saturday morning when the phone rings. It’s my cousin Lenny saying he is starving and they are waiting for us to get there to order pizza. It's too early for lunch, I’m thinking he is joking, but of course he makes it clear he isn’t. Seems they took an early flight and were up at 3 am getting ready. It’s been a long time since they’ve eaten. In order to get Len to calm down about his current hunger crisis, I promise to make him rice pudding this week. That worked like a charm. But, it seems he had me on speakerphone the whole time, unbeknownst to me. So as he calms down, his sister is calling out something in the background that I can‘t hear. He answers, “I’m on Nina’s side now.” I happen to ask, “What does she want?” and I guess those were fighting words and set the tone for the visit.

I get to Maria’s a couple of hours later with my hands full of desserts and the loaves of Italian Twist bread covered in sesame seeds that everyone loves. As I try to open the door, out pops Len’s sister, Laura, giving me a piece of her mind all because she thinks I am favoring her brother, Len, with the rice pudding. The war begins. My cousin Lenny and his wife, Darlene, had visited us one Easter many years ago. At the time I made this rice pudding and he enjoyed it and never forgot about it. Whenever I post on facebook about making rice pudding for the holidays, he always comments on how good it is. So of course, while he is here, I was going to make it for him. I left it up to him if he wanted to share it or not. It’s Len’s rice pudding. That didn’t sit well with Laura. After that “warm” welcoming, we had a nice lunch of pizza, followed by a an amazing dinner of Maria’s pasta and homemade meat sauce. In between meals we had a few Fireball shots, but even the shots didn’t put out the rice pudding war. The “What does she want?” innocent comment that I made that morning, and was overheard via Laura’s “eaves-dropping,” plagued me the whole day. I guess she really wanted that rice pudding?

The next morning, Easter Sunday, we went back to Maria’s for a feast of ham, two kinds of turkey, sweet potato, broccoli and cheese, Italian bread, stuffing and cranberry sauce. My daughter, Lauren, was DJing the music. Everybody in the house was “jumpin’, jumpin’.” There were 18 of us at the table and guess who winds up sitting next to me? That’s right, my cousin Laura. It had to be God’s plan to put us together and work out the rice pudding issue. I heard she didn’t like raisins in her rice pudding, so I jokingly said I would add some to the batch I was going to make just to egg her on (not that she needed much egging). But, in reality, I wasn’t going to tamper with the recipe and I wasn’t backing down about making it for Len. At least Len was happy the whole time! We ate our Italian pastries of Napoleons and cannolis, had shots of Fireball, but never settled the rice pudding war or the alleged favoritism. Oh well.

Now, with all the hype about the rice pudding, I was getting a little nervous. What if the rice wasn’t cooked long enough and it was hard? No one wants “al dente” rice in their pudding. What if I cooked it a minute too long and instead of being soft and creamy it turned out dry and too thick. I twisted and turned in bed all Monday night over it because I didn’t want Len to be disappointed. So Tuesday, the day before everyone was coming here for lunch, I made my batch of rice pudding. I watched over it, check the directions a few times, and made sure to follow it exactly. When it was done, I poured in the tray and posted a picture of the finished product, nicely sprinkled with cinnamon. Off into the refrigerator it went to chill.

Can't seem to make Laura happy.

Wednesday morning arrives and I get a call at 9 am from Len saying they are five minutes away. What a little joker! I knew they all had to get up, have breakfast, shower and visit the cemetery before popping in, but he wanted to throw a scare in me. It didn’t work. While we waited for everyone to get here, the five foot Italian hero and salads I ordered had been delivered and we set the table. Everyone enjoyed the hero and the salads and olives. We share some stories and Laura mentions her husband, Mike, was a “player” before they got married. That comes as a total surprise to Mike. She said he dated every girl on the block before dating her. I said Mike doesn’t seem like a player. They probably asked him out and he was too polite to say no. Turns out that was the truth. After a short breather to digest lunch, I see Len is back at the table with his little bowl and spoon beckoning me to come over. I know what that means. I take out his container of rice pudding from the refrigerator and place it in directly in front of him, offering him a little more cinnamon and whipped cream. He loves it! I then get a tray of brownies that I made that morning for everyone else. Laura fills her glass with wine to drown the sorrow from the sight of her brother digging in to the rice pudding. Then Len, big hearted guy that he is, decided to share his good fortune with everyone else. After all her complaining, Laura got her rice pudding, with extra cinnamon no less. She told me how delicious it was. Now you would think at this point we both got our satisfaction and could make peace, but no. As everyone was preparing to leave, I packed up the remaining rice pudding and wrote “Lenny’s Rice Pudding” on the container for him to take. I packed a couple of brownies for Len’s wife, Darlene. Now Laura was upset all over again because I hadn’t packed her a personal snack to go. She pours herself another glass of white wine, which is sweet, but not as sweet as rice pudding.

Liana and I chatting in Italian

Friday barbeque at Maria’s! Will the rice pudding come up again? I resolve to myself that I will not to be the first to mention it. And I wasn’t. Greg did. When we arrived at Maria’s the house was quiet. Fortunately, all my cousins were too exhausted from their trip into New York City the day before to continue much of a war. On top of that, they were too full from eating all week to care any more about rice pudding. Maria’s son, Joe, made us some delicious shish kabob on the grill. We polished off a couple of loaves of Italian bread and had cheesecake and coffee for dessert. We did some more reminiscing and story telling and it seemed like half the crowd had either a cold or allergies. My brother, Vin, was wearing his hoodie and curled up in a ball on the couch with the chills. That’s the rotten New York weather we had all week, rainy, chilly, cloudy and just plain miserable. They are used to that Florida sunshine, but the sun over here just blinks. Later on some of the cousins went out to the drug store for some cold “remedies” and when they returned they made “bocci ball” drinks. I don’t know what kind of “medicine” Rite Aid carries these days, but soon everyone had a drink in hand and seemed to be feeling better. My cousin Frank’s girlfriend, Liana, came over and told me she just started studying a little Italian. She picked up about four or five phrases and she had the accent down pretty good for a beginner. I was impressed. Maybe I’ll teach her “C’e La Luna Mezz’o Mare,” like Aunt Serina did on an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” on the next holiday. Speaking of Italy, my cousin Lenny tells the story of when he lived in Italy and his wife, Darlene, went out to buy a dozen eggs. Apparently she mixed up the word for eggs (uova) with the word for men (uomi) and ended up ordering a dozen men (which they were only too happy to give her). My older daughter, Melissa, and her boyfriend, Matt, arrived after work too. It was our final night all together because my cousins were returning to Florida the next day so we had to make the most of it . . . between the sneezing and coughing.

Darlene tells me about her shopping in Italy

I took Italian twist bread orders so they could take a couple of loaves home with them. I sent my husband to the bakery before nine in the morning to get eight loaves, three more then they asked for. The bakery only had seven loaves, so he bought them all. On our way to Maria’s I stopped at the pretzel guy on the corner and got eight big soft NY pretzels for them to take to the airport to snack on while waiting for the plane. Len’s wife, Darlene, used a vacuum to take air out of the clothes bags to make room for the bread in her suitcase. Laura managed to find room in her suitcase for her loaves too. I stayed a couple of hours while everyone was taking turns showering and packing their bags. A lively little debate ensues when my cousin Greg tries to explain to Frank what it means to be a “real” football fan. Greg loves the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it seems that even though they are losing every game, he is loyal to the team. Nothing on earth can get him to miss a game. It’s all that gets him going. He is a loyal, diehard fan. Frank, on the other hand, isn’t quite as devoted to any one team as he is to watching the best teams play each other. He is interested in watching the skills and challenges of the sport, not some lame team who can’t win a game if their life depended on it. Greg calls him a “band-wagoner,” because he will switch teams depending on who is winning. In this debate I tend to side with Frank. It’s not much fun watching a team lose time and time again.

Frank and Greg can't agree.

The week went by so fast. Where did the time go? Let's toast to Family Reunions! To Memories! To Laughs! To Food! To Italian Bread! And to Rice Pudding! Until we all meet again.

Here is the recipe in case you want to try it:


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