I thought I was a good cook … until I met Jake. I mean, I’m an okay cook. Because of my Italian grandmother, I never really used recipes until I met Jake. I just kind of made stuff up as I went. I’m getting better at recipes, though. It’s technique that I lack. Jake has technique. His guy friends have technique. I’m working on it.
Growing up, I never paid much attention to cooking. I was a tomboy, so I wasn’t one to stand next to my mom in the kitchen and learn how to someday be a good girlfriend. I do remember rolling out pasta in my grandma’s kitchen once. I remember folding the pasta in halves and stuffing them full of the Great-Grandma Angeli’s spinach/ricotta ravioli recipe. More so, I remember my Uncle Barney.
My Uncle Barney passed away in September of 2008 at the age of 60. It happened in Bali, Indonesia, which wasn’t a surprise. He lived there at least six months of every year, because well … I felt like he was sick of America. He was sick of the politics. Sick of the uber-conservatives. Sick of Toledo, Ohio, maybe. So he lived in other countries most of the time. Like I said, it wasn’t a surprise that he would die in Bali; it was a huge surprise that he actually did die, though, at the age of 60. It didn’t feel real, because even just a week before his death, I was getting emails from Indonesian men, who Barney was trying to marry me off to. He was always a romantic.
Travelling in Italy once, Barney and I were wandering down a back street in Florence, drunk off our bums, as we usually were together. A dark Italian dude was sitting outside a café as we passed, and he started fumbling for words—desperate to say something to get my attention. I didn’t speak Italian, so Barney (who spoke several languages fluently) shoved me into a seat across from the random Italian dude and kept on walking. I yelled at Barney, “Where are you going?” and his response was, “Don’t even think about coming back to the hotel until you have at least one drink with that beautiful man.” See? A romantic.
But most of all, Uncle Barney loved to cook. I remember going to his house, only around three times per year, because he was in America so rarely. Walking up his driveway and into his garage, you could smell the Italian food—usually lasagna or his own version of Great-Grandma’s ravioli. He catered on the side, so there wasn’t the usual lawn equipment in his garage; there were just huge pots and pans. Seriously, you could have cooked a horse in one of those things. In Indonesia, maybe he did. His house was always a disaster area. It was like a multiple personality disorder exploded in there. Every wall was covered in old movies posters, black and white family photos, or gaudy paintings of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Barney was raised Catholic; he was obsessed with nuns and religious icons. One of my favorites, though? A big, black bumper sticker that said, “Can’t sleep: clowns will eat me.”
Most memorably, we would go over there, every year, the week before Christmas for a family feast. Barney’s birthday was Christmas Eve, so he liked turning the holiday season into an extended birthday bash. I loved his Christmas party—so much food, and even more laughter. But it was that smell—like Italian food, with a side of Heaven—that sticks with me, even now. I try to copy it with my own Italian mixtures, but it’s not the same. I can never get the smell just right.
My Uncle Barney really annoyed me sometimes. He was loud, and his guffaw threatened the health of any eardrum within a ten mile radius. He gave these sloppy kisses that left you feeling sticky. And he could be crude and rude—effortlessly. It was just … Barney, or “Barnyard,” as his dear friends called him. But Uncle Barney would have done anything for a friend. If a man had ever disrespected me in front of him, Barney probably would have blown up the guy’s house. And oh, he could cook. He loved to cook. He loved his family. He loved life.
It’s weird sometimes when I realize he’s gone. It’s like I forget, since during his life, I was so accustomed to him being off traveling, far away. It’s like when I go back to Ohio, I still expect him to be there. But he’s not there anymore.
When I cook certain Italian recipes—usually anything with tomatoes and dry sherry—I’ll feel Barney nearby. He would have really liked Jake. In fact, they probably would have ended up in jail for disturbing the peace or something like that. They would have really enjoyed cooking together. Jake’s mom bought me a pasta machine for my birthday. I have the Angeli family ravioli recipe. I guess it’s time to see what I got, but it’ll never be as good as the way Uncle Barney made it.