Written by Art Petrosemolo
It is amazing what sitting down to a favorite meal with long-ago friends can do. It’s not just enjoying a meal you haven’t eaten for years. It suspends time so you remember the era and the friendship like it was yesterday.
That’s exactly what happened to me recently.
Before I tell you about it, let me tell you how food became more than a meal to me 20 years ago. I was very fortunate to work for a dozen years as the chief public relations officer and assistant to the president at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Then-President Michael Adams was a mentor to me late in my career and, although he passed away way too early a decade ago, he taught me a lot, much of it over several meals together. He was a proud member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs—the world’s oldest international gastronomic society founded in Paris in 1248.
The Chen, as it is referred to, is devoted to preserving the camaraderie and pleasures of the table and promoting excellence in all areas of hospitality arts. Occasionally when you are celebrating a special event at a high-end restaurant, you may see the Chen seal in the restaurant lobby, indicating that the chef is a society member. The society’s United States headquarters moved to the Fairleigh Dickinson campus at President Adams’ invitation and still operates out of that location in Madison, New Jersey.
So what does all this French food society stuff have to do with a favorite meal and connecting with friends?
President Adams believed that a lot of important business was conducted over a meal. As you were more relaxed and enjoying the meal and company, the conversation was easier. He practiced that during his presidential tenure and I, fortunately, saw him in action.
For me, recently, I didn’t have an important business deal on the docket but a lunch with a grammar school friend of the mid-20th century. It was a chance to enjoy a meal I always associated with her family, and I thought again of President Adams and the Chen connection.
Judy Votto—of my hometown in New Haven, Connecticut—was a childhood friend as our families were friends. We are the same age, and although we both admit our families had hoped that we might be a couple someday, it just wasn’t to be. I had seen Judy just once—at a 55th-anniversary school reunion—since we graduated in 1957.
Just recently recovered from a tibial plateau fracture of my left leg, I was anxious to get on the road. I was headed to Connecticut for a few days to see my sister and brother-in-law before my sister, who battles rheumatoid arthritis, was having a knee (her second) replaced.
Almost out of nowhere, I got the idea to call Judy, who lost her husband recently, and asked if she wanted to get together for lunch. I was hoping was that she might make a dish for me, an Italian favorite, that I always referred to as “weeds and beans,” but is Escarole and Bean Soup, or what the Italians call, Scadahl and Beans. As grammar school students, we ate it every Friday at her home because Catholics did not eat meat on Fridays back then. Her mother made the absolute best “weeds and beans.”
My wife, Tina, and my sister, Kristina, chided me as they thought it might be a little over the top to ask a friend from 50-plus years ago, whose husband had recently passed away, to cook lunch with her mother’s recipe. Even so that soup is hands down, although the simplest, the best for escarole, a relative of kale and cabbage, and a member of the chicory family.
Judy was happy to hear from me and delighted to recreate the meal (I told my sister and wife she would). She invited me to bring my sister, who unfortunately was working, so I extended the invitation to my brother-in-law.
Judy invited her younger sister and we had about the best reunion over “weeds and beans” imaginable. The hearty soup is made with fresh escarole, white cannellini beans, garlic, red pepper, and chicken stock. That’s it, but it’s the proportions that matter. It’s about how long you cook the escarole, how much of the escarole water you use and the experience of making it for 50-plus years that makes the difference.
My contribution to the lunch—besides the wine—was two loaves of crusty Italian bread from my good friend Bruno Cataldi of the Venice Bakery in Hamden, CT. I’ve known Bruno, a friend of the family, for decades. We trade my strawberry jam and canned peaches for on my frequent visits.
Fortunately, there was just enough leftover soup so I could take a little home for my sister, as well as some for Tina and our neighbor Jan (Roselli) Ford, here at Garden Spot. Although I rarely eat leftovers, the remaining soup was almost better the day after the lunch.
As I drove the 250 miles home, I could not help but think of my friend Michael Adams and his understanding of how the meal makes the event as it made a pleasant two-hour reunion with a grammar school friend so much more than lunch….something truly special.
If you’d like to try Mrs. Votto’s Escarole and Beans Soup recipe, e-mail me at: [email protected].