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The shameful secret in our basement

It is a well-known fact that I can be bribed to do almost anything with the promise of my mother’s frittata. Just last week, I rearranged my Saturday to walk my parents’ dog, Rufus, in exchange for a 12-egg fluffy frittata with my name on it.

frittataAs I sampled my egg earnings, my father mused, “you know, when I was a kid, my mother would send me to school with peppers and eggs for lunch and I would be so embarrassed. And here you are, hoarding this simple omelet as if it were gold.”

I wash down the frittata with a shot of espresso and a smile. “Why were you so embarrassed?”

“While my friends were brandishing plain bologna sandwiches on Wonder Bread with the crusts cut off, I was carrying an olive-oil stained brown paper bag that smelled like an Italian restaurant. I was weird. And I was jealous. Jealous of … bologna.”

“You know, Dad, you could have made yourself a sandwich.”

“Well smarty-pants, I tried that. But the closest I ever came to a bologna sandwich was mortadella on scali bread. Not exactly the same thing.”

“Sounds delicious to me. I’d be proud to take a mortadella sandwich to work tomorrow.”

“And that is exactly my point. It is all incredibly cosmopolitan now. It wasn’t always quite so glamorous to grow up Italian American. You had it easy.”

That’s where my father is wrong. And so I remind him about the winter of 1993 — the winter we hid a secret in our basement.

Unlike many Italian Americans, our basement is not home to a small supermarket. My aunts and uncles, for example, hoard multiples of everything from cans of crushed tomatoes, to bottles of chinotto, and everything in between. My relatives are the original doomsday preppers; should a zombie apocalypse ever hit, we are covered for a while … a long while.

Our basement on the other hand, is simply divided into two rooms — an unheated storage room, and a cozy family room — and offers no salvation from the end of the world. And 20 years ago, we were hiding something in the storage room.

It sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? To be fair, we weren’t harboring a fugitive, or a secret passageway to a bank vault, and there weren’t any bodies buried, but I was still paranoid to have friends over to hang out … and with good reason.

prosciutto1It all started on a cool October Sunday afternoon when my dad came home with a massive hunk of raw pork — a hind leg to be exact — and declared that he was going to turn it into prosciutto. I assumed we would be cooking it up for pranzo later in the day. What I didn’t realize is that the meat would be undergoing a slow transformation from raw to cured in a corner of the storage room.

Every week after Sunday dinner, my dad would sneak down to the basement and perform his ritual of carefully bathing and thoroughly massaging the meat. It was as if he was performing a sacrament. Some nights I would join him, simultaneously disgusted and fascinated with the process. After a few months, a very distinct odor started to permeate the basement — a very sweet smell of meat. I tried not to think of the pig it was once was, and instead I focused on the deliciousness that awaited us. I visualized the freshly sliced prosciutto paired with just-out-of-the-oven focaccia; thoughts of salty sandwiches danced in my head. But I digress…

My mother advised me not to share the details of the prosciutto project with my friends and classmates. She didn’t need to explain why. I understood that it was unconventional, to say the least. Secrets, however, have a way of coming out, and ours was discovered by my friend Kelly.

Let me set the stage: Kelly and I are hanging out and doing our nails in the family room … mere meters and a thin, wood paneled wall separating us from the secret. As we brush on a bubble gum flavor of pink to our nails, we do what all seventh-grade girls do … we gossip.

“Do you think Joe likes Melissa?” I ask.

“I dunno. .. maybe … what is that smell?”

“Ahhhhh … smell? What smell? I don’t smell anything.” (Oh no! We’ve been made!)

“Well, I smell something strange … and I think it is coming from the other room,” Kelly gestures with her wet nails as she asks the question I am dreading, “What’s in there?”

“It’s nothing! Maybe the nail polish fumes are going to your head?” My voice is squeaky and I’m talking too fast. Can she tell I’m lying?

“I can tell you’re lying.” We look at each other for minute, and then she looks back to her nails and says, “Well anyway, what makes you think Joe likes Melissa?”

I’m not sure why she’s dropped it, but I’m grateful and relieved. We return to gossiping for the next half hour, until we hear the honk of a car horn. Kelly’s mom is here to pick her up.

As we walk by the door to the laundry room, Kelly gives me a weird look and I don’t know what it means until it’s too late. She makes a run for the doorknob, hits the light switch, and walks into the cold room. She takes one look at the hanging hunk of pig leg, and her eyes widen.

hamsx“What … is … that?”

“It is prosciutto. My dad is curing it.”

“Curing it from what? Is it sick?”

“Ah … no … see … well … it is not a big deal. He’s just making it more delicious. You can taste it when it is done.”

“Ahhhh, no thanks. I think I’m all set. I … ah … better go.” She leaves without looking me in the eye.

After the front door closes, I run my hand through my hair, smudging my wet nails. “Shoot!” I yell as my dad passes me on his way to the kitchen. “Ooooh, nice nails, Daniela. Looks like the color of prosciutto.”

About Danielle Festino

Danielle was born and raised in Stoneham, now resides in Medford, and has roots in Puglia. In 2004, she graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in International Relations and Italian Studies. She is passionate about telling stories and hopes to provide a glimpse into what it means to grow up Italian-American.

3 comments

  1. LOVED IT!! Xo

  2. Very cute story. Looking forward to hearing more from you.