- Bob Puglisi
GRANDMA KNEW HOW TO FRY – SEPTEMBER 2022
(Grandpa & Grandma Puglisi)
Growing up, my mother often fried veal cutlets and eggplant. The fried eggplant was used in eggplant parmigiana. My father was picky about his veal cutlets—they had to be cut very thin, just a quarter-inch thick. I remember my mother telling the butcher, “Please slice them thin because that’s how my husband likes them.” It was a big deal in our house. I don’t make veal cutlets; I make chicken cutlets using breasts, sliced, pounded to around a quarter of an inch, dipped in egg, then breadcrumbs. I also like to make eggplant parmigiana. Whenever I’m frying either of these, I’m reminded of my grandmother Rosa Puglisi, my father’s mother.
Grandma had a summer place in Copiague, Long Island’s South Shore. We called it the bungalow. There was a small two-bedroom, one-bath white house in the front and a big screened-in room behind the front house. It had a long table where we ate our meals, played board games or cards, and had long conversations. I loved listening to Grandma tell stories. The stories were always in her Sicilian dialect, which I didn’t understand, but my parents did. Something about the ring of the words she spoke intrigued me. I wished I understood the language.
Every summer, Grandma planted a big garden on her property. We ate lots of fresh produce from that garden.
When I fry chicken cutlets or eggplant for a parmigiana, it reminds me of my grandmother frying at her little four-burner stove in that summer kitchen. It’s the only time I would see her cook. Grandma was Sicilian, and all her meals were mouth-watering. Although, I wouldn’t say I liked some of the things she made—like squash and spaghetti. I think it had egg cooked into the sauce. I was not an egg eater as a child. The squash, of course, came from her garden. That same squash also had orange-yellow squash blossoms that she put in a batter and fried. My parents loved them and the spaghetti and squash.
Grandma seemed happiest when she was standing at the stove cooking. Well, it’s hard to say she was happy because she didn’t smile much. She was always dressed in black and had a horrible hump on her back. When I asked my parents about the hump, my father said, “She got it from carrying me to doctors and hospitals because I was sick a lot as a child.” But it could have been a result of poor posture. She was a tailor and spent hours bending over a sewing machine. I often watched her stooped over tending to her garden. That didn’t help either. She wore black, mourning my grandfather, who died when I was about 4 or 5. Her children would tell her that she didn’t have to wear black anymore, but they couldn’t sway her into lighter colors.
I loved watching her at the stove. When I fry cutlets or eggplant, the oil is either not hot enough or gets too hot; after a while, it seems to evaporate, and I must add more oil. I don’t think grandma had those problems. I try to control the heat by lowering or raising the temperature by turning the gas nob. I think she had some secret that she brought over from the old country. She would stand there—this little woman, and with a fork in one hand, she would gently raise what she was simmering to check for doneness. She was so patient as she turned over the pieces in the hot oil. I don’t think she ever burned anything. Her fried food always came out perfectly. I’m not that lucky or skilled. Some of my pieces are overcooked on one side and unevenly browned on the other.
Grandma didn’t peel the eggplant skin. The bitterness of that skin added flavor to the dish. My mother told me years later that my grandmother put just a little bit of tomato sauce between the layers of eggplant, which she only covered with grated parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese. Then, she put more grated cheese on the top layer and covered it with Parmigiano cheese (the same cheese you put on pizza). She baked it in the oven. I use the same recipe. I don’t know—mine tastes pretty good, and I’ve gotten many compliments, but it never tastes as good as Grandma Puglisi’s.
(My Eggplant Parm)
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