Recipe Stories

In history books you read about kings and queens, wars and land grabs, treaties and truces, but the history of what goes on in the private domain of kitchens is a little less covered. It’s not in your Social Studies curriculum. 

I think a ruler’s reign is not more interesting than what you love to eat. I’d rather dig through pantry ingredients than make a chart of the rise and fall of empires. 

For instance, these recipes were handwritten by my mom (one by my dad) several decades ago. She wrote them while watching my Aunt Mary bake these confections. Aunt Mary lived upstairs from us in Brooklyn. It was my first address, where I lived from birth to seven years old. Bensonhurst. A mostly Jewish neighborhood, with some Italians tucked in here and there. My best friend, Franny, lived directly across the street.

Aunt Mary, and her husband, Uncle John, were not really my aunt and uncle. They were good friends of my parents, older friends, and as happens in childhood, friends of parents become “relatives.” 

My mom loved Aunt Mary’s cooking and always asked for the recipes. Aunt Mary, would instead say, “Come on up, I’ll show you.” So my mom watched, playing kitchen secretary, and wrote down what was happening. That’s how the recipes became her own.

When I started cooking as an adult, I’d ask my mom how do you make “your” cookies. What about “The Cupcakes?” And the seeded cookies? My mom told me the recipes. And each time she’d tell me the real source, which was always a revelation to me: “That’s not yours? It’s Aunt Mary’s? And this one, too…it’s Aunt Mary’s?”

A lot of them are Aunt Mary’s. She had Sicilian roots and was 1st generation American. My Dad was also. My mom was half and half: Sicilian and Neapolitan. Aunt Mary’s recipes were not always Italian or Sicilian — she made her hybrids from Italian-American life, too. It happens. And not always confections. We make Aunt Mary’s spareribs braised in brown sugar, vinegar, garlic, and mustard. We also love her onion pizza and Swiss cheese pizza.

My mom has a large plastic see-through envelope filled with the handwritten recipes she transcribed in pencil from watching Aunt Mary cook. These papers have seen a lot of use. Mary’s pizza dough recipe (the one I use, too, and the only one I’ve ever seen that has an egg in the dough), was re-transcribed by my dad. He became the pizza maker in our house.

I can still recite the address of that first Brooklyn residence. 1554 West 11th Street. It was next door to Seth Low Junior High. The school’s huge playground faced the side of our house. We were on the “parlor” floor. Aunt Mary upstairs, the landlord downstairs from us. My friend, Franny, and I went to PS 247: Kindergarten, First Grade and Second Grade. It was a 4-5 block walk from our street. When we became first graders, our moms let us walk to school on our own. They even gave us each a dollar for lunch. At lunchtime, we’d walk to the big and busy Bay Parkway, and go to Andre’s for a hamburger and French fries. I remember those lunches. We’d enter among a sea of legs, adult legs, all crowding at the counter to get their lunches. Somehow we 6-year-olds prevailed and ate lunch sitting on the low sill in Andre’s street-facing plate-glass window.

My mom confessed later that they’d sometimes come to check on us. They’d see us in the window happily nibbling our French fries. They didn’t bother us, or say hi. They just checked.

Current Google image of 1554 West 11th Street
PS 247 Bensonhurst, Brooklyn

Savory Spare Ribs from Brooklyn

West 11th Street, Brooklyn

West 11th Street, Brooklyn

Now I’m getting a little silly with Google maps and their wild way of getting you an image of a particular building. Snapshots from my past appear with a few key strokes (plus my solid memory of addresses!).

The building in the photo above is the first house I ever lived in. It’s on West 11th Street in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. Those two windows on the first floor were my bedroom. It was a railroad apartment…each room right next to the other in a long line. My bedroom, led into my parents’ bedroom, led into the living room/dining room, led into the kitchen and then continued down a long hallway to the bathroom.

My Aunt Mary and Uncle John lived upstairs. They weren’t really my aunt and uncle but that’s how I knew them.  They were friends of my parents — I assume they met because they lived upstairs. But my Aunt Mary became a mentor to my mom (who was a new bride, a new mom) and showed her recipes, gave her tips, and was, in general, there for her.

Mary and John were Sicilian. So the recipes followed suit, but they were also somehow influenced by this New World, this New York, this Brooklyn. Every recipe of Aunt Mary’s is wonderful. And each has lived within my family for years and years and are still reliable favorites.

Here’s her spin on spare ribs or baby back ribs. We made these recently in a cooking class with a menu of  Aunt Mary recipes!

Ribs-Aunt Mary Style

Ribs-Aunt Mary Style

Braised Pork Ribs w Mustard & Brown Sugar

1 rack of baby back ribs or spare ribs, cut into 2-3 bone pieces

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup vinegar, divided

2-3 bay leaves

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2-3 teaspoons mustard

salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degree F.

Season ribs with salt  & pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Brown ribs until golden on each side. Mix a couple of cups of water with half the vinegar. Pour over ribs and add bay leaves and some hot pepper. Let simmer partially covered for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile mix together the remaining brown sugar and vinegar with the garlic and mustard (add a bit more of any of these ingredients if you lean that way). Season with salt & pepper. Lift out ribs from the cooking liquid and transfer to a foil-lined sheet pan. Coat ribs with the sauce. Cover loosely with foil and bake in oven for 20-30 minutes until tender. Cut ribs into single pieces, pour any remaining sauce over them and serve.

Ribs-Aunt Mary Style

Ribs-Aunt Mary Style

Deceptively AMAZING!

Here’s my class who are now Aunt Mary Recipe experts (and enjoying all)! We also made Aunt Mary’s Baked Rice w Mushrooms & Celery, and Vanilla Cupcakes w Chocolate-Espresso Icing.

Cooking Class for Aunt Mary Recipes

Cooking Class for Aunt Mary Recipes