Moms Who Put Out

Like most young men, we were either hungry or horny or both, and we knew the mothers could satisfy at least our hunger.

Gina Prestopino’s mom was an insomniac, so she put out day and night. Her mother baked ziti at 11:30 p.m., for instance, when Gina and I were trying to sneak in from a date. Mrs. Prestopino was Polish and she learned to cook Italian for the mister; it was a culinary marriage made in heaven. Sometimes she put out sausage and peppers or stuffed cabbage. She never left the kitchen--canning tomatoes or beans, sweating through August afternoons, or perched on a stool at night smoking Larks and listening to talk radio, and always ready with an apple or ricotta pie.

Gina drove me crazy on several counts, but I pretty much wheedled my way into the family, if only to sit in the kitchen over a plate of pasta fagiole with Gina’s two younger sisters joining in and making me feel like they wanted me to marry their sister as soon as possible. I loved the food and attention.

Every Christmas Eve, Mrs. Prestopino really put out. She served a feast for at least twenty guests, then mounded the table with fried smelts and baccala, lupini beans, nuts, cheese, nougat candies, kumquats, oranges, cookies, apples, and hemmed it all in with carafes of homemade wine. We sang and ate and flirted, and Mrs. Prestopino blushed with overwhelming joy and pride and exhaustion. When it came time for everyone to leave for midnight Mass, I’m sure she leaned back and lit a climactic cigarette.

Throughout high school and college, my pals and I often piled into one of our fathers’ cars and visited girls we knew. We showed up without warning, but the moms usually threw their arms around us, regardless of their daughters’ ennui. Like most young men, we were either hungry or horny or both, and we knew the mothers could satisfy at least our hunger. Three of us might show up, sit around the kitchen table and do our best to entertain the daughter and maybe one of her friends, but we saved our real charm for the moms, especially when we could smell braciole or stuffed artichokes left over from dinner. All these moms had leftovers. Even if their own families were small, they grew up learning to cook for big families.

My mom put out, too. On impulse, she pivoted after greeting a guest, saying, “Here, sit, let me put something out,” and flung open the fridge or the oven and yanked out God knows what: pierogies, pork chops, chocolate cake. Dishes clattered as coats were removed, and before a guest could catch his breath, he was handed a fork. The urge to feed sprang from the bottom of her maternal heart.

But, if maternal instinct drove moms to nurture and nourish, what would account for all the fathers who put out? “Try this,” they insisted: salty, spicy, manly dried sausages in which “you won’t find no fat,” or a plateful of sauteed banana peppers they had grown themselves, smoked fish they had caught, venison they had bagged, wrapped in neat white paper, wine made in the basement, an endless parade of delicacies, served with pride.

Intense pride separated the dads from the moms. The men served trophies, masterpieces of fussy gardening or butchering, savory expressions of sweetness and heat and patience. If I asked for more, they loved me. But if I didn’t, they didn’t care. Their craft was for show as much as sharing.

Although the moms were proud, too, the cooking was second nature to them, and they derived most of their satisfaction from the way we dove in, the passion with which we lapped up sauces and picked up every last crumb. Then they insisted on more, sometimes refilling a plate without asking. “But, Mrs. Silverman, I already ate half the brisket!” She had another one in the oven.

The grandmothers were worse. Before I could take Angela Andolini for a Sunday afternoon drive, she stipulated that we stop to see her nonna, always “just for a few minutes.” Greens, collard greens, broccoli greens, chard, whatever Vic Amoroso had fresh at his market she steeped in broth and salt pork with moony, white beans. The minute I walked in, she put it out. Bowls big enough to feed a St. Bernard. After three helpings, I pled with Angela to say goodbye. Then the old woman would frown and shove us both out the door, yelling, “No wonder you’re so skinny!”

My mom pulled the same stunt, never satisfied with my satisfaction. I could eat six or eight meatballs, but then she held the bowl in front of me again, urging me to what? Go for an even dozen? I’d groan and wave her off. She’d shrug and ask, “You don’t much care for my meatballs, do you?”

I heard a hint of jealousy and suspicion in her voice. She was thinking: What does Dorothy Sacco put in those meatballs he likes so much? But she was a good sport, even after she found out that Mrs. Colorito always, without fail, made me a cake for my birthday because I once told her she made the best cake I had ever tasted. I wasn’t lying. It remains the best. The woman had five kids of her own. But she couldn’t help herself. Standing back, away from the table, her hands folded in front of her, she watched me eat and hoped her daughter was taking note. “They live for their urges,” her smile seemed to say, “but this is how to please a man.”


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