Italianness

I am exactly 50% Italian. My mother’s side bears the Italians while my father’s is a mesh of Europeans, descending from England, France(?), and I believe even Scandinavia (which would explain my fair complexion). Somewhere way back when, Daniel Boone is a relative, though from what I understand, he bore many, many, many children.

Any cultural routines I have I attribute to my Italian side. I did not grow up Catholic, though both of my parents were rooted in Catholicism. I grew up “free to choose your relationship with God.” I mention this only because religion will play no real part later in this post. I admit that most of the time when I see or meet other Italian families, I assume they are Catholic; whether that’s right or not, I just wanted to clear it up for anyone who may also have made that assumption.

I have come to discover that I really value certain traditions deriving from one particular culture or heritage. I have a fondness for homemade Italian food, as my mother is one hell of a cook and baker, as was my grandmother. I love hearing the plethora of funny stories about my Italian relatives. My grandfather came over from Italy when he was six and my grandmother was first-generation American. There is a rich history of Italians in Rochester, NY where my grandparents raised their family. My grandfather had a successful construction company which built many of the still-standing buildings in Rochester today. To me, that’s seriously cool.

For being half Italian, I am extremely fair-skinned and grew up with blonde hair, which has darkened over the years. My mother can get tan walking down the street, whereas I will burn swiftly and assuredly if I am in any kind of sunny, tropical environment and not wearing at least SPF 40. My brother was able to tan a bit better, but neither of us look remarkably Italian. It’s one of those things where if you knew both of our parents, you would catch a feature here and a feature there.

If I ever have children, the gene pool will be further divided and they will be 25% Italian, 25% mutt of whatever else I am, 25% Irish, and 25% German.

I don’t know that I will pass down much of my Italian heritage to my children as I don’t speak the language or cook more than one or two dishes I’ve learned over the years. But as I scrubbed the bathroom today, my mind began to wander as it usually does during the monotony of the routine, and I started chuckling to myself as I thought of a few things I deem distinctly Italian.

And so, in the spirit of sharing, here are a few I thought of:

Something isn’t clean if it’s not done with bleach. I believe all Italian mothers pass this on to their children. To that end, my favorite bleach product to work with is Soft Scrub.

Clean: nostrils burning and skin dried out.

I know this seems like an ad placement but it’s not. (I should put it under Zoe Recommends, though!) It not only blasts through soap scum and germs but it makes a sink shine. I use it for both bathroom and kitchen sinks. See how pretty?

The other cleaning agent is vinegar. I can’t tell you how many windows I cleaned over the years when it was Cleaning Day with my mom and I was using a spray bottle with a mixture of distilled vinegar and water. Though I loathe the smell, it really does do the job of cutting grease and getting things to sparkle. You know, if you’re not using bleach.

Take your bow, vinegar!

There are certain words for which the only acceptable pronunciation is the Italian one. I can’t say “ricotta” in a nasal, Midwestern twang. It’s “rrrri-gotte.” Just imagine that with an Italian intonation. When I go to Subway, I would prefer to ask for “pepperoncini” but I say “banana peppers” because nine times out of ten, it’s easier that way to convey what I want to the Subway worker.

My mother prefers saying mozza-rrelle for “mozzarella.” Same way for “biscotti,” sometimes I heard it as bis-got. I feel silly saying any of these things this way except to my family members, so holidays for me have a few Italian food words thrown around quite often, amongst a few other phrases of the dialect my mom and her siblings grew up with.

When it comes to Italian cookies and pastries, we are absolute snobs. (Same with Italian restaurants, too, but I’ll stick with just the cookies for now.) I absolutely adore Italian cookies but they can not come from just anywhere. I have yet to experience what I consider real Italian cookies outside of Rochester, NY. My favorite place to get them from is Gruttadauria Bakery. It is still a family owned place after multiple generations with age-old recipes for their pastries and cookies. And the smell? Ooooooooohhhhhmyyyyyyygaaaaaaaahhhhhhhdddd. If I can afford to, I will have their delectable cookies grace my wedding reception. When I see my mom at the holidays, I usually try to get a box. Zoe Recommends Gruttadauria Bakery with my whole heart and soul!

And lastly….

I mentioned spray bottles before with the vinegar and water (and sometimes my mom had them filled with watered down bleach, too). Because I now associate spray bottles with the “Italian way to clean,” Febreze is my generation’s Italian cleaning tip. It probably sounds silly but it is what it is. We’re big Febrezers.

Febreze is a genius product.

I would absolutely love to hear from any Italian-American readers if you have anything in particular that you do or say as a direct result of growing up with Italian family members. I will always be proud of my Italian background, no matter how watered down the gene pool becomes.

Until next time, mio amici.

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B-Y-O-L: A Peccadillo Story

I’m about to share both a quirk of mine and an awesome way to enhance what will hopefully be your already-kickass Thanksgiving dinner.

Ready?

Set.

Lemon!

No but seriously, that’s it. I don’t even remember how many years ago now I discovered that lemon on top of my Thanksgiving dinner was delicious but it is a tradition I will not forgo.

If I have Thanksgiving dinner without freshly squeezed lemon juice on top of my turkey, stuffing, and [insert green here – usually broccoli], the meal is kind of ruined. I know, it sounds drastic. But have you ever squeezed lemon onto turkey or stuffing?

Broccoli and greens are kind of a given (unless it’s something like green been casserole, which I wouldn’t eat, and then I can’t say for sure) but lemon juice on the dressing/stuffing is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD.

I repeat: soooooooooooooo goooooooooooooooooooooood!

People like my  mother and aunt think I’m a freak show and that the lemon is “ruining” the flavors of Thanksgiving. Nay! It just brings out all the delicious flavors and textures in my mind. But I have such a penchant for tart and sour flavors, which is why I love anything vinegary, as well.

My brother is also a big fan of adding lemon to his dinner. We have to chop up at least three because there’s a lot of lemon squeezing happening at the table.  (Oh, and if anyone is wondering, “What about the cranberry sauce?” it’s a moot point for me because I don’t eat cranberry sauce.)

I have one or two friends who have begrudgingly admitted that it’s pretty dang tasty, which it is. But it’s not a Must Have for their dinners, whereas it’s do or die time when it comes to lemon and my holiday meal.

To recap:

I'm so crafty.

And, when I’m not having Thanksgiving dinner at my family’s house, as is the case this year, it’s all about BYOL: bring-your-own-lemon. (I’m not even exaggerating. I will be bringing my own Special Thanksgiving Dinner Lemon. I will not risk there not being any for the table.)

What are your mealtime traditions? Any oddball ones like mine?

Last but not least: Happy Thanksgiving!!

Who Decided Peppermint is the Flavor of Christmas?

The above question is not rhetorical. I would really, really like to know.

So if any of you fine readers out there have a conspiracy theory or an actual fact for me, I’d love to hear it. In lieu of knowing the answer, I’ll pose the question a different way, phrasing it around my own personal unsubstantiated hypothesis:

When the heads of food companies get together to strategize on just how to brainwash the masses with the next food trend, how did they decide that peppermint should be the ubiquitous flavor of the holiday season?

Peppermint is on my “Not a Huge Fan of” taste list. There are exactly four things I can withstand with peppermint/wintergreen/menthol crème de menthe:

  • Breath mints and gum
  • Thin Mints (also known as Grasshoppers, made by those wonderful Keebler Elves; they also make Samoas that aren’t Samoas, in case any of you are still keeping up with my Girl Scout Cookies in Disguise)
  • Andes Mints (pretty much the only chocolate/mint candy I find that balances the chocolate and mint JUST right)
  • Toothpaste

I don’t “do” Mojitos, peppermint candy canes are only for decoration in my mind (though the cherry ones are amaaaaaaziiiiiiing!), I will not deign to eat the round peppermint candy after-dinner-mints, and I’m unsure why peppermint flavored lip gloss is so popular, but it is. (I think it has to do with the lip plumping. Or maybe that it’s the most effective way to make something taste like candy without it being too childish, as is the case with watermelon flavored things.)

Is mint a wintertime thing? Does the cooling sensation remind us of snow? I guess that’s where York Peppermint Patties got their whole shtick.

And also, is it just me or does anyone else have difficulty drinking water after eating anything minty? I never know how long I’m going to have to wait before I can consume liquids again.

Some people jump for joy at the release of Everything Mint come November but I’m finding it more challenging to get to the regular, non-minty holiday candy. Just today, I went to go get a favorite holiday staple of mine: the red, green, and silver Hershey’s Kisses.


Sorry, a little nostalgia break.

In my search for the plain old, delicious, nothing-extra-just-chocolate-Kisses, I came upon a WALL of peppermint candy. At the bottom of this post are just TEN examples of the bags of candy proudly put on display. It’s like the peppermint candy went through some kind of population explosion. It’s seriously crazy. My jaw was slightly slack while I snapped the photos with my phone. (I may have looked a little daft at Walgreen’s.)

Even my friend who was with me was surprised at all the inventive ways that candy companies are making peppermint more enticing. Is there just some huge stash of mint laying around somewhere that needs to be used up? Do the mint farmers have something with which to blackmail the food companies?

Maybe I’m in alone in this and it’s just a popular flavor that everyone else digs but me. I can name a handful of flavors I love to enjoy during the holidays, but peppermint ain’t one.

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Where I’ve Earned the Right

At some point during the last five years or so, I accepted the fact that I am going to be bombarded with advertisements of all kinds, during any given activity at any given moment. While I heretofore believed that the one I hated the most was watching a thirty-second ad prior to watching a forty-two second video clip online, a new one has crept into the number one slot.

The new champ iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis: ads and offers I have to decline prior to accessing my bank account online.

They kind of make me want to cut someone.

I always believed that if one places his or her money in an account at a banking institution, that institution is grateful to have that person’s money and that was it. End of story.

If you can tell I didn’t major in finance or economics, you would be right. But I can’t stress enough how uncomfortable it makes me to constantly be turning down offers from my bank, who is only trying to upgrade me in some way to get more of my money, of which I don’t have a lot.

Now let’s talk online banking for a moment. I don’t know of a single bank that doesn’t offer this service anymore. In 2011, we have become dependent on having access to our balance at a moment’s notice, and can perform all kinds of transactions that, in the 90s and earlier, we would have gone to the actual bank to do. Personally, I do love the convenience.

Yet, what I’m discovering is that while it’s a free service which banks love to inform you about (and in my case, most recently, pushed me to sign up for right away), there’s always a catch. It’s actually “free,” not free. They know people want to log on umpteen times a day to check their balance, to see whether their paycheck has hit, make transfers, and so on.

So somewhere along the way, marketing folks said, “You know what we should do, is show them offers they have to physically click yes or no to before proceeding to their account information.” This is where I see red.

Sometimes, I don’t have time for shit like that. Sometimes, a girl just needs to do something really quickly and be about her day.

In the late 90s and very early 2000s, I would physically go to my credit union to deposit my paychecks, withdraw cash, and get money orders if need be. I actually didn’t mind. This was before my debit card allowed me to limit how much cash I needed to have on hand at all times. The tellers didn’t try to upsell me on a simple transaction and I didn’t have to listen to or watch anything prior to doing my business. Ah, the days of yore.

And while I’m grateful banks + technology seem to have a healthy relationship, the constant ads are making me wonder if I’m not better off putting my money in my sock drawer. Or at least just avoiding online banking and going to the ATM more often. (Though isn’t it only a matter of time before we have to watch an ad before seeing our balance at the ATM?)

The convenient but not smart way to bank.

Here’s how I know this is never going to stop:

I recently made the decision to sever my relationship with Citibank (“rhymes with shitty bank,” quoting Bill Maher) after four years. When I was in NYC, it served me well. They were everywhere and had good customer service. But I grew weary of having to constantly change my debit card because people try to hack into their system all the time. I had just changed my card again this summer and what arrives in the mail two weeks ago? A new card, “courtesy” of Citibank, with a note saying to activate it as my account might have been compromised recently.

That pushed me over the edge and I decided to seize the day and bank locally. It’s much more convenient and it’s not Citibank! Plus, though I liked the layout of their online account system, I was not only having to decline offers before proceeding to my account info but having to say no to something BEFORE I COULD SIGN OFF. To me, this is a dick move. If I’ve clicked Sign Off, it means I’m done and I need to leave. It’s the equivalent of someone standing outside a building and shoving a clipboard in your face, asking you to take a survey. Every. Single. Time.

(And also? What’s with pop-up ads while scrolling through news articles online? They give me a tic.)

So far, I’m pleased with my new bank and its customer service and convenient locations. I’m okay living with the ads before the account info online (despite my checking the box that says Do Not Ask Me Again), I suppose, since I really just want to be able to hang on to a debit card for the entire length of its validity. It’d be nice to hang on to one until it expires. What a novel concept.

I’d love to say that online banking is a right. It’s my account, it’s my money, I made the choice to put my money in this place. But the advertisements remind me over and over that that is not how the banks see it.

One might say, “But couldn’t you just opt out of online banking?” I actually don’t know the answer to this, though I think theoretically, one can.

When I signed up for my new account last week, I checked all the boxes for what I wanted from my account and was told a bank rep would be calling me to finalize the opening of the account. When I got the call, I just assumed I’d answer a few simple questions, go over my account options, and be on my way. But in actuality, this woman’s job was to ask me the exact same questions I answered online the previous day. If I had known that it’s moot to open an account online, I simply would have gone in to the bank to open one. It seems like such a waste of time and energy to answer the same questions twice.

But I know it’s because if I don’t remember my answers and I accidentally say yes to one of their “Protection” plans, I’ve given away more of my dough. She also reiterated quite strongly, “Make sure you sign up for your online bank access.” I didn’t really need the nudge so I thought it strange. I have also had to turn down e-banking (where you pay your bills through your bank) three times. I don’t know what the catch is with that one, but anything the bank pushes me to do, I’m inclined to just say no flat out.

This whole thing is just exhausting!

If I want to get away from the 24/7 ad placement that comes with living in the 21st century, where can I go/what can I do?

  • Head to a remote area of the country – Montana is lovely, I hear.
  • Stare at a blank wall.
  • Close my eyes.

It’s all I could think of.

While I understand there is a price for everything, there is just a part of me that feels I’ve earned the right be able to place my earnings somewhere without constantly defending it from the very institution in which it resides. But my options being “Deal with it or live a much more inconvenient life” and “Deal with it but bitch about it on the internet,” I opted for the latter.

Home-icide Part II: Revenge of the Former Tenants

Okay, I’m going to be honest. My last post about my house was rather tongue in cheek. But now shit is getting serious.

(Oh, and howdy! My apologies for the almost-two-week absence. I’ll have another post with details on that later.)

To set this up, let me go into a wee bit of back story: We had a bit of an alarming incident back in August when, in preparation for my best friend’s arrival, we were doing a deep clean of the house. Kevin even cleaned the oven and when the kitchen was just about finished, he turned it to Self Clean. Self Cleaning, for those of you not in the know, is when the oven jacks itself up to at least 500 degrees or more in order to incinerate any burnt-on debris that might be lingering anywhere on its innards.

Within twenty minutes, however, our entire house was filled with billowing smoke from the oven. The smoke alarm was going off, the dog was scared, and we couldn’t breathe. Kevin opened the oven to try to air it out but that made things much worse. We opened the front and back doors and as many windows as we could. We then took ourselves and the dog out to the backyard and sat on the back deck while the house attempted to air out. It was one of the worst smells ever – a horrid acrid, burning char smell and it made my eyes water and stung my nostrils.

I was a bit shaken but also rather pissed off, because the source of what was burning in the oven was still unknown. We assumed we were at fault (could burnt cheese cause something like this to happen?). We were pressed for time and still hadn’t showered and done final touches to the house in preparation for guests and now we had a house full of smoke and ass-like smell.

An hour or two later, the house was airing out, scented candles and Febreze came to the rescue, and normalcy resumed.

Fast forward to November 7. Time: 7:00am.

Kevin awoke and lovingly began making biscuits for breakfast. Biscuits are baked at a higher temperature, around 450°F, albeit for a shorter amount of time.

Being the bloodhound-nosed woman that I am, I immediately sensed that something was beginning to turn smokey and had a familiar awful burning smell. I warned him that this was smelling all too familiar, but Kevin plowed on, thinking that it would be okay since he was baking something for less time.

Wrong.

The smoke alarm began screaming, the house began filling up with a worse char stench than three months prior, and the dog didn’t want to go through the kitchen to go outside because of course he’s thinking, “Helloooo that’s where the smoke is, dummies!” We got him outside, threw open all the doors and windows, and I began ranting about our effing oven and how all of our belongings were going to have smoke damage, rendering them useless. I was still in the midst of getting ready for work, as well.

We pulled up dining room chairs out on the front porch and while the house attempted to air itself out–AGAIN–we had coffee and a biscuit or two, though my appetite was scant.

Kevin vowed to tear apart the oven when we were home from school and work. While the house smelled about 90% better after spending an entire day being aired out, a faint acrid smell still lingered in the air.

Keeping his promise, Kevin began taking everything out of the oven so he could see what was underneath the bottom metal layers. Our oven and stove are gas so there was no central heating element like in a toaster oven.

About twenty minutes in and forty oven parts laying on the kitchen floor later, Kevin yelled out, “Umm…I figured out the cause of the problem!” I ran in to the kitchen but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

Wondering what the hell that is? Yeah. We were, too. Here’s a closer look:


We know for a fact that it’s a mix of charred and not charred dog food – about a pound or two of it, laying UNDERNEATH the heating elements and in an area where, if someone purposely put it there, they’d be giant dicks. Slightly recovering from shock, I went and grabbed my camera to take these beauties.

The other stuff  in there, the hair, is either dog hair (we know the former tenants had two big dogs) or perhaps it’s a mouse nest? Other people asked if the tenants put a dog IN the oven. (I can’t even go there.) There are different theories running rampant on Facebook at the moment.

Either way, it’s REVOLTING. We didn’t have much of an appetite for dinner (certainly not making it at home) after Kevin painstakingly cleaned all of this out and removed the broiler drawer and cleaned everything out from under there, as well. (Found more dog treats. Was someone drunk? Is this a practical joke? HOW did that stuff get there? Why? Baffling.)

The serious side to all of this is, the house could have easily burned down and/or the smoke could have been much worse and damaged the home more than it already has. We put in a call to the landlord this morning but it remains to be seen what their stance will be. If history rings true, they really won’t care all that much. They know how awful the last tenants were. Personally, I’d like a new oven, but I don’t know if that’s in the cards.

But back to the former tenants. These two guys (and a girl, based on the mail we continued receiving) left the house completely trashed and they snuck (I say snuck, not sneaked) out early to try to avoid having to deal with the cleaning of the house and other leftover bills. Our elderly couple of a landlord were scouring the place and we couldn’t even move in until a week after the first of the month of our lease. It was atrocious. The former tenants were absolute, complete slobs. And this incident obviously proves it.

The downside is, the house still smells really bad in the kitchen. The smell just will not go away and I am afraid it’s permanently etched into the mini-blinds, curtains, and possibly the paint on the walls. I’m hoping that more airing out and Febrezing will help.

Last night, scented candles from Bath & Body Works were our saving grace because it helped to mask the smell and make me forget temporarily about the nastiness that resided in my oven for over a year. I mean, we regularly use our oven. A lot. Kevin makes homemade bread and biscuits, I bake once a quarter, we make frozen pizzas, etc. I’m giving myself the willies just typing this out.

Another upshot is that of course this makes me want to flee this house. Our lease is up next July and Kevin is kicking and screaming at the idea of moving, one of the most loathed things in life, according to him. But I think I’m going to be forced to check out our options (if we have any) because it’s so difficult for me to imagine staying in this place 2/3 of the way in to 2013. For me, moving > living there for more than eighteen more months.

I’m NOT asking the question, “What else can go wrong?” because I really don’t want to tempt things. Our house is clearly at a peak point of needing maintenance–okay and also the appliances. We already received a new fridge and a new dryer. We simply can’t afford to not be able to use our oven, however.

So….. Kevin and Zoe: 2 | House 0

We remain standing.

Until next time, House.

Edit: The conclusion is that after we heard back from the landlady, who was PISSED by the way, she told us that she knows the tenants did this on purpose because they had to force them to clean the kitchen. I’m assuming one of them had walked through the house to do some kind of repair and noticed it being in a revolting state.

She said she has no doubt that they did it out of spite and was furious. While we’re not getting a new oven (apparently we don’t need one, according to Kevin), it’s going to take some time for us to get the ass stench out.