How Tony Soprano Helped Shape My Identity

I’ve been a big believer in reinvention in my life, so it’s come as a surprise to me that in recent years I have embraced my New Jersey upbringing.

I hold Tony Soprano accountable.

Fucking Tony.

Fucking Tony.

I fled the Garden State in 1979 and haven’t looked back. I made a brief return for a family wedding in 1993, but had to turn around and leave almost immediately because the President of Sri Lanka was assassinated.  I was the State Department’s Sri Lanka country officer at the time. Sri Lanka did not normally occupy the world stage, so when it did, I wanted to put to use my accumulated expertise about the country and be there for the briefings and press inquiries and late night work sessions, all commonplace for those responsible for sexier countries, but a novel experience for me.

Some in my family suggested that I was a little too happy to leave the state of my birth that fateful weekend.

Exit 7A, if you must know.

Exit 7A, if you must know.

I lived in Europe, California, Washington, D.C. and Asia, before settling in Seattle.  Along the way I shed the most obvious trappings of my New Jersey heritage (though I would like to state emphatically for the record that I never had Big Hair).

Seattle is perhaps the polar opposite of New Jersey, and my Scandinavian neighborhood Ballard, especially so.  Most Caucasian inhabitants of the city can trace their roots to Northern Europe and have the characteristic calm and reserve of those cultures.

People don’t yell in Seattle.  People don’t argue in Seattle. If they must disagree, they do so carefully and politely. They don’t “lay out” to get a deep tan, they prefer polar fleece to “wife-beater” tank tops and they retreat indoors if the weather gets too hot.

The Seattle Weekly's "Uptight Seattleite"

The Seattle Weekly’s “Uptight Seattleite”

People in Seattle don’t say fuck. Though, like decent bagels and good pizza, the f-word can occasionally be found in Seattle, the 250 or so different intonations of the word have not found their way into common parlance here.

The Sopranos debuted in January 1999, the month and year my first child was born.   I don’t remember when Jeff and I first started watching it. We weren’t big TV watchers and didn’t have HBO.  I think it was my brother, who lives in Hawaii, but retains much of his Jersey demeanor, who got us hooked, by sending me videotaped episodes of Season 1.

He couldn’t keep up with our demands for more, so I turned to an unexpected source: my Scandinavian-American neighbor B., who videotaped episodes for her Norwegian fisherman husband to keep him occupied during his months at sea.

Seafaring life is “salty.” I am only now considering the impact “The Sopranos” could have had on the inhabitants of that boat.

Gives new meaning to the "deadliest catch."

Gives new meaning to the term “deadliest catch.”

By now, my daughter was in pre-school. Word must have somehow gotten out that I had access to “The Sopranos,” because I was approached by unlikely fans: a blonde, mellow California woman and her equally chill husband, who asked if I could pass the videotapes on to them when I was finished watching.

All worked well for a while. B. recorded the episodes, sent them out to sea and passed them on to me once they returned. I, in turn, I passed them on to the Mellow Couple during preschool drop-off.

Once, there was a glitch in the supply chain and B. was delayed in getting the next installment to me. The Mellow Couple appeared at my house asking where their tape was.

angry hippy ale

For a moment, I thought I was about to get whacked.

Eventually, we began renting “The Sopranos” on DVD from our neighborhood video store.

The kids got older and I sometimes regretted that I was so far away from home and family.  They had so little contact with my heritage and very little sense of who I had been.

So I cooked. Years of watching Carmella Soprano bring Baked Ziti to the table for Sunday dinner had made my mouth water and so I made some too. I explained to my family that, though we were New Jersey Jews, the closest thing we had to traditional family recipes was Italian food.  My mother’s Veal Parmiagiana, her stuffed shells and mancotti (which she pronounced like a true New Jersey Italian, dropping the final “i”), stuffed peppers, and more.

family_dinner

Our extended family regularly congregated at Sibilio’s Golden Grill, a classic “red sauce” place with delicious spumoni.

Jeff, who is pretty mellow and spent much of his youth in California, indulged my fascination with the Sopranos, even as it got more and more violent.

“There he is,” I would sometime say, when he walked in the door after work.

The series ended and I never found anything to fill the New Jersey hole inside of me. Yes, I dressed up as Snooki one year for Halloween, but though I grew up there, I could never be a fan of “Jersey Shore” or the”Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

Logo's 3rd Annual 2010 "NewNowNext Awards" - Arrivals

“The Sopranos” wasn’t parody. It was Shakespeare with red sauce.

A few years ago, I was asked to perform at a live storytelling event.  The piece I performed was entitled “The Battle Cry of the Jersey Mother,” in which I explained why judicious use of the word fuck could be an effective parenting tool.

My kids loved it.

They listened to me whoop and holler as I watched the 12/12/12 concert to raise relief funds for the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. Check out this moving editorial.

Now (when they aren’t rolling their eyes at me) they love my Jersey persona. If I’m upset at some injustice they’ll say, with admiration, “Don’t go all Jersey, mom,” not-so-secretly hoping that I will.

Recently Daughter #1 told me that she and some middle school classmates were discussing their parents’ taste in music and she told them how much I loved Bruce Springsteen.

“Your mom is from New Jersey?” a girl asked in awe.  “That’s so cool.  Does she curse a lot?”

James Gandofini was 51 when he died; the same age as me. Like me, he was celebrating his eldest child’s graduation from middle school.

Much has been said about his gifts as an actor and the way he and others associated with “The Sopranos” revolutionized television.

I’ll always have fond memories of snuggling up with my husband after the kids were tucked in bed, watching bodies get put in the trunks of cars or dumped in the river.

But the true legacy James Gandolfini and “The Sopranos” left me was a way to embrace my roots and share them with my kids.

The only appropriate thing to say about his untimely death is:

Fuck!

I’m currently on vacation, so don’t have access to my trove of cookbooks to give you a recipe. I don’t actually have “the recipe” for Baked Ziti, that tastes as wonderful as it did when I was young.  Since it’s summertime, I suggest you get yourself a slice of thin-crust pizza with no yuppie ingredients on it (this is the one time I will advise you to stay away from merguez, despite the fact that it’s surprisingly good on pizza), raise it to your lips and show some respect.

So long, big guy.

So long, big guy.

Ottolenghi and Alison (or Cooking My Way Through Menopause)

blogmenopausal

I still remember the moment I decided to ignore the information that hormone replacement therapy during menopause could lead to increased risks for breast cancer and heart disease.

I was forty, or slightly older, with a baby and toddler, and having a hard time keeping things together.  A friend had told me about a video that was going viral on the Internet (pre-YouTube) showing a frazzled mother who had lost her keys. I’m not overstating when I say she “overreacted.”

“You might want to watch it,” hinted my friend, who is childless.

That’s when I learned about perimenopause, that undefined state that can last a decade or more, in which a woman’s hormones start going kerflooey and her emotions can get exaggerated. Superimpose that onto new motherhood. It wasn’t always pretty.

So when I saw the article about hormones and menopause, even though I knew it was important, I made the conscious decision to ignore it. “I can’t deal with menopause when I am trying to deal with perimenopause,” I decided, using the “one day at a time” strategy that experts advised for women in an enhanced hormonal state. I made the same decision about college, ignoring articles in the New York Times education supplement about student resume building and Top Ten Colleges to Watch. Views on hormone replacement therapy and college would change by the time they affected me, I reasoned, and pretty much cruised through the next ten years managing my life and my monthly symptoms just fine, with the help of some excellent dark chocolate.

theo chocolate

Lo and behold, there’s no longer any denying that in the next four years I will have to deal with both menopause and college.

Daughter #1 and I attended a presentation at her middle school entitled “High School and Beyond, Taking Charge of Your Destiny.” We learned that grades count from Day One in high school.  We learned the recommended GPAs to get into all of the colleges in Washington State, as well as some University of California schools, Stanford and MIT.  UCLA likes leaders, we were told. We left with a pocket-sized card listing the recommended college preparation steps a student should take in grades 9-12.

Around this time, my “Aunt from Redbank” (as the monthly visitor was known when my mother was growing up in New Jersey) started showing up more frequently and overstaying her welcome. Just as D#1 couldn’t escape the inevitable, neither, apparently, could I.

I turned once again to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause, which is chock full of interesting and useful medical information, but which, as I’ve mentioned before, does seem to have a not-so-hidden agenda about jettisoning husbands. I learned estrogen dominance could be the root cause of my excess bleeding and maybe even my excess belly fat (a girl can dream).

Meanwhile, Dr. Northrup advised me to contemplate who was draining my life blood from me.

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Though I’ve mentioned I suffer from latrophobia, I actually made an appointment to see my Ob/Gyn.

The week I had to wait to see him was tough.  It’s June, a time that any mother can tell you, is crazy with end-of-year this and summer planning-that.

It’s another graduation year for our family and, though I won’t be weepy at the ceremony as I was last year and two years before that, there’s no denying that we are moving into a new phase of life and time is marching on.

To calm myself, I turned to the thing that helped me through new motherhood and perimenopause: cooking.

Unusually alone on Sunday morning and feeling under the weather, I comforted myself with a batch of shakshuka, using my standby recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s wonderful vegetarian book Plenty.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Come Monday, the beginning of the last week in the end-of-school marathon, the week of my doctor’s appointment, graduation and a week that Jeff would be partly out of town, I found myself unable to focus on work.

So instead I focused on cooking:  My weekly batch of Early Bird granola, Lahlou Mourad’s fantastic piquillo almond dip for Daughter #2′s Global Issues celebration (I unwittingly violated the school’s “no nuts” policy, but people loved it anyway) and the “Very Full Tart” from Plenty.

tart

This soothed me in a way that no hormones or dark chocolate ever have and it got me thinking:  If Julie Powell could cook and blog her way through the “crisis” of turning 30, why couldn’t I cook and blog my way through menopause?

Maybe I’d get a book deal.

I wonder who would play me in the film?

A girl can dream.

So, just as I used to incorporate European Chicken Night into my (almost) weekly repertoire, I am hereby introducing Mostly Mediterranean Menopause Night (though I will probably keep the name to myself) featuring mostly the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s three cookbooks, with some recipes from Lahlou Mourad, my Turkish friend Sureyya, Greg Malouf (author of Turquoise) and other luminaries thrown in.

Here’s the recipe for the Very Full tart, which made me feel very virtuous when I made it. I am not the only person inspired by eggplant. (To the horror of D #s 1 and 2, I sing this song and dance around the kitchen pretty much every time I make it).

It tasted great cold the next day.

Recently some friends and I took another cooking class with Sureyya. The following week, a group of us, who first met when our high school-bound kids were in kindergarten, gathered at Sureyya’s wonderful Cafe Turko, to support a friend whose husband suffered a brain injury.  Sureyya joined our group of women and laughed and talked with us.  Later, she joined me in donating food to my friend and her family.  

May peace return to Turkey.

Here is Sureyya’s recipe for Turkish Mountain Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Red Pepper Paste and Olives:

Serves 6

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2 T green olives, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 T red pepper paste

1/2 t salt

2 T chopped mint leaves

1/2 c chopped green pepper

2 T crumbled feta cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 t cumin

2 Roma tomatoes diced

1/4 cup olive oil

1 T pomegranate molasses

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Marinate for 15 minutes. Serve with warm bread.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Hormone replacement therapy.