Like identical twins separated in childhood who meet again years later and discover they both have married the same kind of woman, my brother and I came to the same independent conclusion in our early adulthood, without ever having talked about it while we were growing up, that our grandfather was in the Mafia. The other grandfather, my mother’s father, the one I never write about because I didn’t know him that well and the part that I did, I didn’t like.
I can’t remember anyone telling us about the Mafia. Perhaps we thought he was “in the family” simply because he fit the part. He was a mean, burly man with a toothbrush mustache and a permanent scowl, who took his tobacco as snuff, rarely spoke, and ruled the lives of his six children as a despot would his underlings. No one talked about what he did for a living, so my brother and I were left to figure out for ourselves how a man who arrived in New York at the age of 12 the son of an impoverished Mezzogiorno sharecropper wound up decades later dividing his time between his four-story city brownstone and a sprawling farm in New Jersey horse country without, it seemed, needing to go to work.
The eels were another story, more grounded in reality than the Mafia tale. I have a version from my mother, and another from her sisters that I learned at college when visiting them for coffee and cake, and yet another from an uncle once late at night after he had too much wine at an anniversary party. My father tells a somewhat different version.
The eels appeared, at least in the annals of our family history, in the early days of my parents’ courtship, before they were officially engaged but soon after my father had become a regular guest for Sunday dinner at the house in the country. My grandfather had already decided he didn’t like this fair-skinned, sandy-haired man with a stump of what was once a decent Italian name, and certainly didn’t want him as a son-in-law. He considered my father—literally and figuratively—too little for his daughter.
I don’t know if the eels were a practical joke or a test or simply an expression of my grandfather’s disdain. Whatever the reason, they were there, wriggling in a large bucket, when my father went down to use the basement bathroom.
“Did you know there are eels in the cellar?” he whispered to my mother when he returned to join the rest of the family, who were sitting outside with their morning coffee at the long concrete table under the grape arbor.
“Oh, the eels,” my mother said, trying to make it sound as if it were something ordinary and expected.
“They are for dinner. They need to be killed and skinned. You will help?” my grandfather said. If it was a joke, his face did not reveal it, though his sons at the table were less successful in concealing their urge to smile.
My father was hopelessly squeamish when it came to anything that crawled, wriggled or slithered. I never saw him eat crab or shrimp or even fish that hadn’t been filleted and breaded and hid in the middle of a sandwich, but he was a good sport and eager to please his future father-in-law. I am sure he also realized there was no getting out of it anyway.
“How do you kill an eel exactly?” my father asked.
“You take it from the bucket, hold it down on the table and then cut off its head just behind the gills.”
My father remembers how simple and neatly surgical it sounded when my grandfather said it. Clutch, pin, slice.
They brought out the bucket of eels and set it by a makeshift table. My uncle Thomas went first. He put on a fishmonger’s apron and set a tea-towel on the surface of the table. He reached into the bucket and grabbed an eel at its mid-section with his two hands. The creature thrashed as my uncle raised it from the bucket and placed it on the towel, which he then rolled up around the eel, leaving its head exposed. The eel was still writhing in its blanket as my uncle pinned the creature at mid-length with his one hand and with the other grabbed the knife and sliced through all but the last inch of flesh. Then the eel convulsed and my uncle’s grip slipped, and he had to lift the eel off the table and twist it so that the knife could continue its path. As it jerked in my uncle’s grip it spewed forth an arc of blood like some macabre crimson sparkler before he could finish severing the creature’s head. The torso of the eel continued to wriggle as my uncle began to gut it.
My father never got beyond the bucket. He was already nauseous after witnessing the first killing and wasn’t prepared for what holding an eel feels like. As soon as he managed to grab hold of one he was so disgusted by the thick layer of slime on the eel’s body that he instinctively let it go. He tried again and again it slipped out of his hands. Eventually my grandfather took pity on him, or just got bored with the spectacle, and signaled to his sons to take over.
Later that afternoon my grandfather would have drunk an aperitivo before dinner. It was most probably the same brownish liquid that I later remember him drinking in a small glass with a slice of orange.
He let me taste it—or made me, I can’t remember—when I was 14. Perhaps it was an initiation rite or one of his perverse jokes, like the one he had played on my father. But I knew the story of the eels by then, and I was determined not to make a face even if I didn’t like it. He poured me a thimbleful or two in a glass like his but without the ice and orange, and slid it across the table for me to taste.
“Your father doesn’t know how to drink,” he said. I didn’t know if he was scolding for my father’s shortcomings or drawing me into his confidence. “A highball is only alcohol with bubbles.” He made it sound like a sin.
I felt disloyal not saying anything, but I didn’t even know what a highball was or why my father would want to drink one, and besides, you never talked back to my grandfather.
I brought the glass slowly to my nose—as if my grandfather might change his mind at any time—and inhaled. It smelled like sarsaparilla soda, which made me think it couldn’t be all that bad. I took a sip. Although the alcohol stung my tongue I didn’t really dislike it. It was like a root beer float with vanilla ice cream but without the fizz and the cream. And it was bitter, much more than the olives and escarole and kale I liked so much. In the end, all I could taste was the bitterness, as if I had chewed on an orange peel.
To my grandfather’s astonishment, if not dismay, I finished the drink in my glass.
“That will put some hair on your chest,” he said, but without conviction, and motioned for me to leave the room.
I now had a story, too, but one I couldn’t tell. My mother would be angry at the mere fact of my drinking. And I couldn’t tell my father without the risk, or so I thought, of shaming him. Of course I knew even then that the two were very different challenges—killing an eel and drinking a glass of a strong bitter wine, but it still didn’t feel right; fathers were supposed to be braver and stronger than their children, not the other way around. Our stories of vermouth and eels were now intertwined, the one a small triumph of will, the other a small failure of nerve. One could not be told without the other, so neither was.
It is the most improbable of family stories that we remember the best. They are the lore of our clan and our claim to fiction, our right to be talked about to later generations. All families have their share of accomplishment and disgrace. Infidelity is a commonplace, a mother’s self-sacrifice taken for granted. It is only in the details of scandal or heroism can we stake our claim to originality, and the more outlandish, the better.
The image in the post is a reproduction of a poster that was part of a campaign designed in the 1960s by Armando Testa, renowned for his work for tiremaker Pirelli, Lavazza and Martini & Rossi. Punt e Mes is an exceptional Italian sweet vermouth produced by the legendary Carpano firm in Turin. Its name is said to derive from an agitated stockbroker at the Bottega Carpano in 1870 who shouted out his vermouth order—back then you could order your vermouth on the sweet side with vanilla or with bitters, and he wanted his vermouth mixed with quina —with the language of the Turin stockmarket: a point (of sweet vermouth) and a half (of bitters).
I doubt if it this was the vermouth I tasted at my grandfather’s country house. But it is the one I drink now, mixed in equal parts with Campari and topped with a splash of soda, or ‘bubbles’ as my grandfather would disparagingly say. It is an exceptional aperitif and perhaps the only place where my father and his father-in-law have so happily co-existed.