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From a young age Enzo Sorrento was groomed by his father in the old ways of curing pork. As the only son of a salumaio, or salami maker, Enzo learned not only how to slaughter the pig, which in the thirties was something that people like his father, Paolo, still did themselves, but how to take the miles of intestines and tenderly flush them by hand before packing them in salt to be used later as natural casings for the salami. Not so much as an ear or a tail went to waste in Paolo’s shop, which was located in a brick building along Canal Street, home to Buffalo’s Italian population. Other lessons took place in the moist curing cellar, where Enzo stood on a wooden block to reach the hanging links so that Paolo could show him how to squeeze them as gently as a baby’s cheek in order to assess their relative dryness. Unlike other children, Enzo’s palate developed a sixth sense for appropriate amounts of salt and other spices. But while his taste buds and knowledge of butchery and curing were growing, Enzo remained one of the smallest children— not to mention one of the few without an Anglicized name— in his Catholic grammar school, which was attached to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the parish where his entire family attended Mass daily.

When Enzo did have time to partake in stickball games in the street with other children, he was often teased and sometimes punched for always smelling like the sausage he had been making. It was the thirties, most children were perpetually hungry, and it was possible that their more primal needs were excited when Enzo was in their presence. At any rate, Enzo was picked on and never fought back, preferring to spend his time in the shop with his father. Paolo was aware of his son’s relative sensitivity, and that he seemed to suffer at the hands of his peers for it, but had a hard time empathizing. His own childhood as a peasant boy in an Italian village had been far rougher. He recalled foraging for wild mushrooms or nuts on the forest floor in order to augment the family supper, or sharing an amount of food between six people that an American family would split between two. Rather than question whether he should direct the path of his son’s life for him, he reassured himself with the notion that Enzo’s temperament, tender though it was, merely proved that he would be even better suited to a patient life of seasoning and curing meat than Paolo himself had been. 

  At seventeen Enzo was drafted into the Army and sent to fight in the Korean war. While he was gone, Paolo said prayers and lit candles for his safe return, realizing for the first time how much he missed the boy’s comforting presence around the shop. While overseas, Enzo came to new conclusions of his own. Dressing in fatigues all the time made his somewhat pronounced Italian features less noticeable. The heels of his boots made him taller, and the exercise regimen filled out his erstwhile lanky frame. He found himself telling other soldiers about growing up in Buffalo, but leaving out the part about the family business, finding that it freed him completely of the association with sausage and all that his tormentors had meant for it to imply about him.

Enzo returned safely after three years, but he was hardly the same. It wasn’t the physical changes he had undergone so much as the psychological ones that impressed his family. He had a new poise and seemed, to his parents and his older sisters, more confident. Because he had earned his own money in the Army, Enzo was more independent from his family business and even the neighborhood where he had grown up. Those first weeks back, rather than reacquainting himself with his mother’s cooking and helping his father in the shop, he spent his time and the money earned in the Army exploring the city, sitting in cafes and reading comics, taking in movies and visiting Niagara Falls by himself. Late one morning he was leaving the apartment as his father was coming home for lunch and a nap.

“Enzo, next week we start cure the legs,” Paolo said in his broken English. Ever since Enzo returned, when his parents addressed him in Italian, he responded in a lilting English perhaps meant to further demonstrate his transformation.

“Next week’s no good, Pop. I’m interviewing for some jobs,” Enzo replied. 

Enzo, who had never really dated before, also met a woman shortly after his return. Margaret Sutton was from the Midwest and had come to Buffalo to attend UB. She had an aunt that lived in Buffalo who worked as a physician at Mercy Hospital. Margaret was an English major. One of her elective courses was a survey of world religions, and she was assigned to attend services at churches of various denominations and then write about her experiences. Margaret, the child of two professors, was not raised in a religious household, and she found her assignment enlightening and fascinating. Enzo noticed her coming out of Mass one Sunday. It was 1952. Margaret, with lily white skin, bright red curls and imaginative, seeking eyes, stood almost six feet tall in her pleated grey skirt and red-and-white checkered wool coat. Enzo found himself standing next to her and in an offhand way invited her for an espresso even though he didn’t like it. Margaret found him to be sweeter and kinder than other boys she had dated, and was intrigued by the tradition and history in his background. They fell in love.

They married within a year, even though Margaret had two years of school left, and they moved to Lackawanna, a steel town south of Buffalo. They put a down payment on a tract home built by the steel company where Enzo had taken an entry-level position tending a blast furnace on the graveyard shift. Margaret commuted to school during the day, and after graduating with a bachelor’s in English, started teaching composition part-time at Erie Community College. She gave birth to their daughter, Susie.

The years passed by more or less uneventfully. Susie was a bright, precocious child, doted on by both sides of the family. Margaret, who was successful enough as a college instructor to garner a contract to write a composition textbook, said there was not time for more children, and Enzo, who was fatigued from manual labor and was still stuck on the graveyard shift, agreed. The young family visited Enzo’s neighborhood in Buffalo less and less, eventually going up to see his parents maybe half a dozen times a year. Their schedules, especially Enzo’s, made it difficult.

When Enzo’s mother, Maria, died unexpectedly in her sleep, it shocked the family. Maria’s one vice had been unfiltered cigarettes. One of Enzo’s older sisters, Lucia, took over her mother’s duties at the cash register at the family shop. At one point during her wake, Paolo and Enzo found themselves alone in the men’s room of the funeral home. After a prolonged silence, Paolo spoke.

“Things going pretty good at the steel plant, then,” he said to his son.

“You know,” Enzo said. “It’s like anything, I guess.”

The moment passed, and Enzo recognized, however dimly, that it was as close as he and his father had ever been to verbal communication. Everything he knew about his father, the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of his personality, he had understood through the medium of various muscle groups on the pig. Values were expressed and passion shared only via the interaction of salt and meat, time and temperature, and the gentle role played by the beneficial white mold that coated everything in Paolo’s cellar, a culture he had nurtured for decades. While Margaret and her relatives had flowing conversations that flittered from one topic to the next, parsing their decisions this way and that, considering each alternative, Enzo realized that with his father there had only been the task at hand. The years passed cyclically, at each phase going about the business of curing or cooking that corresponded to that time. For Easter there had been Easter salami. For Christmas and Epiphany, there had been the appropriate salami. When it was harvest time, the family bought and canned tomatoes from a nearby farm to sell in the shop. There was no reflection of any kind, only a notion of perfection that would collapse under the weight of too much communication.

Paolo died only two months later after suffering a massive coronary in the shop one morning while he was filling the hand-crank sausage stuffer he had brought over from Italy decades before. A family sit-down was held by Enzo and his sisters. All but one of Enzo’s sisters were married with children and husbands with careers of their own. They entertained options of working together to keep the shop open, but couldn’t find a way on paper to make their schedules work. 

“Enzo, you’re the only other one that knows the recipes,” one of his sisters said suggestively.

“But I don’t think I can remember them,” Enzo said, effectively ending the conversation about keeping the shop in the family.

It came to light that a developer wanted to raze the block to put in office space and parking lots, an increasing trend in Buffalo as a result of a tidal wave of federal matching funds. The matter was closed, the shop sold, and the monies split evenly. Enzo’s share went into a secure savings account at his credit union.

Not long after, Enzo started having nightmares. Part of his routine was to come home in the morning after a long night of work, visit briefly with his family, wash off the soot in a scalding shower, visibly diminishing a bar of Irish Spring soap, and then retreat to the home’s tiny cellar, the only redoubt from the sunlight and ambient noise of the outside world. He had a single cot set up down there beneath a bare bulb he used to read mystery or crime novels as he fell asleep. His dreams involved waking up in his cellar to see his father hanging from a hook in the ceiling, coated with a fine layer of white mold. Other times he dreamt that he was lost in the maze of the world’s most cavernous curing cellar and no matter which way he turned he couldn’t find a way out. Sometimes he was surrounded by hanging meat, but other times it was filled with the bodies of soldiers he had seen dead on the battlefield in Korea. 

Life inside the steel plant was not unlike the Army for Enzo. Both were dangerous, and Enzo had seen men cut in half— or worse. Both places had also been integrated much earlier than other segments of American society. However, in spite of or because of its diversity, Enzo had never really felt like a part of any group. His Army buddies had thought of him as just another guy, though in looking back he realized he had made no close friends after three years at war, none that he stayed in touch with, but when he was with the guys from the steel plant, union or management, he saw himself as an outsider. He never mastered the subtle politics of the plant, the union picnics and meetings at the hall, nor the lunch break conversations about sports or motorcycles. He didn’t like beer on the weekends, and he secretly longed for the butcher’s lunches he had shared with his father in the shop. They always involved what meat was at hand, a piece of crusty bread to sop up the juices with, and a judicious glass of simple red wine to wash it all down. Margaret, who had a social circle of her own, never mixed particularly well with the wives of other steelworkers as far as Enzo was concerned. He never made connections with people he met through Margaret’s dinner parties or college picnics, either. Surrounded as he was by a city full of people and a family that loved him, in a sense, Enzo found himself alone. 

Susie, their daughter, was both book smart and tough as nails on the playground and in games of street hockey or stick ball. On more than one occasion, as Enzo tried to sleep in the cellar, he awoke to the sound of an angry parent at his door because Susie had given a boy a black eye or some other embarrassment. She was the type of child who was either adored or feared by her peers. She only became more outgoing as she got older. By high school she was captain of the woman’s volleyball team. Senior year, 1971, as tall as her mother and a head taller than her father, with flowing auburn hair and toned legs she liked to show off in cutoff denims, miniskirts and bikinis whenever possible, she was made homecoming queen at Lackawanna High.

The sixties, and the war in Vietnam, were generally good for the Buffalo steel industry. The Bethlehem Steel Company had added several pure basic oxygen furnaces to the production lines at the Lackawanna plant, allowing more efficient production with less manpower. By 1970, the steel plant, in spite of its upgrades and wedded as it was to the auto industry, was beginning to face competition for both steel and auto production from overseas. Close to one-hundred years old, company executives came to view the Lackawanna plant as something of the past, not unlike the city of Buffalo itself, even though just twenty years earlier the city’s industrial might had been featured on the cover of national magazines. The recently opened St. Lawrence Seaway, long touted by some in the city as a more direct passage for Buffalo’s finished products to the Eastern seaboard and foreign ports than trucks and rails had been, turned out to be a way for raw materials from the upper Great Lakes to bypass Buffalo altogether. In the summer of 1971, as his daughter was graduating from high school and getting ready to start college at UB, Enzo, at just over forty years old, along with a whopping forty percent of the workforce at the Bethlehem Steel plant at Lackawanna, was given a full pension and an early retirement.

It was a sweltering summer. Enzo, who had always hated extremes in temperature, withdrew money from his savings account and outfitted the home with several window air-conditioning units. He was no longer going into the cellar, and found himself in the living room all day watching television for the first time in his life, the curtains drawn.

“Daddy, why don’t you come swimming with us?” Susie asked one day, a twelve pack of Genesee under one arm, her other hand wrapped around her husky, sandy-haired boyfriend Mitch’s waist. 

Enzo was embarrassed because clearly she did not know that he had never learned to swim. Hadn’t there been times when he had accompanied her to the public pool right in their neighborhood? Had she been too busy with her mother or her friends to notice him sitting off to the side?

Never one for politics, Enzo began to voice opinions about the Vietnam war. In spite of Susie and Margaret’s deep opposition to it, he found himself in support. He viewed communism as un-American and criticism of the government unpatriotic. Enzo found a sympathetic compatriot in Mitch. Susie, unaware of Mitch’s leanings because he had never mentioned them until one night when Enzo was watching the news, dumped him for one of the other boys who were knocking down their door. Mitch promptly enlisted in the Marines, went through basic training and was on the ground in Vietnam by the end of the summer. After only two weeks he was killed in an ambush, Susie was crushed, and Enzo found himself feeling guilty about it. He reconsidered his opinions, and wanted to try and talk to Susie in the manner that Margaret’s relatives would have done, but he couldn’t find a way to start the conversation.

Fall came, and Susie went to school. Even though UB was only fifteen minutes away, an integral part of her mother’s experience had been living in the dorms for the first two years, and she convinced Susie to do the same. Susie became active in campus groups, taking up the twin causes of women’s lib and ending the war. She excelled in her school work, there were a string of boyfriends each more successful and smarter than the last, and she visited home less and less. Often Margaret went up to the city to see her for lunch, since she was familiar with the campus from her own college days.

On weekends when Susie did visit Lackawanna, Enzo came to feel more and more like a relic. Susie brought friends over who camped out in their living room after staying up too late with Margaret discussing politics, literature, and world affairs and drinking too much. Enzo once spied all of them, his wife included, smoking marijuana behind their garage. Enzo had never done drugs, but did not want to seem like a stick in the mud, so never brought it up.

One of their favorite things to do was to cook an elaborate meal from the international cookbooks they collected. “Check this one out!” Susie said to her mother one weekend, holding up a book about rustic Italian cooking. Instead of the ubiquitous green cans of Genesee that the two of them loved, they were drinking red wine from a straw bottle. Susie had dropped the mini-feud with her father over Vietnam, though it still haunted Enzo. While the two of them cooked a rambling feast and drank bottles of wine, Enzo sat in the living room by himself, recalling the simple meals he had shared with his own family, and how at the time he had wished they were eating something like American hot dogs instead of sausage, macaroni and cheese from a box instead of the tender homemade noodles that were one of his mother Maria’s specialties.

His first winter of unemployment passed, buried in snow, the horizontal black lines of the steel plant across the Thruway just visible through the living room window and the bare branches of the trees. His family bought him a miniature train set for Christmas, and he spent time puttering with it in the spare bedroom. His once jet-black hair was turning grey, and what Margaret had always referred to as his “brooding brown eyes” seemed a little more sunken into their sockets than they had before.

Spring came in fits and starts. Enzo, who had told himself that this year was going to be different, began taking brisk walks, sometimes with Margaret though mostly alone, through the neighborhood. The first trees had budded, but there were still pockets of snow in the shade and long icicles hanging from the sides of houses.

One morning he was out by himself, the sky blue and the sun shining, but the air bitter cold. He had taken to passing by the on-ramp to the northbound Thruway, where each morning at ten o’clock a couple of semis pulled out of the plant loaded with beams of freshly pressed steel on their way into Buffalo, where older brick buildings were being torn down and replaced by modern monstrosities of glass and steel. Enzo, in his maudlin way, liked to watch them drive away and imagine that one day they would take the entire steel plant itself, window by window and smokestack by blackened smokestack. Eventually they would have to haul the people away, too, and even the houses and the schools that the steel company had built for its former employees, all loaded onto the backs of flatbed trucks. The whole city needed to be hauled away, replaced by the city that had been here before it. There were things Enzo could do differently, things he could say to this or that boy in the street, better ways he could have addressed the nuns. More time- was there more time?- he could have spent in his father’s shop. 

But on this day, as a gloppy spring snow had started to fall, disappearing as it hit the thawed, wet ground, he noticed something different about the beams of steel lying horizontally on the beds of the trucks, lined up at the stoplight, waiting to drive away. The snow wasn’t melting on the steel. It stuck, coating them, ever so lightly, in the most perfect film Enzo had ever seen.     

Paul Redman is a former restaurant chef who teaches in a culinary arts program in Seattle.  His food writing can be found at The Wine Wall.












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