We all know that blood is thicker than water, and in my family that blood is made up of equal parts: red cells, white cells and brown cells. Those would be the chocolate cells that run gooey in the Soper gene, so thick, in fact, that a timeline of memories and bonding with my dad can be traced from earliest childhood treats to more sophisticated adult indulgences.
The Sunday night drives to Howard Johnson’s for a quart of hand-packed chocolate ice cream (the superior brand in those days) to be eaten with salted peanuts sprinkled on top; the nights in front of the TV when my dad would devour an entire column of Hydrox cookies (they’re making a comeback!) and a quart of milk; the Cottage Pudding recipe from The Joy of Cooking for special occasions; the chocolate sauce (also from Joy) that hardened as soon as it hit the ice cream; Ovaltine on those nights when nightmares surfaced; and the rapture over chocolate ice cream from Bailey’s of Boston.
When I went off to college, Dad shipped chocolate covered pretzels from Fanny Farmer to me and, for my 40th birthday dinner, he placed plain milk chocolate Hershey bars at each place—the ultimate party favor. As adults, we all picked over the boxes of Godiva chocolates and shared his Hershey kisses—he called them “pills”—in his kitchen. We visited Christian Constant in Paris for its celebrated cocoa that was, finally, a chocolate almost too rich, too luscious to finish.
Yes, my sweetest memories are dipped in chocolate. And the bittersweet, too.
This week, my dad would have turned 93 and I happily followed the ritual I have enjoyed every year since his death in 1996: I buy 100 of those favorite Hershey bars—no nuts, milk chocolate—and just hand them out, randomly, to people I cross paths with on that day. The first one always goes to the cashier wherever I pick them up and from there on, it’s a sweet ride.
This year, it was an elevator full of patients on the way to doctors’ appointments, a condo concierge, students in one of my obituary-writing workshops, a waiter in my favorite Mexican spot, the dry cleaners, a handful of guys at the car wash, a carpenter repairing our coffee table, the valet parking guy at lunch, the mailman and a dozen or so friends who have come to expect them over the years.
I have made friends with a postal clerk whose late mother died on my dad’s birthday and a saleswoman at Saks who came around the counter to give me a tearful hug. One waitress at lunch asked for a second one to take home to her mother as a token of her own appreciation. I’ve shared them with tennis teams, slipped them in neighbors’ mailboxes and handed them out while hiking the Inca Trail in Peru.
Even people who don’t like chocolate (yes, there are a few out there) graciously take the Hershey bar to share with someone they know who needs it – as an emotional boost and to remind them there can be a happy, upbeat way to keep a loved one’s personality paying it forward in a way that is not morbid or maudlin. Really, the treat is all mine, being able to share a few words about him with friends and total strangers, keeping his memory alive with a smile.
The memories of my grandpa’s hobbies and interests center on his love of bringing loved one’s together for special meals at his home. I have so many memories of celebrating Christmas with Pa Joe and Nana Sue and eating a delicious feast, the centerpiece of which was Pasta Infornata (meaning pasta in the oven).
My Mom tells me that this is a painstaking pasta, the kind of pasta that dirties up several pots and pans, heats up the house, and makes the sink look like you’ve had a busy week at work.
For this special meal, Pa Joe would prepare the ingredients. He would hard make a homemade sauce with sausage and tomatoes and fresh herbs from his garden, sauté cauliflower with olive oil and garlic, hard boil eggs, brown ground sirloin and boil the pasta, then mix all the ingredients together in a casserole pan. Prior to baking, Pa Joe sprinkled lots of cheese on top.
Pa Joe also had a sweet tooth and successfully passed it along to me. We both share an affinity for French toast, gelato and chocolate. Every Christmas, the family would be treated to cannoli for dessert after a true Italian dinner where no one is left hungry. I didn’t know until recently that Pa Joe was not the cannoli chef, but my Mom says he filled the shells with the Ricotta cheese filling that he bought from a local Italian deli.
In addition to cooking, Pa Joe enjoyed keeping a home garden. He had zucchini, eggplant, Italian peppers, herbs and lots of tomatoes. He frequently invited my cousins, my sisters and me to help him select dinner-makings, and we always enjoyed helping him outside. Today at my house, we’re keeping his tradition alive by planting a garden of seasonal produce.
Pa Joe really enjoyed his last job as an agricultural underwriter for a crop insurance company because he was able to be out in the community with the local farmers. Because of his job, he would come home with the best figs, cantaloupe and honeydew melon and share it with family and friends. Pa Joe was an extrovert and loved talking with people. This was the perfect job for him, combining his love for people and food, and my Mom told me that he loved it. He was also a down-to-earth type, and he always joked around and kept life on the lighter side. He loved laughing and had a signature noise he made with his ears that made us all smile. Thankfully, someone in my family inherited this trait (this is top secret!).
In these ways, Pa Joe really helped to unite our family. Christmas 2011 was the last Christmas we shared with Pa Joe before his passing in April 2012, but we sure kept with traditions. Nana Sue, my Mom and my Aunt helped prepare the Pasta Infornata that Christmas. It was wonderful to have everyone together.
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