It was the night before Thanksgiving and the A&P on Fulton Street, the one under the El that went from the East River out through Queens, was about to close. I was a teenager, on a mission for my mother to gather last-minute items for the next day's meal.
The supermarket was oddly quiet. There was one cashier, a manager sitting in a platform that overlooked the registers, a Con Edison worker picking up a six-pack of Rheingold Extra Dry, and me.
Or so I thought.
"Pete," I said, startled when the familiar face appeared without sound or warning. "How you doin?"
"Okay, kid, okay, good, see your uncle Joe today?" said Pete in that rat-a-tat-tat way of his. "Thought he'd be at The Club this afternoon but he never showed, no he never showed, your uncle didn't, didn't show."
Uncle Joe was both head of our family and, arguably, the tightly defined corner of the neighborhood where we lived. People relied on my mother's brother — for favors, kindnesses, sometimes money — and so, too, no doubt, did his friend.
"Dunno, maybe on a job," is all I needed to say in order for Pete to wish me a happy holiday and move along.
Until I stopped him.
"What's this?" I asked pointing at the two strangely familiar-looking cans in Pete's cart.
To this day, I wish I had allowed that poor man to be on his way. Because his answer has haunted me, in a very deep and painful way, ever since.
"They're good," Pete said, now handling one of the cans of Chef Boyardee Ravioli. "We run them under water, get all the sauce off, get it all off good. Then my brother makes his gravy and we pour that on top, know what I mean? They're good, they're okay, yeah, kid, they're not bad, pretty good."
Pete and his brother Johnny were in their late fifties, I'd guess. Neither was married, and they lived together, as best I can recall, in the house they had once shared with their parents. Johnny was a mailman. I can't say what Pete did for a living, because I never knew.
They called him Chicago Pete, though I doubt he ever stepped foot in Illinois. Who knows how they handed out nicknames back then. Some made sense, sure. Frankie Squarehead's dome actually did appear to be framed by right angles, for instance. But logic did not reign always, and I am suspicious about the handle bestowed upon Pete.
No matter. It is the culinary strategy in question here. Why on Earth would two grown men decide that opening a can of ravioli was in any conceivable way preferable to boiling a pot of salted water and throwing fresh or even frozen pasta into it? On Thanksgiving Day, no less!
Remember, they cooked their own tomato sauce. From scratch. One of the brothers likely made his own meatballs to go into the homemade sauce. And as for real ravioli, the stores were lousy with the things. This is Brooklyn we're talking about here.
What the hell were these two thinking with these cans?
I have lived with this riddle, this burden, for well over thirty Thanksgivings. The current haunting began a couple weeks back, after it was decided where the family's holiday meal would take place (in Manhattan, at cousin Jo's, it turns out).
The difference this year is that I decided it was time to exorcise my demons, by confronting them. And so, God help me, that's just what I did.
The can you already saw. Well, I opened it. Then I got out a colander. The ravioli (and I use that term advisedly) did not give up the red stuff so easily, but a constant stream of water did finally do the trick.
I won't torture you more than is necessary, so you'll just need to trust me on how the ravioli looked buck naked: think pale, gummy, foul-looking scary stuff, more like yellow Play-Doh stamped into unholy little squares than actual food-grade product. I touched one of the things with my bare fingers, just to get a feel for the texture; I won't be doing that again anytime soon.
That night, in fact, I suffered the most horrible nightmare. I was being smothered to death by a giant, gooey, yellow Blob. Steve McQueen was there, and so I thought I might have a chance at getting out of this mess. But all he would do to help me was toss lit cigarette butts at the yellow monster and yell, "Take that, Blobber." After awhile of getting nowhere with the lit butts he just took off on his motorcycle and waved goodbye. To me, not the Blob. I think.
I woke up in just a terrible sweat, made worse by the sight of my dog Otis sitting next to me on the bed. He was wearing a white toque and a red neckerchief. Worse, he was holding a bowl of the canned ravioli and singing Michael Jackson's "Beat It," except Otis was saying "Eat It."
I so need a drink just thinking about it.
Where was I? Oh, yes, the exorcism.
Always the dedicated Italo, I am never without some quantity of good tomato sauce on hand. And so, like Pete and his brother, I proceeded to apply my homemade sauce to the washed-and-prepped Chef Boyardees. Then — and this is the truly scary part — I took a bite.
Decades after our encounter at the long ago shuttered A&P, uncle Joe's friend and I were finally joined in a profoundly strange and unusual way. Only Pete and I parted ways on one crucial point. That first bite? It was also my last.
Next Thanksgiving, when I think about Pete and Johnny, I will probably feel as sad for them as I have always felt. You would think that rinsing my own can of ravioli, swallowing one of the awful things, might provide insight into their ritual, but the truth is that it did not.
I have no more clue today what they could possibly have been thinking. And probably never will.