I generally share my food. I’m not the kind of eater who will polish off an entire box of Cheez-its or an entire french silk pie by myself. I’ve never hidden food somewhere to keep it from the clutches of peckish relatives or thoughtless roommates. Maybe if I’d grown up like my husband in a large family with eight siblings, or like my father whose disabled brother grabbed food off other people’s plates at meals, I would have learned to safeguard my favorite treat and to savor it with abandon in the rapt solitude of a private hideaway. Instead, for whatever social, psychological, or physiological reasons, I tend to treat food as a communal experience. I offer my friends and relatives bites of my cheesecake. I am secretly thrilled when a friend steals a french fry off my plate without asking, and I interpret this familiar gesture as a sign of the depth and longevity of our bond. As my husband can tell you, I pitilessly insist on sharing his Coca-Cola at dinner. So, I generally share my food. Except for my hard salami.
Yes, my inner thirteen-year-old boy is laughing too, but I am talking about actual salami here. The kind from Italian grocery stores that is cured, perhaps lightly peppered, dried, and hung on strings from the rafters. The kind that is served with hard Parmesan cheese and sun-dried tomatoes as an appetizer or on a plate of charcuterie.* The kind that comes shrink-wrapped in plastic or, even more authentically, with a white paper film that must be expertly peeled from the rind before it is consumed. I did not always eat an entire salami by myself (yes, I know, that’s what she said). This is a recent phenomenon. But before I get to that, let me explain my history with salami.
It’s a heritage food, for me. Like latkes or meatballs. I don’t remember a time before I liked salami. I had it in sandwiches in elementary school. I liked it better than bologna or PB&J. My father, who was Italian-Croatian, used to order sliced Genoa salami at the grocery store deli counter with extra emphasis on the “GENoa.” On more than one occasion, the young Midwestern woman of Polish or German ancestry who was staffing the deli replied with skeptical alarm and an accent reminiscent of Fargo: “Oh. So that’s how you say it?! I thought it was pronounced guh-NOH-ah.” Depending on his mood, this could be a charming small-town social interaction or an indication of the vast cultural and culinary tundra between my San Francisco-bred parents the the uncultured rubes of central Wisconsin. If they couldn’t pronounce Genoa, how could we ever hope they’d correctly pronounce our last name, Gervasio? Perhaps it goes without saying but this flimsy, shaved grocery store deli salami was of an entirely different breed than the cured, flavorful, hard salamis served up before a meal by my Croatian grandmother. They were so different, in fact, that as I child I was convinced they were two different foods. The latter was “Salami!” while the former was just “lunch meat!”*
My Grandma lives in Visitacion Valley, which was in her day a working class Italian and Croatian neighborhood on the south side of San Francisco. Whenever we visited SF from the East, South, or Midwest, she would make sure to have three San Francisco foods ready for my father: a loaf of french bread (sourdough), See’s candies, and a Molinari salami. Today, you can still buy Molinari sausages in North Beach, but the shop closest to my Grandma’s neighborhood either closed or raised its prices. I remember sitting in her warm, spotless kitchen nook with my brother, basking in soft yellow light from the skylight over the stove and chewing thick round slices of salami with crackers and cheese. Often, we forewent the crackers. I enjoyed peeling off the hardened ring of skin, which I would sometimes eat anyway. For a year or two, when I went through a “picky eater” phase, I would use a fork or a finger to poke out any peppercorns that interrupted the marbled white and pink meat. I was sure these flat peppers were alien intruders hellbent on infusing suspiciously grown-up flavors into an otherwise perfect foodstuff.
Every year at Christmas, and also at Easter although we didn’t celebrate it, my grandmother would mail us a Molinari sausage and a big box of See’s Candy. When she came to visit us, she would bring one in her suitcase. This tradition continued when I went to college. My Grandma began to send me care packages with See’s and Molinari salami throughout the year under the guise of celebrating some off-season holiday like Halloween or Valentine’s Day– holidays for which one does not usually receive gifts from one’s grandmother at all, let alone a pound of hard salami! Ever-prepared and cognizant of the limitations of dorm living, Grandma included in the package a serrated steak knife protected carefully in aluminum foil and an extra square of foil to cover the end of the salami. As I worked through midterms, the salami would diminish little by little until that square of aluminum wrapped around the hardened nub that was fastened with a flat, metal staple.
Again, when it comes to food, I am a sharer. It felt gluttonous, physically impossible, and a bit sickening to imagine myself eating an entire salami or box of See’s alone. My roommate and French House buddies gladly helped me with the See’s. However, Oberlin being the vegan and vegetarian haven that it is, it was hard to find people eager to partake in cured meat, let alone one of the pork persuasion. On some level as well, I wanted to share this gift from my Grandma with people who would savor and appreciate it. Just as you didn’t bring an expensive bottle of Woodford Reserve to a house party where PBR was being served, you didn’t leave your salami out in the dorm lounge with a “please eat me” sign on it. (Pause for juvenile laughter here.) Luckily, my friend Michael appeared on the scene, usually with a box of Triskets and a brick of cheddar. Michael used to make unannounced social rounds at his friends’ dorm rooms on the north side of campus when he was procrastinating or needed a break. It was really a great practice, which I’m sure today’s undergrads are missing out on, what with their fancy iPhones and their text messaging and their Insta-chats (Pause for cranky old person laughter here). Michael and I would enjoy the Molinari, cheese, and crackers on random Tuesday nights and take a break from studying to discuss our secret crushes and all the world’s ills.
Two years after college, the Molinari shop in San Francisco either became too expensive or too complicated for my Grandma to visit regularly. I expect it was a combination of traffic, parking, and price inflation. When a care package came from her one day with See’s truffles but without a salami, I must have mentioned something to Michael. A month or two later, a strange poster-tube appeared on my doorstep. I was living with my parents in Wisconsin at the time, having recently returned to the States from France. I was working at Target, and later at an insurance company, while trying to figure out how adult life was supposed to happen. The mysterious poster-tube was about 16 inches long and crushed slightly on one end. It had no return address. I had no idea what could be inside. It had a Priority Mail label and a faint red stamp reading “Perishable.” Michael, who had just started graduate school at UC-Berkeley, had mailed me a Molinari salami.
Yet even then, when I received a salami that literally had my name on it, I still did not think to eat it alone. I shared it with my parents. So how have I come to have a salami, albeit a small one, all to myself? How did I become a lone sausage eater? Simple. My husband does not, has never, and will never eat pork.
I’m not sure exactly how my husband would describe himself, as a Muslim. If pressed, he might say he is “believing but not practicing.” He would probably not say he was “a lapsed Muslim” the way many of my friends say “lapsed Catholic.” He also would not say “a secular Muslim” the way my mother, brother, or I might call ourselves “secular Jews.” Generally, religion does not interfere too much with his eating habits. He does fast during Ramadan and makes an effort to find halal meat during that month, but the rest of the year, he will eat chicken or hamburgers from secular grocery stores for convenience. Yet there has been one line drawn firmly in the sand that my husband will not cross: PORK. He won’t even entertain the possibility of bacon. He judiciously polices hotdogs for a “kosher” label, and once opted for a rather disgusting veggie-dog at the Johnsonville Brat Fest in Madison, WI because the doe-eyed staff could not assure him what kind of meat was or was not in their hotdogs. Even the fake-bacon “bacon bits” placed on a salad elicit a kind of revulsion usually reserved (by Americans at least) only for tripe and escargot. At one point, he even had a conversation with my psychologist mother about classical conditioning and how, without ever having tasted it, thinking about pork products makes him gag.
Growing up as a secular Jew who is also Croatian-Italian, my family has always eaten pig products. I’m not a fan of ham, ribs, or pork chops, but my two exceptions– the two kinds of pig meat I genuinely enjoy– are bacon and salami. Pepperoni, a subset of salami, is included. This lead to intense negotiations at the beginning of our relationship because pizza just isn’t pizza without pepperoni. Could my husband pick the pepperonis off the pizza? Absolutely not! Would I give up eating all pepperoni forever in his presence? Hell no! Would he accept a pizza that was half-pepperoni, half-cheese? This, too, was rejected but lead us towards common ground. Eventually we struck a bargain that might seem bizarre but works for us: We would not eat pork products at home, but outside the house, I could order whatever I wanted. Bring on the BLTs. (When it comes to communal pizza, though, we usually opt for mushroom and olive).
At some point, salami became a tolerated exception to this rule. Perhaps my grandmother mailed me a salami for our first Christmas together, forgetting as she always does with marshmallow peeps, that my husband won’t eat pork. Or perhaps I bought a Molinari import at an artisanal grocery shop in New York as a treat when my brother came to visit us for Thanksgiving. My husband still won’t eat it, and I don’t try to offer it to him, but on rare, special occasions, a hard salami makes an appearance in our house. And when it does, I will eat it in measured reverence, slice by slice, as an after-work snack or a weekend lunch plate of charcuterie. It may take weeks or mere days to finish it, but luckily, salami is a food made to last the winter in a smokehouse and to provide sustenance when the lands are barren and snow-covered and all the greens are gone. Whatever hang-ups I might have had about eating the whole thing– being gluttonous, feeling unladylike, wasting a delicious communal experience– have vanished. It is my salami now; a treat just for me. I don’t have to share it. I will proudly eat the whole salami. Hi-ho.
(*An aside: In my sixth grade French class, I learned the word “charcuterie” which my textbook translated as “cold cuts.” I had no idea what either word in either language could possibly mean because in my house we just called it “lunch meat.”)