A Cup of Italian Gelato & A New Chapter of Life

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A Cup of Italian Gelato 

& A New Chapter of Life

Yesterday was the five year anniversary of my corporate layoff. I had worked for the company for over six years. Three months before the pink slip day, I had told my new “Barbie Doll” boss that if they were going to make some cut-backs, please add me to the list as I felt it was time to go and spread my wings. I was the manager of meetings and events and with recent budget cuts, the meetings that I produced had all been cancelled. The writing was on the wall and instead of being upset, I decided this would be opportunity for me grow professional, personally and spiritually. When it came to leaps of faith, I had past experiences where I saw the dots connecting and knew I was always taken care of. Those past lessons made it easy to trust that the next chapter of my life was beginning and I was eager to embrace it!

My friend, Jackie, who lived in Florida, had been to Los Angeles the month before for business and we had met for dinner. She told me she was going to Italy for a business trip in April and a friend was going to meet her there after her conference, and they would explore Italy for a week. I called her after I was laid off and she said, “Come to Italy with us, I’m leaving Tuesday!” On a whim, I decided to call Delta and see if I could get a free ticket with my frequent flyer points. After two hours on the phone with the Delta agent (it was Easter week and not easy to book a free flight), I finally had a reservation. I told my husband, Jimmy, I was going to go to Italy with Jackie and her girlfriend and he was not happy. The Godfather is his favorite movie and he has wanted to go to Italy for years. My response was, “I’ve never been to Europe and I think it’s time for me to go!” His response was, “OK, if I get laid off and I tell you I’m going to Scotland with the guys to play golf, what would you do?” I said I would probably be pissed off, but my mind was made up as deep down I knew this was something I had to do. I started to pack and make plans to meet Jackie in Bologna where her conference was being held.

After flying straight through the night, changing planes in Newark and Rome, I arrived at 11:00 AM in Bologna, Italy and went straight to the hotel. Jackie was at her conference so I got into the room, took a shower and went to explore. I found a great little café right down the street from the hotel and ordered the most delicious green salad and pasta dish. I don’t think I had ever eaten tomatoes as fresh and tasty. The simple dressing of olive oil and balsamic dressing was simply perfect and I swore I would never use any other dressing again. The pasta was a simple dish with a wonderful hearty red sauce with parma ham and peas, sprinkled generously with fresh parmesan cheese and accompanied by crusty Italian bread -- simply divine. I was in heaven! It felt so empowered to be travelling by myself, sitting in an Italian café and enjoying life with me. Although I didn’t know the language and was in a strange country, the excitement I felt overruled my fears.

After my yummy lunch, I went exploring the beautiful town of Bologna. I soon discovered that Bologna is considered the “gastronomical city of the world” and I know why. Shop after shop of cheeses, meats, vegetables, pasta, coffee, gelato and chocolates! Since it was Easter week, the chocolate shops were filled with the most beautiful chocolate Easter eggs I have ever seen. My mouth was watering the entire afternoon and I couldn’t wait until the next meal. I strolled down cobblestoned streets with a map in my hands and came across an Italian funeral outside a beautiful church. I ducked into the café across the street, sat at the window dipping sweet biscotti into my delicious rich cappuccino as I watched the funeral procession. I felt blessed to witness an important part of Italian life.

From there I wondered into an incredible Italian shoe store and bought a pair of white leather loafers trimmed in bright green. I couldn’t think of what I would wear them with but holding the beautiful leather shoes in my hands made me happy. I loved the smell and color and I knew I had to own these shoes. I would plan my summer wardrobe around them. I took off my old walking shoes, slipped them into the shoe box and walked out of the shop with my new shoes on my feet feeling lighter than I’d felt in years!

I turned the corner and saw a Gelato shop.  There was a line out the door and I said to myself, “Oh, yes – Italian Gelato, a great way to end my day!” I joined the line and soon had a scoop of hazelnut gelato with cooked figs swirled through the creamy confection. Growing up in Louisiana, my maternal grandmother, Nanny, had fig trees in her backyard in New Orleans. Every year, she would make fig preserves and serve them to me and my sisters on hot biscuits with butter and a glass of cold milk. There is nothing better in life! It is one of my favorite memories of Nanny and I can still see her standing at her kitchen stove cooking those fig preserves, placing them in the glass jars and serving them to us for breakfast.  Life doesn’t get better than that!

So here I was in Bologna, my first day in Italy, eating my hazelnut fig gelato, remembering sweet memories of Nanny, and trying to find my way back to my Italian hotel. As the sun went down, jetlag was setting in and I was ready for bed. It had been a beautiful day and I knew that this was the beginning of a grand adventure – exploring Italy, being with girlfriends, eating fabulous food and relishing in the joy of the unknown. Yes, I didn’t know what was around the next bend as I discovered this beautiful country and this new chapter in my life, but I was excited about the possibilities!

Over the next ten days, I would eat gelato every day in Bologna, Florence, Tuscany, Positano and Rome. I would always ask for hazelnut fig, only to be told again and again, “Figs aren’t in season,” and I would be disappointed walking away with some other flavor thinking “Don’t they know they can cook the figs and swirl them in hazelnut gelato?” However, by the end of my trip, I finally realized that nothing was supposed to taste as good as that first cup of gelato on that important day of my life in Bologna, Italy!

Susan Faith, Peggy & Jackie Crist

Looking back now, I know this was the beginning of my journey that would lead me to create “Meanwhile, Back At Café Du Monde…”! I was discovering how precious and poignant life can be around our food memories. We may break bread with others and share our lives – the joy and pain over those meals, but sometimes we must break bread by ourselves. During those solitary meals, we take the time to see where we have been, dream of where we are going and sometimes we are happy to be right where we are!

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A Beautiful Basket of Sweet Easter Memories

Watch "Meanwhile,Back At Café Du Monde…” one of the most popular food channels on Livestream.com

A Beautiful Basket of Sweet Easter Memories

Sisters - Shannan & Peggy

Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana during the 60’s, Easter was almost as big as Christmas for the Sweeney Family. Over the weeks leading up to Easter, my Mother and the four Sweeney Sisters - Peggy, Shannan, Erin and Kelly, would shop at MaisonBlanche and D.H. Holmes for the perfect Easter dresses in pretty pastel colors with brand new shiny shoes, white stockings and bonnets with satin ribbons. We would have all-day shopping affairs with a great lunch at The Piccadilly Cafeteria or Shoney’s Big Boy.

 Peggy, Myles Sherry & Baby Shannan

When I was around 11, I insisted that I wanted bright yellow patent leather shoes with a small clear acrylic heel and they would be perfect for my yellow dress that year. They were magnificent and I felt like Cinderella at the ball when I put them on. My Mom said she was not going to buy them for me as she thought they were the tackiest shoes she had ever seen! She tried to convince me to buy the simple white Mary Jane’s. I started to cry and threw a fit right there in the shoe department!  In order to shut me up, she said she would buy them for me but I better wear them more than Easter Sunday. Well, wear them I did until they were so small they hurt my feel.  I still remember the joy I felt when putting those “Cinderella slippers” on my feet. I would twirl around in the living room listening to my favorite 45’s on my Dad’s huge stereo console living out my fantasy of being a movie star!

A Sweeney Easter Basket

On Good Friday, my mom would boil dozens of eggs in a big pot with a white kitchen towel in the pot to keep the eggs from cracking. We would gather around the kitchen table lined with newspaper with coffee cups of vinegary colored dye and use a crayon to draw bunnies, flowers, sunshine’s (my favorite) and write our names before dipping the eggs with the copper wire egg dipper that came in the egg dye kits. The large basket with fake green grass would soon be filled with beautiful bright eggs. Miraculously, the ones with our names would appear in our individual baskets on Easter morning and the rest would be hidden around the house when we woke up to see what the Easter Bunny had delivered!

"Easter Tree"

We even had a festive “Easter Tree” made with tree branches sprayed with white paint and real eggs that had been blown out, dyed or painted and strung with satin ribbons. It would be placed in the middle of the formal dining room table where we would place our empty baskets in anticipation for the Easter Bunny to fill. My mother made the most beautiful Easter baskets I have ever seen. Around the large white or milk chocolate bunnies placed in the middle, she would add Elmer’s Heavenly Hash, Pecan or Gold Brick Eggs, speckled robin eggs (malted milk ball), bubble gum eggs and my favorite - the sugar diorama egg decorated with beautiful frosting! To this day, I still crave the malted milk ball eggs which are readily available every year. Now living in Los Angeles, Elmer’s Chocolates aren’t available here, so I’ve graduated to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs as they are my husband’s favorite (cold right out the fridge with a glass of milk) and Starburst jelly beans!

Sugar Egg

Robin Eggs

The baskets would be wrapped with iridescent plastic wrapping topped with a bright bow.  We would always have gifts wrapped on the side that would be new spring P.J’s or a stuffed bunny.  I always felt sorry for my friends that didn’t have baskets as grand and beautiful as ours!

Peggy with Easter Goodies!

After opening our baskets, hunting for eggs around the house and having breakfast, we would dress up in our Easter finest, head to mass at St. Thomas Moore and then pile into the station wagon for the hour and a half drive to New Orleans to see both sets of Grandparents. We would have Easter lunch at Nanny and Poppy’s house, hunt for more eggs in her yard and then head to Grandmother and Grandfather Sweeney’s for a visit with one more final Easter egg hunt in their backyard.  

The Sweeney Family at Easter 
Shannan, Sherry, Myles, Peggy
Kelly & Erin in front

The Easter lunch would usually be a delicious ham cooked inCoca-Cola, mustard, brown sugar and pineapple.  The sides would be huge casseroles of macaroni and cheese, green beans cooked in bacon with new potatoes, spinach Madeline, maque choux (corn/tomato casserole), ambrosia fruit salad and for dessert lemon meringue pie, carrot cake and sometimes homemade ice cream we would help churn on the back patio.  On top of all the candy we had eaten throughout the day, it’s no surprise that all four girls were sound asleep for the entire trip back to Baton Rouge early in the evening.

Peggy & Shannan

When I was a senior in high school, my Grandmother “Nanny” was very sick in the hospital in New Orleans.  My Mom was with her day and night for weeks as it was serious.  Mom was only going to come back to Baton Rouge Easter morning to have lunch with us (we would go to a restaurant that year) and head back to New Orleans.  My Dad told me he needed my help to be the Easter Bunny and put together the baskets for my sisters.  I dug out the candy from the closet, got the baskets from the attic, filled them with green grass and distributed the candy in the baskets.  My Dad came in, looked at my pitiful baskets and said, “Aren’t you going to make them pretty with the wrapping and bows like your Mom does?”  I didn’t even know where to start but I did my best to make “them pretty”, however they didn’t look like Mom’s beautiful baskets as I didn’t have her magic touch.   

As I spend this Easter weekend in Los Angeles with my husband, Jimmy, I’m missing my family and the traditions we used to have.  My Mom and Dad sent me a beautiful Easter card with a check for an “Easter Treat”. My Easter Treat was to get my hair cut and colored on Good Friday followed by a manicure/pedicure.  When I showed my husband the card, he said, “I think that check was for us to go to dinner”!  I called my parents to thank them, and Jimmy grabbed the phone and asked my Mom if she put up her Easter Tree this year.  She replied, “No, I haven’t put it up in years”.  This is a new tradition - the smart ass New Yorker son-in-law gives her a hard time for not continuing the old Sweeney Easter traditions for the grand kids. She laughs hysterically as he rants and raves about how she doesn’t really care about her grandkids if she doesn’t put up the Easter Tree! She will get them all gifts, but the tradition of the beautiful baskets has become the responsibility of her daughters! 

I did buy an Easter Tree about 20 years ago, but now it is lost in the storage shed in our garage. Jimmy and I have no kids to dye eggs with on Good Friday and  we won't be staying up late filling baskets on Easter Eve.  Instead, we are doing a date night at Fleming's Steak House and Easter Sunday we will go to church in the morning followed by a lovely brunch hosted by our friend, Jeanne Glenn, in Santa Monica.  She’s doing the Easter ham and everyone else is bringing the side dishes.  I recently made the peach cobbler submitted by one of the Storytellers, Daniel Brockhoeft, that will appear in the upcoming “Meanwhile, Back At Café Du Monde…” coffee table book being launched by Pelican Publishing in the fall. The cobbler was a big hit a few weeks ago at a dinner party so I will bring it for dessert tomorrow. I added raspberries to the peaches and will bring store bought vanilla ice cream. I did get Jimmy a singing Easter card and picked up the Peanut Butter Eggs, malted milk ball eggs and jelly beans, although I’ll probably place them in a gift bag with tissue paper – a long way off from the beautiful Easter baskets of yesteryear!  

Happy Easter or as we always said in our family, “Haffa Easher” - that’s Happy Easter with a mouthful of jelly beans!

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