Friday after the nonnas  finish cleaning the church, they visit the fish market to  buy  dinner. Whiting, cod,  calamari, sole, shrimp, scallops, mussels. Each nonna has to smell each piece to make sure it’s fresh. If one sniffs a fillet that is less than fresh, she wrinkles her nose and invites the others to take a whiff and join in her disdain. They bow their heads to get closer to the offending sole, then wave their hands  in front of  their faces to whisk away the odor.

Carrying their purchases wrapped in newspaper and brown paper bags, the nonnas make their way home.”Do you want to go see a movie tonight?” a nonna asks.

Two nod in agreement. The third says, “I stay home tonight. You know on Friday my youngest sister-in-law comes over to take a bath.”

“The miserable landlord she has in that building,” another says. “When is he going to get a bathtub in that apartment?”

“I don’t mind that she comes over.” the nonna says. She dusts her hands to close the subject. She does not want  to hear a negative  word  about a favorite relative. Even one that is a  a relative  on  her husband’s side.   “We have dinner, coffee, cookies. I help her when she tints her hair.”

“Oh, and does she do the same for you?” asks a nonna, raising her eyebrows.

“You see me; I don’t tint my hair. But she’s single and keeping company. She has to look good.”

As the nonnas start down the block, they run into the sister-in-law, young, beautiful with long, long black curls covering her shoulders.  They hug, they kiss, they greet one another. Each nonna says, “Remember me to your mother.”

Soon, the  brodo, soup,  simmers  on a back burner waiting for the addition of fish, mussels, and  clams, as the nonna talks with her sister-in-law in the kitchen. 

The young woman starts emptying a brown paper shopping bag.  She places on the kitchen table a bar of Yardley lavender bath soap, a one-piece printed playsuit with long pants, the requisite underwear, and a 78-rpm record. She holds up the record. “Look what I got: Billy Eckstine.” she says. “We can listen to it after dinner, when you do my hair.”

“Okay, but everybody will be home soon; I got to finish the soup.” the nonna says. She turns to the sink, slices a thick piece of cod in two, scrubs the mussels and clams,  then adds the fish and seafood to the pot.

Later, grandchildren, sons,  daughters  and their husbands gather with the sister-in-law around the table. The nonna dishes out the steaming soup. It doesn’t take long for the guests  to mop their plates clean with a heel of bread.

Dishes finished,  the guests leave.  The nonna  makes coffee, sets out a plate of cookies, and waits for the young woman to finish bathing.

The sister-in-law  wears the fresh outfit and a towel around her shoulders as she enters the room. “Put on the record,” she says to the nonna.

Soon, Billy Eckstine is proclaiming “Everything I Have Is Yours,” while the nonna pours the coffee. The other nonnas, on  their way to the movies, pause to hear the love song through an open window.

A Friday night in South Brooklyn, where sweet things happen.

Friday Night Fish Soup

Serves six

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups potatoes, diced
  • 1 cup carrots, diced
  • 1 cup celery, diced
  • 1 cup onions, diced
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespons tomato paste
  • 4 tablespoons anisette or other licorice-flavored liqueur
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Sprinkle of red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil or 1 tablespoon fresh
  • 2 quarts boiling water
  • 1 1/2 pounds cod fillet, skinned, rinsed
  • 3 dozen little neck clams, well scrubbed
  • 1 pound mussels, debearded and well scrubbed
  1. Warm olive  oil in a pot large enough to hold all ingredients.
  2. Add vegetables; sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Saute vegetables until golden, about 15 minutes.
  4. Add tomato paste;  saute over low heat 10 minutes. 
  5. Add anisette and vermouth; reduce by half.
  6. Add herbs, pepper flakes; cover all ingredients with boiling water.
  7. Bring to boil; reduce to simmer.
  8. Partially cover; simmer 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
  9. Add cod; simmer 10 minutes.
  10. Return soup to boil.
  11. Add clams and mussels.
  12. After 7 minutes, check if shellfish open; remove from shells.
  13. Cook shellfish until most open;  discard any that have  not opened.
  14. Add shelled seafood to soup.
  15. Serve soup with crusty bread.
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5 Responses to A Semi-Private Bath

  1. carole says:

    It’s good to have you, and your gang of nonnas back!

    Guess I have to feel rich because Bronx Grandma had a bathtub. Don’t remember any of her elevern kids coming over to use it…probably a kid would not notice such stuff…but YOU did…

  2. Sage says:

    Just read this entry to Gail, who had a photo of Billy Eckstine in her wallet. :)(she emplored me to tell his son, Ed, this when I worked for him years ago. Looking forward to the soup in the now cold weather! Xx

  3. fclaro says:

    Gail was so lucky. Every lady on the block would have loved to have a photo of Billy!

  4. […] recipe courtesy of Fran Claro, reposted from The Italian Pantry […]

  5. […] of five, she had to depend on us to pitch in to get the dinner on the table. In her childhood, the nonnas (her grandmas) would spend the day going to market and getting the dinner […]

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