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When I was a kid, I was embarrassed when my Aunt Jeanette picked dandelions at the side of the road. Not only was I afraid the neighborhood kids would make fun of the old Italian woman in a faded cotton housedress pulling weeds, shaking the dirt of the roots, and shoving them into a bag, but, even worse, I knew the weeds were for dinner. Not for us kids (my mother tried to shield us from old-fashioned Italian ways), but for my father. My aunt dropped off the crumpled bag, my mother cut off the dirty roots and rinsed the leaves, and then simmered them in a sizzling pan of oil that stunk up the kitchen. My sister, brother and I were served American food, TV dinners, white bread, and boiled vegetables with butter while my father ate strong, spicy things that were picked from gardens.
One day at a friend’s house I was surprised to be served the same meal as the adults. As an Italian opera blared from the radio, I bit into a sweet clove of caramelized garlic mixed with bitter greens sprinkled with red pepper flakes. I loved it, my first taste of being grown up.
Now my favorite foods are those my mother wouldn’t feed me. My favorite dinner is Swiss chard simmered in garlic, oil, and pepperoncino, with chickpeas or white beans, and crusty bread to dunk in the juice--and a glass of wine, too.
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