Perry Cerubini loved his grandmother's cooking when was a young boy growing up in Bridgeton.
Like many Italian immigrants to this country, Lillian Cerubini carried the best recipes, the ones she's learned by working alongside generations of good cooks in the kitchen, in her head. As a good Italian grandmother, she was renowned for dishes such as tortellini soup. And as a good Catholic, she often prepared her best dishes in huge quantities for parish functions.
So when Father Perry Cerubini came to Saint Elizabeth Seton Church in Absecon, he already had a winning recipe for bringing people together - only it wasn't written down anywhere in cups and tablespoons. Cerubini suggested to the same committee that organizes the annual church bazaar that they put together a cookbook of recipes from the 1,800 families of various backgrounds who worship together.
"This lovely group has come together and formed sustaining friendships," Cerubini says about the group that put together the cookbook, "Seasoned with Love." "To me, that's what parish life is all about - going to lunch and driving the pastor crazy - but in a good way. There's a very social aspect to it."
To set a good example for his flock, Father Cerubini decided to share his grandmother's tortellini soup that's so popular at the church's annual fundraising bazaar. In December, an army of parishioners gather to help him chop carrots and onions for the soup broth and blanch the tortellini beforehand, so it won't overcook in the broth. Then there are plenty of volunteers for serving the soup.
But you can't put a recipe for 100 people in a cookbook, or at least not the kind meant for parishioners to follow at home. So Cerubini got out his measuring cup and set to work converting what was in his head to something that could be cooked in a single-family pot at home.
"I usually cook the tortellini separate and add it in at the end, so it doesn't get too starchy," Cerubini says. "But the most important thing is having good Italian bread to dip in the broth. You have to have the bread for dipping. Good Italian bread goes with everything."
The bazaar itself has changed over the years. Now it includes craft vendors where all the items used to be made by folks such as the late Charlene Garbowski, who was a founding member of the parish with her husband, Bernie. But those who remain, including Bernie Garbowski, are happy to share their family recipes with their parish "family." These recipes include "Char's Golabki," or Polish stuffed cabbage, which "is served at any gathering where Polish families are going to be together, eating," Bernie Garbowski says. And then there are the "easy" recipes Bernie's perfected since his wife of 46 years passed away, such as pasta e fagioli - with jalapeno peppers because Bernie loves them - and clam pie.
How else could you collect 500 recipes from soups to breads and desserts, and get them published in a little more than a month?
Looking at Lil Cathey, one might not think she's old enough to be a founding member of the parish - which was started in 1975 - but she is. Cathey, who moved to New Jersey from Northridge, Mass., as a newlywed in 1974, remembers going door to door in the community inviting people to join the parish.
And while she was helping build a new tradition in Absecon, she brought some of her family's old traditions along with her - including the no-bake Boston baked beans – every family in her Boston suburb ate every Saturday night with hot dogs or ham and New England brown bread.
"It didn't matter what race you were, because if it was Saturday night, every Saturday that's what every family was eating," she says. "My mom used a pressure cooker so she could make them in an hour, but I was always scared to death of the thing." So Cathey made them the old fashioned way, in a pot. She uses molasses, but never puts salt in the water when cooking the beans or they'll turn hard.
Like many recipe contributors, Cathey learned to cook simply by watching her mom do it. So she, too, had to figure out the measurements and directions to pass on her family legacy. That recipe now is in the cookbook, along with Tourtiere, a French-Canadian meat pie that's not so common to many New Jerseyans, but was once so popular, the pigeons originally used in it were hunted to extinction. So now people use easy-to-find ingredients such as ground beef and/or pork.
"Most people wouldn't know what to do with it, unless they're French Canadian," Cathey says of the dish that's always served in her home on New Year's Eve for good luck. "We always traditionally had pork or beef, but I use beef because it makes it lighter."
"What really makes it different is the clove, it really spices it up," she said.
Cathey is retired after a career spent teaching school, but her sons, both unmarried, still come home expecting comfort food such as that pie. And so it is in the Lott household, where Charlie is retired from his job as an electrician, but Carol still works as an online tutor for Atlantic Cape Community College students.
Even though their kids are grown, Carol Lott is known for her Italian food and often is invited to social gatherings where folks sort of expect her to bring a delicious addition to the menu.
"She takes a lot of pride in her Italian cooking. I don't think she stops cooking. We get invited to a lot of community affairs and we never come empty-handed," Charlie Lott says proudly. "A lot was passed down from her grandmother, who was old school, from Italy. Being the oldest child, Carol helped a lot in the kitchen and learned just by being there."
Some tricks are so easy, they're not even exclusive. Carol Lott was on the cookbook committee, so when she saw fellow parishioner Madeline Cunningham had submitted a zucchini appetizer recipe almost identical to hers - both use Bisquick mix in a three-step process - she simply gave the credit to Cunningham and instead inserted another of her own favorite appetizers that has a Hollywood backstory attached to the Oscar-winning movie, "Silver Linings Playbook."
"The Sunday afternoon ritual (in the Philadelphia Eagles-fan household of characters portrayed by Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro) consisted of watching the Eagles and eating 'homemades' and 'crabby snacks,'" the Galloway Township resident writes. "In our family, we referred to homemade pasta as homemades, but I did not realize that was a regional term."
As for the crabby snacks, Carol Lott was only a little bit surprised to find she had an old neighborhood recipe for the appetizers she knew by a different name. At the store, she was gratified to find Old English Cheese Spread still available from Kraft - in jars that can be repurposed as drinking glasses, no less. But living near the shore, she'd almost forgotten about the canned crabmeat her recipe calls for, since she's used to the fresh stuff.
And even if her football snack isn't exactly the same as the ones featured in the movie, Carol Lott's guests were happy to gobble them up on a recent Sunday afternoon. Plus, now there's this fun story to go along with her recipe. And if you stop by the Parish center to pick up a cookbook, you may hear more similar stories.
Contact Felicia Compian:
Crab Cheese Triangles (aka Crabby Snacks)
•10 English muffins
•1 7-ounce can crab meat
•1 5-ounce jar Old English sharp cheese spread
•1/2 cup butter, softened
•1 teaspoon mayonnaise
•1 capful sherry
•Garlic powder, to taste
Split the muffins, then cut each half into 4 triangles. Mix together the crab meat, cheese spread, butter, mayonnaise, sherry and garlic powder. Spread the mixture on the muffin pieces.
Place the muffins on a cookie sheet and broil until brown.
Submitted by Charles and Carol Lott