Since the holidays are coming up, I thought I’d write about something that is a very old and archaic Italian dish. My grandmother’s father (my great-grandfather) was a butcher, so my family always had access to every part of an animal. I wrote this essay and pitched it to a well-known food magazine but got rejected because they said they prefer to write about food that has more mass appeal and the hair in the story was a turn-off.
Thin pink slabs lay glistening on the kitchen counter. My grandmother carefully lined each one with a mixture of chopped garlic, parsley, grated parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of salt and pepper…the same filling she used for braciole. I watched with excitement as she prepared one of my favorite additions to our Sunday dinner. When she was done with the filling, she rolled up each one and tied it with red and white kitchen string, plopping it into the gravy. It was a rare occasion that the Sunday gravy included cotenne, or pig skin, but when it did, it was a treat. In Neapolitan dialect, my grandmother pronounced cotenne as goodʹ uh nuh, as I noticed all hard c’s were pronounced as hard g’s and all t’s as d’s. I remember asking my grandmother why we ate pig skin in gravy, and she replied, “You never waste any part of an animal.”
Though not poor in Italy, my grandmother’s father had been a butcher, and she learned from him not to be wasteful. Of course, by the time I came around, my great-grandfather had died, his butcher shop with him. Grandma kept family tradition alive in 1980s New Jersey as best she could. On Sunday, Dad and I went to church and to the bakery, and Mom and Grandma cooked. My extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins came over to partake of the abundance. After a plate of spaghetti, I relished the thought of the chewy cotenne, which much like braciole, was an accompaniment to the pasta dish, not the main attraction. An acquired texture because of its chewiness, cotenne was not a favorite of most of the people in my family. To boot, its color resembled the tannish-yellow of cooked pasta. Camouflaged in tomato sauce, it felt like eating a thicker, chewier version of a pasta like rigatoni.
When I was a teen, my family moved to North Carolina, where pork is king. I got introduced to barbecue, which when I lived in New Jersey, was a noun for a get-together over the grill or a verb for how to prepare meat or poultry. Barbecue took on a new meaning in the Tar Heel state, as I ate pulled pork sandwiches cooked in a vinegar-based sauce on sandwich buns with slaw. I noticed another difference in food, no Italian bakeries, butcher shops or seafood markets. Not a surprise, as there had been no major historical migration of Italians to North Carolina, so the traditional Italian American foodways as we know were virtually nonexistent in the state.
Despite that, my mom found a way, just as her mother had done, to preserve Italian traditions–in 1990s North Carolina. She visited a local butcher shop and found pig skin. However, the pig skin was cut differently from how the Italian butchers had historically done it. But Mom bought it for Sunday gravy, inviting over my cousin and his friends who were stationed in Fort Bragg. Of course, she would make enough to feed an Army. She laid out the strips, filled them and rolled them just as Grandma had done. Only this time, the family was in for a surprise. The cotenne had thick, coarse hairs sticking out of it. A lot of “eew” and “gross” at the table that night, coming even from guys in the Army. Nothing like hair in food to cure one from eating it, and that ended our desire for pig skin.
Years later, I moved to New York City and happened to be shopping in an Asian grocery when I saw various cuts of meat, including the unusual–pig snouts and testicles and even sheep penises, which looked to me like sea creatures with eyes. I thought back to my grandmother and what she had taught me: No part of the animal goes to waste. Next to these strange animal parts, I saw the thin slabs of pink wrapped tight in plastic. They were thin and clean, devoid of hair. I bought a package and decided to make my own Sunday gravy. Opening the package and turning the thin leaf of skin over, I saw that it was covered in a layer of fat that I didn’t recall its having. Cotenne, as we had had it, had been trimmed of this fat. I tried to cut it with my dull kitchen knife but it only flaked off. So I let the fat alone, spread my mixture on top of it, rolled it up, tied it neatly with my red and white kitchen string and plopped it in the gravy as I had seen my grandmother and mother do. With no family living nearby, I invited other writers and friends to enjoy Sunday dinner with me. After my pasta that night, I sliced through the cotenne like slicing butter, soft and warm. It had that same chewy texture of my memory. That night, I ate more pig skin and pig fat than is probably healthy to do, but it was my way of keeping tradition in 2000s New York.