The Quotable

Too Good Not To Be True

My first year in grad school I didn’t want to drive home to St. Louis for Thanksgiving. But as exhausting as the semester had been, I didn’t want to eat Chinese takeout alone in my tiny apartment. So when John, a fellow student in one of my seminars, said his mom was inviting anyone who wasn’t going home for Thanksgiving to come to their house, I took him up on it, and drove out to his parents’ tri-level in the suburbs.

John answered the door. “Hey, come on in.”

It was like walking into a bus station. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, second cousins, various children. A crowd to get lost in. John started to introduce me to everyone.

“This is Uncle Giorgio.” Uncle Giorgio must have been in his late eighties. He looked like it took a lot of time to get in and out of chairs. John’s mom pulled me aside.

“He’s old, but we love him,” she said. “Even if he used to cure prosciutto in the linen closet. And he was a terrible barber. But people came because he knew all the gossip.”

I held out my hand to him. “Nice to meet you.”

Uncle Giorgio just smiled back.

“He’s not really an uncle, more of a shirttail cousin,” John’s mom explained as she pulled me to the dining room, away from Uncle Giorgio and John.

The dining room was chaos. The most my family ever had at the dinner table was when Grandma stopped by and bumped our number up to five. As I looked around the room, I discovered I was the only one there from our seminar. The only stranger in a house packed with a few dozen branches of an Italian family.

Elbow to elbow, we wedged ourselves in around the table. John’s mom stuck me between a brother with bad acne and an aunt who never stopped talking. I tucked my arms into my ribs, swallowed my horror, and looked around for the only person I knew, John. Couldn’t find him.

Out came the food. Mashed potatoes, salad with vinegar, roasted yams, pasta with meat sauce, spicy Italian sausage stuffing, buttered rolls, cranberry sauce, roasted beets, pasta with white wine cream sauce, and two turkeys. As the food rolled out, so did the stories. Dinner was a coliseum of conversation. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

When everyone was thoroughly stuffed, the men lurched down the few steps to the lower level den. I was hoping to catch up with John and talk to someone I knew, but there were other plans. We were shuffled to open spots on couches and plush chairs scattered around a big screen TV. Beers were handed out.

I found myself sitting between Uncle Giorgio and another uncle whose name I’d already forgotten. He snored away, his half empty beer bottle resting on the arm of the microfiber couch. A football game blared at us from the TV. It was Cleveland, or Buffalo. They punted a lot. My eyelids got heavy. I wanted to escape. But I was a guest, and I figured I’d show some appreciation by making conversation.

“Great turkey,” I said to Uncle Giorgio.

He wheezed out a laugh. His breath scraped over vocal chords, starting and stopping at random. The kind of breathing that made me think he was building to say something. “Better than mystery meat, you know.”


A great aunt charged into the room.

“Better than mystery meat,” Uncle Giorgio repeated. He spoke with a thick accent, slightly slurred. The great aunt heard him and smiled politely, shoving a cannoli and plastic fork at me.

“Not that story, Giorgio,” she said. “He needs to eat again.”

“It’s ok,” I said. “Thank you. This has been a great meal.”

“Well, you look like you should eat,” she said. “You’re too skinny!”

“The best meal I ever had,” Uncle Giorgio said. “Was soup.”

He was looking at me. I glanced around. The cannoli aunt had left. The rest of the room had dozed off. Uncles snoring in time together. I twisted my head completely around, but couldn’t spot John.

“That sounds nice,” I said.

And that was all Uncle Giorgio needed to hear to tell me his story:


It was amazing soup, but it had a secret. And I knew it.

We come from a small village in Reggio di Calabria. By the toe of the boot, you know. It was a poor village. My father was a farmer, but he worked other people’s fields. We were so poor, I ate grass and was breastfed until the age of ten. The whole village was like that, there were no rich people. They all lived in the cities. It was after the war, the first war, and people were supposed to be rebuilding the country. But it was also the Depression, so it was slow. It was difficult work, you know.

I was a little boy then. I could go anywhere. I ran around that town, trying to do small jobs for people. I’d ask the tailor if he needed me to deliver mended clothes to people, trousers or a jacket, and sometimes he’d say yes and give me a copper and sometimes he’d say no. That’s how I had money to buy candy, you know. But I wasn’t the only one looking for money. Everyone was. All the young men went to the coast to fish for money. We were poor.

There was a beautiful girl in that village. Her name was Alessandra, and she was a few years older than me. She was the daughter of the cobbler. She had no mother, so she did the cooking, you know. She was a good cook. She used to cook for trade. That’s what we did in those days, you know. You trade if you can’t pay for things.

One day, I saw her staring in a shop window on Via Lectio. There was a dress inside. It was bright, very fancy. She must have liked nice things. We all did, you know. But we were poor.

I asked her what she was looking at, and she said the dress. I asked her if she wanted to buy it, and she said she couldn’t buy it. She was beautiful. Big brown eyes, blonde hair. That was rare those days.

Her father was a cobbler. Ha. Who’s ever heard of a rich cobbler? So, she couldn’t pay for the dress. I said she should cook for them, she was really good at that, but she said that wouldn’t work.

So she went home, you know. To pout or whatever. I didn’t care, I went and ran on to play with my friends. I was seven. Maybe ten.

Then, a few weeks later, I saw her wearing the dress. She looked beautiful in it. The first thing I thought was that some rich man from Genoa or Naples was going to show up and take her as his wife, you know. I asked her where she got it from, and she said it was from the store. And I asked her where she got the money to buy it. I thought maybe she found some Nazi gold or something, you know. But she said she took my advice and cooked for the people.

I went home and my mother said we were having soup. My mother never made soup. I didn’t complain. It was the best soup I’ve ever eaten. When you’re hungry you don’t care what you eat, but this tasted so good I still remember it. It was salty, like sea salty, but earthy too. It made like a stew, but there was no meat in it. I still remember it, you know. Like a dinner like this. We were so full my stomach hurt.

My father thought it was the best soup he ever had, too, so he asked my mother how she made it. She said she didn’t make it, she bought it from the cobbler’s daughter. My father said she’s going to make a good wife. But I didn’t care about that, I was still young. There was plenty of time for chasing women.

So, Alessandra’s soup was famous. She sold it to all our neighbors. They talked about how it was full of flavor, like a beef broth, but it didn’t taste like any meat anyone had ever eaten. You know, they said maybe she got something exotic like an animal from Brazil, or China. Or it was just Berber spices. But how could she have gotten those things? We lived in a poor village, miles from the sea. If anything ever came through there, people knew. They all talked about it.

They didn’t know, but they loved the soup, so they kept buying it. Sometimes it was like stone soup. Sometimes the ladies would buy it and use it as a broth to cook meatballs in. Or if you had some vegetables in your garden, you know, you’d put that in and make it a vegetable soup. Whatever you had, we were poor.

Then my mother and the neighbors wanted to know how she made it. But she never told. She was making a lot of money. She could have bought another dress. But that was the question. How did she do it? It was a secret, and when you’re eight or nine, secrets are like magic. They can keep you busy for weeks trying to figure them out. I knew nothing about cooking, but I wanted to know.

One morning, I saw Alessandra go to the well and followed far enough behind so she couldn’t see me. I knew she was getting water to make the soup. She went to the same well we got our water from, and used the same bucket we did. So the water was the same. So I rushed back to the village and snuck into the cobbler’s house. I hid behind the pantry door. The door didn’t fit, it was too small, so there was a crack, and I could peek through and see the whole kitchen.

I didn’t wait long. Alessandra came back and poured the well water into the cauldron to boil. Then, she grabbed some salt and spices and threw it in the boiling water. Then, she left the room. I was there, hidden behind the door, just watching, you know. And I thought, this is nothing special, my mother does the same thing when she makes soup.

Then Alessandra came back. She was carrying something dark brown. I couldn’t see what it was at first. She touched it to her tongue, then dropped it in the water. I could smell that earthy smell, that flavor everyone loved. She watched the pot boil for a while. Then she ladled some broth into a pot, covered it, and left. I think she was going to take it to someone’s house, I don’t know.

The coast was clear, so I left my hiding spot and went up to the cauldron. The fire had died down. It wasn’t boiling anymore. I used the ladle and had a taste. It was that great soup, but it was strong. Then I fished out the cut of meat she had dropped in. It was soggy, but hadn’t broken up at all.

I set it on the table, and poked at it. It was tough. Very tough. More like skin than flesh. I touched my tongue to it, and it tasted very earthy. But it felt strange. Slimy. Not cooked. Because it wasn’t. It wasn’t meat. You know what it was? Leather.

I ran all the way home. I didn’t see Alessandra on the way, I don’t know what I would have done if I had. I ran into the kitchen and told my mother. I shouted that it was leather, the secret ingredient was leather. It made so much sense to me. What does the cobbler have lying around? Leather. What could possibly taste salty and earthy? Leather. What is like meat but isn’t a meat, you know? Leather.

My mother told me to hush, that I was making things up and that I would end up hurting Alessandra and she was such a nice girl and had finally found some success. She was worried I’d start a rumor and then Alessandra wouldn’t find a good suitor. I told her I wasn’t lying. When my father came home, he whipped me with a strap and told me not to spread lies or talk back to my mother.

I told my friends, and they believed me. We’d all spy on Alessandra, watch her find a piece of old shoe leather, take it into the kitchen, and boil it. But none of the adults believed us.


I sipped my nearly finished beer and pretended to watch another three and out in the game.

“Did you ever eat that soup again?” I asked.

“Of course,” Uncle Giorgio said. “It was good soup.”

“And no one ever caught her?”

Uncle Giorgio shrugged. “She got married a few years later to a farmer who owned some cattle and stopped making the soup. You had to have some money to own cattle. Those were healthy cattle.”

I nodded. I could see how his barbershop would be a good place to hear all the gossip. Worn out from the story, Uncle Giorgio shut his eyes and immediately started snoring.

I sipped the last of my beer and thought about the day we came home to find the family dog had chewed one of my sister’s leather slippers to a pulp. My sister was angry, my mom was annoyed. But my dad said the dog thought it tasted good and didn’t know any better. I remember going up to my room and finding my leather slippers intact. But I was curious to see what the big deal was. They had thick leather laces. I put one end in my mouth and slowly bit down. It was chewy, like beef jerky, with a specific tang, a smoky flavor I knew but couldn’t place.

Thinking about it on the couch next to a snoring Uncle Giorgio made my throat dry and filled my mouth with an acrid taste. I tipped the beer bottle all the way upside down, but only got a few drops on my tongue. I was about to hoist myself up from between the two sleeping men and find some more when another of John’s great aunts came in the room.

“Wake up, boys,” she announced. “We’re eating again.”



Peter Hajinian lives, works and writes in Minneapolis. You can read, see, hear and enjoy more of his work at the

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