Eggplant Parmigiana And Good Advice

It’s not every day that a visit to a shopping mall inspires someone to write about eggplant parmigiana and good advice. This is one of those days. Off we go.

I can’t begin to explain how or why, for many years, I stopped eating eggplant parmigiana, somehow forgetting that it is one of my favorite dishes. I hadn’t overindulged on eggplant parm, thus getting tired of it. And I hadn’t turned away from Italian cooking in general. God forbid! No, sometimes life takes weird, head-scratch-inducing turns, and my losing awareness of eggplant parm’s existence was one of them. This southern Italian mélange of fried eggplant, tomato sauce and melted cheeses, which had gone down my gullet numerous dozens of times during the 1960s through 1990s, became a stranger to me in the current century. Until September 15 that is, about 10 weeks ago, when eggplant parm vivaciously reentered my life. Hallelujah!

That night my wife Sandy and I were at a good restaurant a few miles from our suburban Philadelphia home. Marco Polo is its name and Italian cooking is part of its game. We have thrown business Marco Polo’s way for around 25 years. Scanning the menu I was awakened from my eggplant parmigiana amnesia, for it was as if a Roman god or goddess slapped me upside my head and then trained my eyes on one and only one listing on the menu. My mouth began to water almost uncontrollably. I became a sputtering, emotional mess. “I must have it! I must! I shall!” I nearly screamed.

Eggplant parmigiana at Marco Polo

And so I had it. And, man, was it superb. The eggplant was moist and tender, the tomato sauce as sweet as a sunny springtime day, and the cheeses very fine and, importantly, not overwhelming in amount.

Since that joyous occasion I’ve eaten eggplant parmigiana six more times, most recently on Saturday past (November 24), when Sandy and I once again dined at Marco Polo. I’m hooked on the stuff! For the remainder of my earthly stay I plan to keep it that way, in moderation. I could do a lot worse.

Okay, then. That’s the eggplant parm part of this story. Now it’s time for some good advice, and also for a valiant attempt to connect those two themes.

Once in a blue moon I head to the wondrous, three-level, enclosed shopping mall near my home. Usually, like most people, I go there to shop. But two or three times I’ve gone to try and find something or other to write about for this publication (click here to read one example). On November 24, seven hours before dining at Marco Polo, the latter was my intention. There was a pretty good chance, I figured, that the visit might prove to be journalistically fruitful.

Maybe an essay about frenzied shoppers and kiddies sitting on Santa’s lap should have been the result of my time at the mall. But, you know, that just ain’t me. Instead, my attention was drawn to a sign in Macy’s department store, the first place I investigated within the mall. The sign, a store directory, said “Find Your Way” in big letters across its top. “Holy shit!” I thought to myself. “That’s powerful advice. It’s important for people to find their way, their true path in life. Fulfillment will result if they do.”

Whoa, what had come over me? I’m not the philosophical sort. I’m in the middle section of the deep-thinking pool, at best. And it wasn’t ganja that brought out that unlikely response from me, seeing that I haven’t smoked weed in 30 years.

Whatever the reason, I then went on a quest to locate other examples of good advice in the mall. And indeed I found some. “Believe In The Wonder Of Giving” commanded another Macy’s sign. “Love Your Mother” (meaning both your female parent and Mother Nature) proclaimed a tee shirt in Bloomingdale’s department store.  “It’s Never Too Late To Have A Happy Childhood” smiled down upon the customers at Build-A-Bear Workshop. And the finest advice of all came from a poster at Sephora. “Be Kind. Be Open. Be Gracious” it urged. Needless to say, the poster also should have said “Be Helpful.”

Damn straight, I was on a roll!

The final emporium in which I met words of wisdom was a Hallmark store. A small box, meant to be hung on a wall or placed on a table or shelf, contained a message that I paused over: “Do More Of What Makes You Happy.” A pleasure-seeker to a sizeable degree, I could relate, because I took it to mean that we might as well boost our fun a lot while we can, seeing that the number of spins we make around the Sun are, shall we say, on the limited side.

But there’s a more expansive way to look at the message, as I decided the following day when it rose to the surface of my mind. There it joined with memories of my most recent Marco Polo meal and got me thinking. Eating eggplant parm is a fairly trivial endeavor, but it sure enough makes me happy. And when I’m happy, my frame of mind improves, increasing the volume of positive energy that I deliver to the world. In other words, increasing the frequency of my being kind, open, gracious and helpful to others. The uptick is on the minor side, no doubt. But considering the state of affairs on our planet, every little bit counts.

This isn’t just about me, me, me, though. If hundreds of millions of us followed the Hallmark store’s advice, the upticks might add up to something special. Hey, maybe the world would significantly change for the better. You never know. After all, those four adjectives  — kind, open, gracious, helpful — are where it’s at.

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Last Night When I Was Not So Young

The other day, while driving around the burbs, I heard a recording of a song on the radio that took me aback. It’s a number I’ve listened to many times in my life. Sinatra sang it (click here). Judy Garland sang it (click here). Hell, it’s likely that Bob Dylan, who has been recording nothing but standards over the last few years, will get to it before too long.

Photo by Larry Busacca, Getty Images.

The song was Last Night When We Were Young. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the guys who are most famous for composing the songs in The Wizard Of Oz, wrote Last Night in 1935. Harold, as always, handled the music and Yip the words. The song is a beauty. Its melody is wistful. Its lyrics, direct and simple, are also profound. And the version I heard the other day, by Tony Bennett, seemed so right. Tony was singing softly, unusually softly for someone who rarely has shied away from issuing scads of notes with lungfuls of oomph. Discretely backed by only three instruments – piano, upright bass and drums – he took his time analyzing the lyrics, hitting, I thought, his contemplation buttons precisely. Naturally, that put me in a contemplative mood.

Last Night contains a mere 96 words, but if a set of lyrics ever encapsulated a bittersweet view of the human condition more movingly, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. Take a look at the tune’s first two verses:

Last night when we were young
Love was a star, a song unsung.
Life was so new, so real so right
Ages ago last night.

Today the world is old.
You flew away and time grew cold.
Where is that star that shone so bright
Ages ago last night?

I mean, wow. Talk about poetic. Talk about graceful. Talk about powerful. Yip Harburg was tapped into the higher frequencies of the ethers when Last Night’s images came to him. Here’s a song that speaks of love’s precariousness, of its sometimes fragility. But what actually has happened? Has the narrator and his/her mate argued violently, unexpectedly? Or has the mate, feeling inadequate upon discovering that there is much more to love than he/she ever understood, bailed out of the relationship? Ah, it’s a mystery. Any number of scenarios might be devised to fit the verses. That’s the genius of Last Night’s words.

But you know what? When, a few days later, I decided to write a piece about Last Night, I listened at home a couple of more times to Tony Bennett’s recording. And I saw that I had been mistaken in my assessment of his approach. Most singers fall into melancholy mode when singing this song, and in my car that’s what I thought Tony had done. It must have been his hushed vocals that threw me off.

Tony, I realized, came at the tune from a different angle, a slyly jaunty one. He sang with the glint of a twinkle in his voice. And that’s when, for a minute, I thought that he was doing the song a big injustice, missing its talking points, missing the pain and suffering embued in its stark and elegant phrases.

And then I woke up. Not from a dream but from a frozen mindset. Yo, Tony was delivering a message when he chose to sing Last Night in the way that he did. “Sure, love can be a rocky road,” I think he was telling his audience. “Sure, love can fade away. But you know what? It ain’t the end of the world. Things will get better. Probably. Very probably.”

Now, you might be asking why in the world I’m going on and on about a Tony Bennett recording. I don’t always have my reasons for what I do, but in this instance I do. So, here’s why:

I’ve had long talks recently with two of my greatest pals, Mike and Dave. I’ve known each of them since childhood, which for us took place not long after William The Conqueror invaded England. Mike and Dave make me look like a slacker, which isn’t hard for just about anybody to do, to be honest. Working long hours in demanding professions, they set a remarkable pace.

I’m not sure at what point Dave’s and my conversation turned to the undeniable fact that, if we remain above ground for the next handful of months, we’ll have completed 70 cycles around our friend the Sun. “Neil,” Dave said,”we’re old men.”

Huh? Me, old? Speak for yourself, Dave. I know for certain that beautiful girls still steal glances at me when I pass them on the street. Some might say that they’re eyeing my luxuriant nostril hairs, but I know better.

But maybe Dave put a notion, or some sense, into my head. Because two weeks later when speaking with Mike, who recently passed the 70-cycle mark, I said something or other like: “Mike, you know, we’re getting old.” To which he sighed in agreement and said: “Yeah. But what can we do about it?”

“Not much,” I responded. “All we can do is grin and bear it.”

Tony Bennett, a wise individual, I’m certain would have wagged his finger at me if he’d heard what I said to Mike. “Neil, you’ve got to do more than grin and bear it,” I can hear Tony, who is 90 years old and going very strong, telling me. “I was 66, not much younger than you are today, when I recorded the version of Last Night When We Were Young that you’re doing an incredibly so-so job of turning into a story. Putting that last comment aside, let me say this: Life is here for fortunate ones like us to embrace. Doesn’t matter that we’re not as young as we once were. Grin and bear it? Come on . . . you can do better than that. Put a meaningful smile on your face, not just a reluctant grin. Help others and don’t wallow in disappointments. Spread some joy . . . that’s the way to have a good life.”

Thanks, Tony. I needed that. Believe me, I can dig it.

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