As told by “The Mick”, Glendora, NJ
Pain-in-the-butt Aunt Tessie always plopped herself at my parent’s house on December 21 and stayed until January 6 — “the Epiphany ya know” as she would remind us. Aunt Tessie’s kids — our cousins Nick and Maria — were grown with families of their own and lived out of the area having moved from South Philly to Chicago and Atlanta. And poor Uncle Nick — well let’s just say that Aunt Tessie aggravated him into an early grave. Uncle Nick was lucky — the rest of us were stuck with Aunt Tessie every year.
Aunt Tessie was my grandfather’s sister so my Dad felt an obligation to host her and we became her surrogate family since her kids and grandkids were so far away and Aunt Tessie wouldn’t fly or travel. Each year Aunt Tessie would take her Christmas apron, put it on during Thanksgiving dinner and leave it on through the holidays.
She took over mom’s kitchen (Mom was never too happy about that) and insisted on baking god-awful cookies which she felt feel compelled to force feed to us. Flour, sugar, gingerbread man molds — all flying about the kitchen creating a mess.
Aunt Tessie also was driven to comment on me, my brother and sister. “Why is your hair so long?” “That dress makes you look frumpy.” “Oh, you’re getting heavy, but you look healthy, God Bless you.”
I think you get the picture of Aunt Tessie by now. A real pain-in-the-butt.
One thing Aunt Tessie really liked was tripe. Now you have to have a strong stomach to eat tripe. It is in essence — cow stomach. But if done right and you are able get past the rubbery texture and pungent smell, it is quite the delicacy. My Dad would stir the tripe in gravy and cook it for hours, slowly adding in spices to make it palatable.
One year I was really looking forward to having a tripe sandwich. I was home from college on break and had been working selling Christmas Trees to make a few extra bucks. It was cold and business was slow. The extra bucks would help, but now I was tired and a little frustrated. My girlfriend and I were on the rocks. My grades were just OK. That tripe sandwich would taste good going down.
The pot was on the stove, slowly cooking and I saw Aunt Tessie sitting at the kitchen table eating a sandwich. It was a tripe sandwich. Something told me to go to the pot and check. I didn’t even take off my coat. I opened the pot lid and saw a lonely, tiny piece of tripe floating in the gravy.
“Dad. Dad.” I yelled. “Is this it for the tripe?”
My dad looked at me and pointed to Aunt Tessie and held up four fingers. “Four. She had four sandwiches!” Aunt Tessie had cleaned out virtually all the tripe.
I glared at her. “You ate four tripe sandwiches!?”
She sat there with her mouth open, the last of her fourth sandwich resting in her hands. “What are you talking about Mickey?”
She raised the last of her sandwich to her mouth to shovel it in and I lost it. Spatula in hand, red gravy flying all around, splattering the kitchen walls, I leaped at her. “Give me that tripe sandwich. Give it to me you cow!”
She shoved it in her mouth half oblivious to what I was yelling and half teasing me. I tossed the spatula at her and as she ducked. I grabbed her and started to try to pry her mouth open with my bare hands so I could reach in a grab the last of the sandwich. If I couldn’t have it, she couldn’t either.
Aunt Tessie began chewing and running around away from me. My Dad was yelling, “Mickey, what are you doing?”
My brother and sister came running down the steps. Aunt Tessie never moved so fast in her life as she stared running around our tiny row home, “He’s crazy! PAZZO!”
“Give me that tripe!” I continued to yell as I chased her around the kitchen, into the living room, her stupid apron flittering while my dad chased both of us. Thank God my mother was out at the store getting the last of the Christmas Eve dinner — no telling what she would have done.
Suddenly Aunt Tessie stopped and began waving her arms and gasping at her throat and trying to cough.
“Oh my God, she’s choking! She’s choking!” My father yelled.
I could hear Aunt Tessie gasping for air, her face getting redder and all I could think of was the old Italian curse when you’re ticked at someone and you say “You should choke on it.”
Well Aunt Tessie was choking. “Do something!” It was my Dad.
I immediately grabbed Aunt Tessie and spun her around. I grabbed her from behind and linked my arms under her diaphragm — I had seen the Heimlich enough so I knew what to do. I pumped once. Nothing. I pumped again. Nothing. Finally I pumped hard the third time.
WHOOSH! The piece of tripe came flying out of Aunt Tessie’s mouth.
THWAP! It hit my dad in the forehead, ricocheted off him.
BAM! It hit my sister in the arm and then flew toward the tree where it landed squarely on a plain silver Christmas ball.
The combination of red gravy and brownish tripe contrasted against the silver ball to give it a certain modernistic design.
Aunt Tessie was fine. She staggered to the kitchen table, took a couple of deep breaths and got a glass of water. When the excitement settled down Dad made another pot of tripe — I got first taste.
Then I had an idea. I carefully took the silver ball and put glue on the piece of tripe that landed on it to preserve it forever. Just think — for that piece of tripe to travel from Aunt Tessie’s throat to Dad’s head to my sister’s arm to the ornament — well it was really bizarre. That was one magic piece of tripe. I now have a special ornament which commemorates what I call “the single tripe theory.”
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