By John Rice
Forest Park is home to many quirky celebrations, like the 8-Track Party, PepperFest and Garage Galleries. Last week, I was invited to my first-ever giardiniera party.
Ralph Di Febo has been hosting this event for over 40 years. On a recent Friday night, we gathered in Ralph's garage-mahal to cut up 200 pounds of produce. I discovered there are side effects to slicing peppers.
This giardiniera-making tradition goes back to Ralph's grandmother, Emilia Di Febo, who prepared the concoction in her Forest Park kitchen. Every autumn, Emilia made the giardiniera from an old family recipe. During the Depression, the family survived on giardiniera sandwiches.
In the 1970s, Ralph and his friends enjoyed helping grandma make the giardiniera. Some, like Ed Buck and Phil Malhiot, are still cutting peppers. To prepare for the event, Ralph purchased a variety of peppers, plus carrots, celery, garlic and the all-important salt. He washed the peppers and set up work stations for the crew.
When I arrived, 15 men were slicing peppers, drinking beverages and telling fishing stories. Most of them were wearing plastic gloves. Ralph and his brother-in-law, Larry Cima, had learned the hard way that pepper protection was necessary. Ralph was so desperate to get rid of the sting that night, he tried paint thinner and milk.
Nevertheless, his next door neighbors, Dave and Eric, were slicing without gloves. They should be released from the burn unit any day now. The fumes from the produce were another problem. Ralph's brother, Frank, an army vet, famously said he'd found better air quality in tear-gas tents than inside Ralph's garage.
We may have been coughing, but no one was complaining. We were having too many laughs for that. Ralph distributed the peppers and collected the cut-up ones in large bags. The waste was also collected for mulching. It took us four hours to finish the cutting and to fill two large cans with the mixture.
These cans have screens on the bottom and they sat atop wash tubs. As workers filled the cans, they added layers of salt – seven pounds in all. The salt leaches water from the peppers, which gushed into the tubs. Finally, Ralph filled five-gallon containers of water and set them on top of the contents to act as a press. We would reassemble in two days to finish the process.
When I went home, I had to take out my contact lenses. I washed my hands carefully but when I touched my eye, I suddenly understood what pepper spray was all about. My eyes were on fire and I flushed them with saline. The pain finally subsided but, when my wife touched my peppery sweater, her hand swelled up.
On a Sunday morning, we reassembled at Ralph's. The contents of the cans had sunk down to half their volume. The workers had brought jars and used scoops to fill them. They formed a very efficient assembly line and filled 100 quart jars.
Seeing as the ingredients cost $350, each quart cost them only $3.50. When they got home, they would add olive oil to the jars. The men reserved some of the giardiniera for personal use on pizza, eggs and bread. The rest they could give away as Christmas presents.
My jar sits on my kitchen counter and I have to occasionally stir it with a stick to get the air bubbles out. It should be ready for consumption in a month and I can use it for my Italian beef recipe.
I was thrilled to be invited to the giardiniera party. I have only one suggestion for next year. Goggles.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com