I’m sure the makers of disposable plastic containers thought they had a great idea: cheap plastic containers you can send home full of food with your dinner guests.
But disposable food storage units would not have clicked – rather, burped – with my family while I was growing up. Oh, we used plastic containers to store our food, only we used what I call Italian Tupperware: ricotta containers.
The great thing about ricotta containers is that, in an area with a dense Italian-American population, they come in all sizes from 1 cup up to a half-gallon. The plastic is thick enough to handle the hottest leftover sauce and even the quart size is tall enough for a whole sausage without having to cut it up.
In my family, ricotta containers are so valuable, that one of them spurred the Container War of the 1970s. That’s right – a whole decade. It was a particularly valuable container – Polly-O, as I recall – yellow in color, making it distinctive in the freezer among the common white containers.
It all started when my mother sent my Aunt Angelina home with a ricotta container full of stuffing after a Thanksgiving meal. Known commonly throughout the family as “Poor, Poor Angelina” because she was divorced and had to work at something other than childbearing and housework, the married sisters were under obligation to send her food on a regular basis since being a working girl somehow rendered her unable to turn on a stove.
My grandmother, who didn’t really live anywhere but just showed up at her daughters’ houses and stayed for a few months, called my mother a few weeks later to scold her for forgetting to feed Poor, Poor Angelina, to which my mother replied she would have been happy to feed Poor, Poor Angelina if she had a ricotta container to send the food in. But, since Angelina had not returned the container, my mother assumed, she said, Angelina had plenty of food around to store in it.
And so it began. Each time we’d visit Angelina, my mother would sneak a peak into her cupboard to see if the container was there. It always was.
“Why don’t you just take it?” we’d ask.
“Steal from my own sister? One of us has to have scruples,” she’d huff.
Sometimes Angelina would even have the nerve to store something my grandmother had made for her in the container while my mother looked on, fuming. One particularly memorable time Angelina showed up at my Aunt Theresa’s house with some homemade fudge someone had given her that she stored in – you guessed – the yellow Polly-O container. But she never brought anything to our house in it.
In ten years not a word passed between my mother and Aunt Angelina regarding the container. But it somehow always made an appearance and my mother would nudge us or whisper angrily in our ear, “I don’t believe she has the nerve!”
“I don’t think she even knows it bothers you,” my brother ventured once, brave soul he is. “Maybe if you just asked her for it back, she’d probably just laugh the whole thing off.”
“Oh she knows,” my mother hissed. “I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of asking for it.” (She didn’t talk to my brother for two weeks.)
It didn’t end there. Because, of there is one thing Italians love, it’s a good funeral. They love the emotions and the crying and screaming misery of the whole thing. Someone is at some point bound to throw herself over the coffin or accuse someone of sending the deceased to their grave prematurely. It’s all part of the fun and usually means nothing because they’ll all be having coffee and cake together in a few hours.
In our family, the chosen weapon of funereal dysfunction is – you guessed it – Aunt Angelina. At my mother’s funeral she didn’t disappoint. She marched right into the house with her offering for the meal: a store-bought potato salad transported in a faded yellow Polly-O container. Slamming it down in the middle of the table, she looked up to the chandelier which I suppose she felt represented my recently deceased mother, and said, “There’s your damn container.”
I suppose a therapist would toss around terms like “passive/aggressive” and point out that the whole issue wasn’t the container at all and charged us all several hundred dollars an hour for family therapy.
That I would have loved to witness.