Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pasquale Bruno

Pasquale Bruno lived life large and enthusiastically. One of four sons from a humble immigrant family -- my father was one of the others -- he was the only one to leave home and the first to recognize both the joy and the lucrative benefits of his Italian heritage.

From his base in Chicago, where he moved a generation ago to work for Sears, he made himself into a chef, a 27-year restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, a five-time cookbook author, and a salesman of items like a pizza baking stone and a garlic press.

Ironically, although he was the son to make his heritage profitable, he was also the farthest removed from the actual reality of home: the extended family, St. Patrick's Church, Athens, his childhood. He rarely came back, preferring to look at his childhood through the lens of distance and a touch of nostalgia. On Christmas, as all the rest of us sat around Nana’s table, laden with ravioli, cavatelli, eggplant, sausage and peppers, and meatballs, everything would stop at when the phone rang at 1 p.m.  Nana would rush to the phone and Uncle Pat would wish us a “buon natale.”

That’s about as much as I knew of him when I was a kid, and it wasn't until I was living on my own and embarking on my own adventures in Italian cooking that he became a part of my life, especially after the popularity of email. He may have been of my parents' generation, but he embraced technology and stayed in touch that way.

In fact, it was only when the Washington Post wanted to write about Christmas traditions and I was interviewed about our Italian pasta feast that I began a regular correspondence with him. He emailed after the article appeared the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2007: Debbie: great story. Now I am going to make ravioli for our Christmas dinner here. The story brought back so many good memories. Thanks for doing it. And thanks for mentioning your Uncle Pasquale. Happy Thanksgiving.
Two years later, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he did what all good writers do when they’re trying to make sense of things: he wrote a rambling, funny, tough-guy memoir about the experience. This is how it started:  “I will not consent to die this day, that is certain. Shakespeare: ‘Measure for Measure’
Here is how it happened. How I took a wicked punch from the Big C without going down for the count. Not yet anyway. 
I had been out for lunch with a couple of friends that day, December 23, 2009.  I had braised short ribs with a side of mac 'n' cheese and iced tea. The short ribs were flavorful but too fatty. The mac 'n' cheese, on the other hand, was creamy-rich, the campanelle pasta the perfect shape to capture the lushness of the cheeses—four in all.
I took a cab home from the restaurant and settled in on the sofa. I read for a while. Dozed off. My wife came home around 5:30 p.m. We were going out to dinner later on. She sat down on the sofa next to me to discuss our dinner plans. And that’s when I heard the knock on the door.
Unusual, I thought. We weren’t expecting anyone.  I went to the door, opened it and, wouldn’t you know it? There he was. The Big C. The bastard had a twisted smile on his face, a “gotcha” smirk that really ticked me off. I said, “bug off” and slammed the door in his face.
Later, he describes a scene in the hospital with his usual bravado:  The tumor was a little bigger than a golf ball,” the surgeon said. “Titleist or Srixon?" I mumbled.  He laughed.
 I said, “I’m a food guy, Doc. Was it smaller than a peach; larger than a plum?”
“Somewhere in between,” he answered.  
“So the hole I always knew I had in my head just got a little bigger,” I said. 
 Damn, whatever they were pumping into me was making me feel really good; almost as good as I felt the first time I smoked a joint.
 “Your husband has a good sense of humor," the surgeon said. 
 “Don’t encourage him," my wife said.
 How about those apples?   Glioblastoma multiforme. Sounds like something they play around with at the Kennedy Space Center.

Two years after his initial diagnosis, a version of that essay, where he sounds like a combination of Dashiell Hammett and Jimmy Cagney, appeared in the Washington Post with the headline, “Brain cancer at age 77 doesn’t stop writer from going on with a good life.”

After it appeared and his story was picked up by a Chicago television station, he wrote me, Deb, the response has been humbling and amazing.

In his Post essay, Uncle Pat looks at his diagnosis and treatment with spunk and calm: Recently a good friend asked if I had a bucket list. “I never even thought about it,” I answered. Not being smug about it, but I really don’t know how much of a list I could put together.
“Bad luck”?
No. Good luck.
Present cancer excepted, I have had a whole lot of good luck. I have managed to throw together a veritable minestrone of good times.
He goes on to list things like teaching Oprah to toss pizza dough, meeting a young Elvis, cooking with Jacques Pepin. Leave it to Pat Bruno to take a bucket list and turn it on its head so that it becomes a catalogue of joys, triumphs, and quiet moments.
In one of his last emails to me earlier this year, he describes what turned out to be one last round of chemo to keep the cancer cells at bay:   Full day at the hospital on 'feb 16; 7 a.m. MRI, 8 a.m. labs, 8:30 oncologist (he will give me the MRI results), 9:30 chemo infusion (one hour), 11:30 out to lunch, because I will surely be starving.  Probably we will go to Coco Pazzo Cafe, which is a block from the hospital.
love and all that
Uncle Pat

1 comment:

  1. Deb, sincere condolences. He seems like a terrific guy. I'm sure his loss will be intensely felt, but that you will continue to celebrate his life with that joie de vivre that seems to be a family trait.