Sunday, June 10, 2007

Chickens apparently grow on trees...

My mother tells people that I am a vegetarian the same way most mothers would talk about their daughter being a drug dealer, stripper or prostitute.

(Actually, I am not a vegetarian, I am a pescatarian, as I eat fish, but don't eat pork, beef or poultry.)

When I yawn, or sneeze, or cough, or am moody, my mother automatically blames the fact that I don't eat meat. My mother is a smoker, doesn't exercise, and eats poorly. However, according to her, it is my vegetarianism that will kill me, while a bacon cheeseburger is considered a healthy serving or protein.

I first became attracted to the vegetarian lifestyle at a very young age. I watched Charlotte's Web for the first time (the one featuring Debbie Reynolds as the voice of the beloved spider) and realized that the ham and pork and sausages my family often ate came from Wilbur.

I couldn't do it.

I told my mother I would never eat meat again.

This lasted for an entire summer. I still remember sitting at lunch with my sister and our cousin. They were eating ham sandwiches, I had my usual peanut butter.

My cousin giggled and shoved her sandwich in her mouth, exclaiming, "I'm sorry, Wilbur...but you just taste SO GOOD!"

I started to cry.

As the years passed, I occasionally ate meat. I couldn't always resist a cheeseburger or sausage with onions and peppers (a fixture at any Italian-American family dinner) and, yes, loved chicken and turkey. While I always have felt a pang of guilt over eating cows and pigs, I never had much of an attachment to chicks and turkeys.

(Also, I couldn't handle the thought of eating lamb. There was a great Greek restaurant across the street from our apartment. There was one "chicken dish" that my mom would always order and that I loved. However, one day I learned that it wasn't chicken, but lamb. My mother had lied to me because she knew I would never eat lamb. I once again cried.)

I'm not sure when exactly I completely stopped eating pork and beef, but I did, finding delight in veggie burders and tofu sausages and not missing the real thing too much. No cheeseburger would ever taste as good as badly as picturing a dying cow made me feel. (Kind of like that dieting adage, "There is no food that tastes so great as being thing feels!")

Two years ago, I realized I was a huge hypocrite. How come I ate turkey and chicken but wasn't eating other meats out of "ethical" reasons? Was it because I enjoyed turkey and chicken too much? Was it because turkeys and chickens aren't cute and cuddly as cows and pigs?

Before I knew it, chicken and turkey were on my "not to eat" list. It wasn't so bad though...Morningstar makes darn good 'chik'n nuggets'. (However, I am not so much a fan of tofurkey...tofu turkey.)

My mom's sister seems to share my mom's opinion of my vegetarianism. She asks me at just about every dinner (after I refuse meat sauce and I remind her that I do not eat meat), "But you eat chicken, right?"

Chicken is not a vegetable.

Chickens have faces.

Chickens do not grow on trees.

Chickens ARE meat!

Then there was the time my mother told me we were having vegetarian chili for dinner, which I often ordered at a local sandwich place. I poked at the "veggie" chili and looked up at my mom. "THIS is vegetarian???" I asked her, wondering what on earth those meat-like pieces were in my chili.

"Yes," my mom told me. "There's turkey in it."

I wonder if turkeys grow in the same region as chickens...

Recently, my mom made a dish of penne for family party.

"Is there meat in there?" I asked suspiciously. My mother rolled her eyes. "No! There is NO meat in there! Why would I put MEAT in there?"

Minutes later, I clearly heard my mother tell my cousin in a stage whisper, "There is prosciutto in the penne! BUT DON'T TELL DIANA!"

My cousin started to laugh, as I was standing right there, and we wondered...would she ever really accept the fact that I just don't eat meat?

Apparently not.

There was also the time that she asked me if I wanted a hot dog or a hamburger at a barbeque. I reminded her, "Neither. Because I don't eat meat. I haven't eaten hot dogs or hamburgers in about ten years."

She replied with, "My life does not revolve around remembering that you don't eat meat!"

Although I am on PETA's mailing list, I don't go around preaching to people to not eat meat, nor am I throwing red paint at anybody. This is a personal decision, and many don't even know I am a vegetarian until it directly comes up.

(Or until they see me wearing my t-shirt with a little chick on it that says, "I don't eat YOUR fingers!")

Diana Rissetto

There is a surefire way...

...to become a celebrity within your (very very stereotypical) Italian-American family.

And that way is being a personal friend of the Sinatra family.

Yesterday, I went to a family party, and my Great Uncle Louie, who is about 85, greeted me with, "So, are you still in touch with Sinatra?"

Being in touch with Sinatra...any Sinatra...is a big deal for a family who is full of Anthonys, Vinnys and Louies.

I was raised on Frank Sinatra. In the background of all our family movies, you can clearly hear his voice…The Voice. I loved him…loved his voice, his style, his personality, the era he represented…a time of innocence and romance, when a song was just about a guy telling a girl that he loved her. I had always said I was born fifty years too late. In fact, this was probably part of the reason that I didn’t date much in high school…I was looking for a certain sweet and romantic quality that died along with black and white movies!

I have always been a fan of writing letters. At thirteen, I wrote a letter to Frank’s youngest daughter, Tina, telling her how much I enjoyed the television movie she produced about her father’s life.

I guess she probably wasn’t getting too many letters from little girls who were fans of her father’s (which really doesn’t surprise me, most little girls aren’t so odd) because a correspondence was born. I sent her a paper I wrote about her father for my ninth grade English class, and confided in her when my own father was diagnosed with cancer.

After Frank’s death, I mailed Tina a sympathy card, telling her how I felt like a member of my family had died and how sad I was that I would never get to meet her dad, even though I felt like he had been a great-uncle of mine my whole life! She wrote back, saying, “I’m sorry you never met him, but hearing about you brought a big smile to his face.” Few things have ever touched me as much as knowing that Frank Sinatra knew who I was and that I had made him smile!

Thanks to Tina, I got to be a presenter at Hofstra University’s Frank Sinatra conference in November 1998. The night before, a representative from Access Hollywood called my house and told me they were interested in doing a story about me. Me? Why? What did I do except grow up in a home that loved Frank Sinatra (didn’t make me very different from the majority of Italian-American families I knew!) and written some letters to his daughter?

That night, I presented at the conference. Tina was in the audience, and it was my first time meeting her. My mom and dad both cried, as did a few very very old men in the front row. I guess Frank Sinatra just has the effect on people.

When the Access Hollywood story aired, I was billed as the Teen Who Touched Frank Sinatra’s Heart. (On the show the night before, they coming attraction referred to me as That Little Girl Who Loved Ol’ Blue Eyes. They must have thought I was under 7 and were probably very disappointed when a high school junior showed up.) I was mentioned in the same breath as Sting and Brad Pitt. It was weird…but after 16 years of living my life, I was quite used to being weird.

Unable to be modest about it (at all), I brought the recording to school on Monday. We watched it in every class, and my classmates clapped and asked me questions about it each time. My sister called me to tell me that she and her dormmates watched and cried over my segment, as did the rest of my family. My uncle told me that his kids rewound the story and watched it over and over. I was thoroughly enjoying my fifteen minutes of fame.

(Sidenote…years later, I managed to fit “Presenter at Frank Sinatra Conference 1998” on my resume….I had to word it that way…”The Teen Who Touched Frank Sinatra’s Heart” wouldn’t have really fit…If Frank Sinatra can’t get you a job…who can, really? I eventually would learn that even Ol’ Blue Eyes wasn’t that powerful.)

I am still in touch with Tina. I have often heard that as “tough” a personality as Frank Sinatra was said to have, once he was your friend, you had a friend for life. He obviously passed that sense of friendship and loyalty to his daughter.

My father died of cancer only four months after my Frank Sinatra experience. Three days before he died, a priest and old family friend came over to our home to give my dad his last rites. As sick as he was, my father was able to tell Father Rod the story of me and Frank Sinatra. That had made him so proud of me and he loved telling people about it. It would be the last time he would really talk. Shortly after, he became so ill he couldn’t speak, and then he was gone.

I’m pretty sure that Frank Sinatra and my dad have since met.

Diana Rissetto