How to capture six children’s attention, hold it and send them to bed happy.
Other than my father’s corny jokes, most of our family traditions involved food. Dad was clever. He hid his lack of culinary skills by entertaining the troops, and his show magically made everything taste better. When serving his creations, he often proclaimed them, “Better than food.” And who were we to disagree? His crazy-shaped pancakes always delighted, as did his made-from-leftovers spaghetti sauce and soup—what he called “Baseball Soup” during the season that extended into the fall if the Yankees reached the playoffs. Dad roasted chestnuts all year long, divvied up pomegranates, made an art out of day-old corn on the cob, carefully peeling off one row at a time and distributing the kernels into eager hands. He stuffed ice cream cones with cold mashed potatoes that never melted on a sweltering summer day. And in 1963, he reinvented popcorn. He named his crunchy half-popped popcorn snack, Nutranuts. His goal was to lure us kids away from candy and junk food to reduce dental bills. Mum’s the word on his success rate.
Mom didn’t need a show. While no Julia Child in the kitchen either, she excelled at her still the best ever lasagna, Christmas cookies, and holiday pies. All so good that even when I held my hand high above my head and declared, “I’m filled up to here,” I always managed to stuff in another cookie or slice of cherry, apple or pumpkin pie.
But the most fun, without a doubt, was the Coconut Toss. On those special nights, the six of us crowded around the table as Dad and his pocketknife dug into that hard, hairy brown orb’s eyes. We impatiently waited while he drained its juice into a glass. We had no interest in that. We wanted the meat and only the meat. We then scuttled to the top of the basement stairs waving hands and screaming, “My turn, my turn, my turn.” Dad handed the coconut to one of us. After the inevitable groans, the others fell silent. The lucky one moved to the edge of the landing and took aim at the painted cement floor thirteen steps below. A direct hit would end our misery and also our fun, but it was not to be. It rarely was on the first toss. The remaining five reached out and screamed, “My turn, my turn, my turn.” Dad passed the bruised and battered shell to the next child. Anticipation multiplied with each toss and ended only when we heard that magic sound followed by that mouthwatering sight of crunchy white goodness seconds away from being inhaled.
We rushed back to the kitchen table, bobbing and weaving as Dad pried that first chunk from its armor and handed it to the winner. The rest didn’t have to wait long to stuff ourselves silly.
In the summer of ‘67, my love of coconuts deepened. Uncle Gene invited us to spend two weeks at his new motel on Singer Island, Florida, our first family vacation outside the Tri-State area. All eight packed into our Dodge station wagon to begin the two-day, twelve-hundred-mile journey down the I-95. We arrived in the middle of the night—a lifetime after enjoying fresh orange juice at the welcome station—so I only caught a glimpse of what the Sunshine State had to offer. A tropical sunrise revealed all its glory. Growing up with the Jersey Shore, the sand and the sea were no big deal. Sure, the beach was whiter and the waves bluer, but what thrilled me were the palm trees. Everywhere I looked, palm trees. I had only seen them on television or on the silver screen. And these were not just any palms, but coconut palms. I no doubt landed in paradise. Yet those bowling-ball-sized green things hanging below the fan-shaped branches didn’t look like any coconuts I knew. To end my confusion, Uncle Gene climbed up and cut one down. He listened to the juice sloshing inside. His smile confirmed its ripeness. His sharp ax did the rest. Buried deep inside a two-inch-thick husk lay a pale green hairy seed, its size and shape looked a bit more familiar. With no fussing about, Gene got right to it. No draining, no stairs, no fun. One mighty swing of his ax sent juices flying. And there sat the freshest coconut I had ever seen. The freshest coconut I’d ever eat. But breaking family tradition was no way to win me over. No, no, no. Then he handed me a chunk of that sweet, chewy goodness and when I stuffed it in my mouth, all was forgiven. I knew I not only landed in paradise, I tasted paradise.