For years the only cooking Alex Grattoni ever did was "put things in the oven." Things like fish sticks and TV dinners.
He had no need to learn how to cook since he grew up in a traditional home with a mother who was a fabulous cook. Alex's parents came from a small town on the border of Italy and Yugoslavia. It depended on the year and the whims of varying governments as to whether the town was part of Italy or part of Yugoslavia. Alex was just over a year old when his parents left their volatile homeland and immigrated to America.
They eventually settled in Chicago and when Alex was old enough to go to school, his mother lovingly packed his decidedly ethnic lunch into a pail and off he went. Alex remembers eating thinly sliced liver and onions and crepes, but he never did care for the tripe she occasionally made.
When he was just 9, Alex unwittingly became part of what would be one of Chicago's greatest disasters: the Our Lady of Angels fire that killed more than 90 students and three nuns in 1958.
Despite the terrible memories of that time, Alex actually has one pleasant memory that brings us back to our topic of food. After the fire, the surviving students were sent to neighboring schools to finish out the year. Alex attended a school that provided lunch and provided his first memory of eating American food. After his first bite into a bologna sandwich on white bread, he was hooked.
"I remember thinking, this is really good!" says Alex.
Many years and countless bologna sandwiches and frozen meals later, Alex learned to cook after his first marriage ended. It wasn't until his second marriage, when he and his wife began to raise a family, that he really began to enjoy cooking.
"When the kids were growing up, my wife went to school at night, and then started teaching at night, so I started cooking for me and the boys," he recalls. "A lot of those nights I would cook pasta. I just kind of made up the ingredients.
"Some nights I would do something that was pretty ethnic -- something my wife wouldn't care for, but the boys loved. Sometimes when the boys found out that their mom had a class they would ask me, 'Oh, are you going to cook that thing with tuna?' My wife won't even stay in the same house with tuna!" he laughs.
Alex credits the boys-only cooking sessions for fostering his love to cook and for fueling that enjoyment in his oldest son as well.
One recipe his whole family loves is banana cake that he shares with us today. For years he's served it as the celebratory cake for special occasions.
"When I was a teenager, I essentially spent the summers with my cousins. Their mother, my 'zia' Alda, made this wonderful cake and when I got older I asked her for the recipe. It's not a complicated recipe, but everyone who has it always loves it -- including me."
Now empty nesters, Alex and his wife scan Internet cooking sites for inspiration. Alex will read recipes until he finds one that has the ingredients he wants to use.
They are also big fans of the Food Network. His current favorite? "The Sandwich King."
I bet Alex could tell show host Jeff Mauro a thing or two about bologna sandwiches.