Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast!: A Journalist's Uncommon Memoir

Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast!: A Journalist's Uncommon Memoir

by Ron Cohen


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As Managing Editor of United Press International and Executive Editor of Gannett News Service during a 40-year-journalism career, Ron Cohen has been directly responsible for instantly bringing the top headlines every day to hundreds of millions of readers, viewers and listeners in every corner of the globe.

Assassinations, impeachments, terrorist attacks, elections, wars, disasters both natural and man-made — these constitute the 24-hour-a-day breaking news cycle that helped make Cohen one of the world’s most influential journalists.

In these days of political turmoil and allegations of "fake news," this highly personal book offers a chance to see and feel how it's been to work in a changing media universe — with constant challenges, excitement and pressure to perform, plus the thrills, satisfaction and frustration that make the news business at once rewarding and exhausting.

Now, shifting gears a bit, Cohen has written “Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast! A Journalist’s Uncommon Memoir.” It is sweet, humorous, quirky, serious — a sort of written/oral history of his 80 years on Planet Earth.

With this collection of stories, Ron tells you about the fascinating characters he has encountered along his journey, as well about a rich North Jersey Italian-Jewish heritage dating back to the early 20th Century when mixed marriages were rare — and often frowned upon.

The stories aim at his four young grandkids — whom he cannot and simply will not deny “Ice Cream for Breakfast” — in hopes they will get to better know (and remember) a grandfather who is geographically distant if emotionally close.

But it also is for the 70 million grandparents in America and for “kids of all ages” looking for a grin, a sigh, a belly-laugh — even an occasional throat lump.

Cohen's previous book, "Down to the Wire: UPI's Fight for Survival" (McGraw-Hill, 1989) was named Best Business Book of the Year by Business Week magazine, and won, among other awards, the coveted Gold Medal for Journalism History from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781490782416
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
Publication date: 06/13/2017
Pages: 398
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt



Earliest recollection of my grandma, Filomena Monzione Figliuolo:

I am about 2, stubby chubby legs struggling up what must be the world's steepest, darkest staircase, at 16 1/2 Rowland Street in Newark, New Jersey.

One tricky step after another, grasping the bannister poles with my right hand, stepping up with my left foot, Millie right behind in case I stumble. (My mom always had my back, right to the day she died.)

Finally, the summit. Sir Edmund Hillary could not have been more excited atop Mount Everest.

Out of the hallway's darkness and into the light — Grandma's sun-splashed second-floor kitchen, the tiny fiefdom where she performs her miraculous alchemy.

She is at her familiar battle station, her battered stove. With metronomic precision, her right arm guides a wood spoon the size of a small oar through a bottomless vat of gravy. Olfactory overload -- garlic, basil, tomatoes, assorted pork products -- embracing magically, blissfully.

She has monitored my snail's-pace ascension up the stairway to heaven, but feigns surprise as I burst into the kitchen. Dropping the oar into the gravy pot, she spins and picks me up.

"Ron-nie, Ron-nie," she croons. "You wanna sang-weech-a?"

Of course, I want a sandwich. Even at that tender age I have learned the immutable Figliuolo law: When Filomena offers, "no" is never an option. She fills a sub roll with slices of meatball, then ladles in gravy. She sits me at a Formica kitchen table battle-scarred by thousands of family meals, and tucks a large napkin into my shirt collar.

We both know it is a pious gesture. Even a shower curtain could not have protected me from splatters of blood-red gravy. She salutes my first bite with a single Italian word, "ben-u-ree-ga" (spelling phonetically here), which in later years I discover is almost a sigh of satisfaction — "enjoy."

Which I certainly did.

There was no queenly throne in Filomena's kitchen, but she managed to reign supreme despite hardly ever sitting down. The fulcrums of her little world were the gas stove and the adjoining refrigeration unit, her "ice-a box" — which got its three-syllable name from an 18-square-inch block of ice delivered three times a week on a horse-drawn cart that plied Newark's all-Italian North End.

"Ice-a-man! Ice-a-man! Getta you ice-a heah!" the driver would sing, grabbing a block off the cart with fierce-looking tongs and depositing it in the place of honor, the middle shelf, with a pan underneath to capture the devolution back to its original liquid state a couple of days later. Invariably, as the last sliver gave out, we could hear the cart clackety-clacking with replenishments.

That was pretty much the way you did business back in the late 1930s in the North End where for dozens of square blocks my grandparents lived cheek to jowl with their "paisani" — countrymen from Italy. Besides the "ice-a man," there was the knife sharpener guy, who every couple of weeks pushed his cart down Rowland. When they heard the whirring wheel of his whetstone, Italian matriarchs carried every knife in their utensil drawers down the stairs and out into the street.

Then there was the milkman, also in a horse-drawn cart, delivering actual glass bottles (not cardboard) topped with three inches of thick cream -- to add to coffee or churn into butter. Still in bed, I took comfort in the clinking melody of full bottles replacing empties. The symphony provided reassurance that there would be a cold glass of Becker Dairy's moo-juice with breakfast. He also delivered fresh eggs; Grandma had a huge standing order because eggs were cheap and she had 10 bellies to fill.

My favorite tradesman was the legless war veteran who traveled atop a sturdy four-by-twelve wood plank, roller-skate wheels attached to each corner. From a small, wood-burning stove in front, he extracted freshly roasted chestnuts and luscious hot-baked yams wrapped in several sheets of newspaper to protect my little fingers. When I became a baseball fan I would connect that memory to the term hot potato, a batted ball too hot for an infielder to handle.

Yam guy propelled himself along the street, hands tucked into thick gloves to protect knuckles. He sang, in a deep bass you started hearing a block away, the heart-shattering World War I ballad, "My Buddy." To this day I cannot hear that song without recalling the mournful keening of that brave, legless man.

"My buddy, my buddy,
Filomena's hair, dark and thick in the fading photos that dotted the small apartment, now was thin and gray. Wrinkles had begun creasing her soft features, but the sweet smiles lovingly bestowed on her grandchildren never faded. She was a quiet woman, befitting a hard life caring for five daughters, three sons, and a stern husband. She struggled to acclimate herself to a strange new world far from Napoli, carefully marshaling money, wasting nothing. Her English was not so much broken as fractured.

If one word could describe life on the second story at Rowland, it would be abbondanza — abundance. Filomena always managed to find something in a far recess of the ice-a-box to construct a "sang-weech-a" for Ronnie, her moon-faced first grandchild. Fixing my snack was a stroll in the park compared to the daily grind of feeding her family — and any other passing friends and relatives who knew just what door to rap on for leftover spaghetti.

Sunday dinners were the jewels in Filomena's crown. Beginning Thursday, clad in an old but immaculate-patterned dress protected from the bubbling gravy vat by an apron of great age, she would all but take root at a stove that countless thousands of meals had rendered the color of midnight.

In her neighborhood, everyone's last name ended in a vowel. Everyone had big families and spoke lilting Italian, spiced with pidgin English. And after mass every Sunday, women in black stockings hosted bacchanals featuring varieties of macaroni (never call it pasta) flavored by that sea of homemade gravy (never call it sauce), simmered for hours and flavor-enhanced with meatballs, bracciole, sausage, spareribs and assorted leftover pork that transformed the concoction from bright tomato red to a burgundy so dark it bordered on black, so thick she had to use both hands to stir.

Words cannot convey the joy and love that embraced Sunday dinner in Filomena's kitchen. The day before, while she "rows" the thickening gravy, the Figliuolo ravioli "assembly line" reports for duty — every able-bodied man, woman and child. That would be me.

From a hiding place somewhere (under their bed?) materialize two giant wooden boards, three feet by five, balanced precariously on the kitchen table and dusted with flour. Various aunts and uncles with interchangeable skills claim dough-making, dough-rolling, dough-cutting jobs. Various others mix the pot cheese (don't call it ricotta) with eggs, milk, flavored breadcrumbs, and parsley and stuff it into the individual ravioli pouches (cheese, never, EVER meat!), and crimp the edges with fork tines. Each board held 100 of those plump little beauties.

The full boards are entrusted to my sure-handed uncles, Cush and Rudy, huge, granite-hard semipro football players you always wanted on your side of the scrimmage line. They gently lay their precious booty on the bed so the dough can dry slightly before being covered with damp dish towels. These pockets of paradise will claim center stage Sunday, their supporting cast consisting of platters piled high with gravy and meats. Where, I wonder in retrospect, did my grandparents sleep on Saturday nights?

Nobody ever knew how many relatives/friends might drop in after Mass for sustenance, laughter, and arguments replete with wild Italian gesticulations more richly communicative than words. (To render an Italian speechless, cut off his hands.) Nobody could guess how many people would consume how many "ravvies," but, astonishingly, the food never seems to run out. Or how much of Grandpa Carlo's homemade red wine would help wash everything down.

Despite looking tiny alongside my mom's brothers, my Jewish Uncle Mac could really pound down Italian food.

One Sunday he showed up unexpectedly, but no brother-in-law of Millie's ever would be turned away from the groaning board.

Mac's prodigious appetite that day earned him a niche in Figliuolo family lore, and, even more important, a permanent Sunday invitation. He methodically tucked away about four dozen ravioli, not ignoring the various meats, and, like a starving stranger who had just wandered in from Napoli, sopped up gravy with giant slabs of crusty bread.

Delighted shouts of "Where are you putting it?" and "The Jewish guy must have a hollow leg!" greeted Mac's feats — hearty appetites were always applauded, even if one's old country is Russia, not Italy.

Happily, the Italian "stuff-'em-'til-they-burst" gene seemed not to have skipped generations. Filomena's kids grew to adulthood and continued the tradition of "Nobody leaves hungry, nobody leaves empty-handed." That would have been the motto on the Figliuolo family coat of arms — if we could have afforded one.

The tradition lived on in both me and my sister, Diane, and our 12 Italian cousins. Ditto for the 21 great-grands that Filomena, sadly, didn't live long enough to feed.

Food assembly lines were always a Fig specialty. Although the family was rich in love and tradition, nobody ever became "rich" rich. Just "getting by" required planning and ingenuity.

When my youngest uncle, Rudy, became engaged to Aunt Rose, the large numbers of extended family and friends necessitated a big wedding. But nobody could afford a "big" wedding in the traditional sense.

So the reception was held at the neighborhood Italian social hall, Club Harmony. Fare consisted of Italian cold-cut sandwiches washed down with quarts of Brookdale soda and kegs of beer. I recall stacks of crates, each holding a dozen quart soda bottles, being carried by Rudy's strapping young amici up the stairs of Club Harmony early in the week and tucked away in a closet. On Saturday afternoon, the ice-a-man delivered blocks of ice that joined the soda bottles in enormous galvanized tin tubs.

The sandwiches? Another assembly line on the ravioli table.

We stuffed hundreds of oval Italian rolls with endless combinations of meats and cheeses — hot gabbagool (capicola, without the dialect — a type of Italian ham); nonspicy gabbagool (for the very few Italians cursed with delicate digestive tracks); Genoa salami, sopressata, mortadella, prosciutto, provolone, mozzarella. (My mouth waters as I write this!) We garnished the sandwiches with mustard, cherry peppers, and olive condit — bits of olive, celery, carrots, cauliflower, and fennel soaked in olive oil and spiked with oregano.

We wrapped the filled-to-bursting rolls tightly in wax paper, contents marked in heavy black ink. There was enough activity around that kitchen table to keep a half-dozen enthusiastic volunteers busy.

Big boxes were filled with sandwiches, and Rudy's friends carried them to the Club Harmony. Henry Ford may have invented the assembly line, but the Fabulous Figs elevated it to an art form.

The memory of that Saturday night wedding party almost seven decades ago still burns bright. Best damned wedding ever. Guests are so jammed on the dance floor that snaring a sandwich from the food table is impossible. That's when I realize why the "sang-a-weechas" were wrapped tightly and labeled.

"You're the starting quarterback. I'm your backup!" my Uncle Cush, clad in a tuxedo as his brother's best man, shouts from the far end of the small stage we share with the tiny band. At our feet are the boxes filled with football-shaped sandwiches, ready for tossing.

"Ron-nie, hot gabbagool and provo!" cousin Rocky bellows from the right side of the dance floor. The "starting quarterback" reaches down, grabs the properly labeled spheroid, and sends it arcing to the general vicinity of Rocky's voice. Cush does the same as orders are shouted from the left side of the hall.

Sometimes one of those little footballs falls short or drifts wide left. But my completion percentage is pretty darned good for a 10-year-old, and even the errant tosses quickly find their way to the hands of the intended receiver. How people managed to get their beer and their Brookside creams and sarsaparillas, I have no idea.

I had another pretty important job that night — helping stash "La Busta," another delightful Italian wedding tradition.

La Busta refers to the envelopes containing cold, hard cash guests give the newlyweds for a needed financial "boost." Cush and I stuff the "La Busta" envelopes into our pockets.

It is altogether fitting that, at evening's end, I hand Rudy the loot. Because for years, my sweet, strong, silent uncle, every single time he saw me — every single time — slipped a five-dollar bill into my shirt pocket.

Afterward, back home from Club Harmony, Grandpa Carlo cracks out liquid refreshment so the Figliuolos and their relatives can more formally toast Rudy and Rose. And it isn't Brookdale cream soda: it is Grandpa's Dago Red — vino rosso lovingly concocted every fall in his basement, always just enough to last a year of ravioli-dappled Sundays.

When I was about seven, Grandpa decided it was time to entrust me with his winemaking secrets. One autumn morning I clutched his hand, and we walked a couple of miles to where Broadway turns into Broad Street, then we hung a left to Penn Station. There Grandpa collected eight crates of red grapes shipped via train from California's Napa Valley, 3,200 miles west of Newark — grapes grown and harvested by paisani who settled on the Left Coast.

We walked because Grandpa, after investing in grapes, had only enough for bus fare home, plus several dimes to pay a stranger to help get the crates at the station to the bus stop two blocks away.

It took several round trips — I was too small to be much help with the three-by-five wood crates. When we were all done and the hired guy had been paid, Grandpa and I sat with our treasure on the corner of Broad and Market, Newark's main intersection, to await the Broad Street bus.

When the driver stopped he could only watch with admirable patience as I staked out a couple of rows of empty seats, and Grandpa hefted the crates, one by one, onto the bus. Then he dropped his last dime in the fare box.

When the bus stopped at Broad and Rowland, I ran down the block and fetched Uncles Cush and Rudy to help carry our treasure to our finish line, the basement.

There, Grandpa and I sat on a grape crate so he could fortify himself with the final bottle of last year's vintage. My reward was the very last sip from our "goblet," one of the old jelly glasses that constituted the entirety of the Figliuolo "stemware" collection.

Grandpa and I then removed our shoes and socks, scrubbed our feet, and stepped, hand-in-hand, into the huge metal tub reserved for his oenological endeavors.

Stomp vigorously.

Repeat for eight crates.

Feet turn deep purple.

"Piccoli diti melanzone," he says to me.

Translation later, via mom:

"Little eggplant toes."


Excerpted from "Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast!"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Ron Cohen.
Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, vi,
Preface, viii,
Foreword, ix,
Chapter 1 Wine and Ravioli with Carlo and Filomena, 1,
Chapter 2 Grandpa Joe, 13,
Chapter 3 The Fabulous Figs, 23,
Chapter 4 Dad, Violins, and George Sisler, 43,
Chapter 5 Someone's in the Kitchen with Millie, 53,
Chapter 6 Longie and the Hersheys, 60,
Chapter 7 Crazy for Baseball, 65,
Chapter 8 Myrna and the Chick, 75,
Chapter 9 Doris and the Broken Leg, 79,
Chapter 10 Me and the Duke, 86,
Chapter 11 "We Shudda' Let Ya Drown!", 95,
Chapter 12 Shattered Glass, 101,
Chapter 13 Harry and Cary, 108,
Chapter 14 Dad, Imperial, and Christine Jorgensen, 115,
Chapter 15 Ice Cream, You Scream, 126,
Chapter 16 Wheelchairs, Spud-Nuts, and Po' Boys, 131,
Chapter 17 Hey, Gimme Free Beer!, 159,
Chapter 18 How I Met Jill, and Other Exciting Tales, 165,
Chapter 19 A Pint for My Pop, 178,
Chapter 20 Almost Fired Day 1 (Part 1), 189,
Chapter 21 Firing Squad to Bureau Chief, 195,
Chapter 22 Almost Fired Day 1 (Part 2), 199,
Chapter 23 Almost Fired Day 1 (Part 3), 206,
Chapter 24 First (And Almost Last) Anniversary, 212,
Chapter 25 Nutmeg Daze and Knights, 217,
Chapter 26 November 22, 1963, 230,
Chapter 27 Bigfoot, 234,
Chapter 28 Green Mountain Boy, 243,
Chapter 29 Rasslin' The Bear, 253,
Chapter 30 A Toast to FiFi Allen, 259,
Chapter 31 Baby Rachel, 265,
Chapter 32 Rachel, Shaun, and the Goalie, 270,
Chapter 33 "Loosen Up, Sandy Baby", 275,
Chapter 34 Luncheon with Mitzi, 280,
Chapter 35 A Ballad of Irons and Steel, 284,
Chapter 36 Chicago Flo, 290,
Chapter 37 Of Bratwurst and Briefs, 296,
Chapter 38 For Your Grandchildren, 300,
Chapter 39 Cush at 90, 316,
Chapter 40 "The President Has Been Shot!", 319,
Chapter 41 Going Home, 332,
Chapter 42 Wondrous, Wonderful America, 338,
Chapter 43 The Road Not Taken, 344,
Chapter 44 Uncle Cush, 349,
Chapter 45 At Last, "Goodbye", 360,
Epilogue, 372,

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Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast!: A Journalist's Uncommon Memoir 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
By William Wright In this fond ode to family, one of the best passages is when the author is making his arduous way up to his grandma's kitchen, his little legs negotiating the stairs. I suspect many readers urged little Ron onward and upwards with each step, and I bet they broke out with cheers as I did when he made it to the top, triumphant at age 2, ready to take on the world. Read on and you find that's pretty much what he did in a journalism career spanning some of the biggest stories of our times.