A bowl of fried anchovies, or aleesh, fresh from the cooking oil. Credit: Macon Street Books.

The batter should bubble a bit as it rises, a thin dough wrapped around anchovies and deep fried in vegetable oil until golden brown, fished out with a slotted spoon and placed on a paper towel. Best enjoyed hot.

An Italian Christmastime favorite, my family calls them “aleesh cakes.” Like so many other words common in ethnic American families, it doesn’t translate into anything. The Italian word for anchovy is acciughe. How did that devolve into aleesh in Roaring 20s Highlandtown? I only know that they are delicious.

My Polish mother never tasted one until she began dating my father in 1951, traveling from kielbasa Canton to a world of manicotti on Macon Street, back when Greektown was mostly German and Italian and known as “the Hill.”

Once married, she learned from my Italian grandmother: warm water, several cups of flour, yeast, some sugar and a little salt for the dough. And, of course, anchovies.

My brother Danny learned from our mother and he makes them not just at Christmas (in the old days we waited all year) but anytime he’s in the mood.

Dan was especially in the mood on August 8, the one year anniversary of our father’s death. It was just me and him at a Formica-topped table in the back of the basement where we grew up in Linthicum, savoring the simple delicacy while telling stories about our old man.

How he used to make the dish with his father when Christmas Eve was still held on Macon Street, painstakingly separating and rinsing anchovies packed in salt before, he said, “we wised up and started buying them in oil.”

And how, once the holidays moved to Linthicum after his mother died in 1976, Dad would help his father to a chair, give him a small glass of wine and say, “Tell me a story Pop,” while he and my mother made the aleesh in the same spot where Danny does it now.

The one-year anniversary of a death

Feasting on deep fried anchovies was not the original plan for honoring Manuel Rafael Alvarez on the first anniversary of his passing at 87 after a good and happy life. It doesn’t sting but there’s an abiding ache I doubt will ever leave me.

A seafarer since his teens and a career Fells Point tugboat man, our first idea was to spread his ashes in the harbor from a vessel like the ones that long sustained our family. But the tug captain I know wasn’t working last week. A sailboat in Canton became available but thunderstorms beckoned.

So Dan and I enjoyed our dinner – aleesh, a bean salad with diced onions like our Italian grandmother once chilled in her 1948 Westinghouse refrigerator, a beer for him and a glass of water for me. I went to bed and drifted off with thoughts for Plan B.

The next morning, I arranged a few things on my father’s wooden workbench, which he painted 50 years ago in a shade I call “corner grocery store green.”

Where Dad once do-hickeyed this and jury-rigged that with leftover hardware kept in baby food jars, tin coffee cans and tiny drawers for whatever needed to be fixed, I placed an empty bottle of Anis del Mono liqueur, the funnel Dad used to change the oil in his 1966 canary yellow Mustang, and an urn with his ashes.

Like aleesh, del Mono anisette has a long history in our family, this one from the Spanish side. First distilled in the mid-19th century, it’s made in Badalona, just up the Balearic coast from Barcelona and is known for the monkey – mono on the label. The monkey has a human face, said to be Darwin.

Often hard to come by, Dad saved it for special occasions, bringing out the diamond-cut bottle and aperitif glasses when dessert and coffee were served. A decade ago, when he was still vigorous – when he was still Manny – my daughter Sofia (Bryn Mawr School, 2003), sought Anis del Mono at a Spanish liquor store in Manhattan. The owner said he had a bottle on the shelf and two in the back and wasn’t importing it anymore because its popularity had faded. Fia bought them all, giving them to her grandfather on Christmas Eve as aleesh cooled in the basement.

A year ago, she visited Grandpop for the last time. Though he wasn’t really up to it, they raised a shot of anis together at the side of his living room sick bed, said salud and threw down. Though sweet like black licorice, anisette can be harsh and there were tears in Fia’s eyes as she swallowed. Later she said it wasn’t just the spirits in the glass that had blurred her vision.

Looking for a tugboat

Using the funnel, I spooned ashes into the bottle until about two inches covered the bottom. I rinsed the spoon and the funnel in the stationary tubs, screwed the cap on the urn and took the bottle for a ride “into town,” where our American story began after my namesake grandfather jumped ship in Fells Point in 1925.

An illustration of a bottle of Anis del Mono. Credit: Andrea Gutierrez

I turned east onto Pratt at Camden Yards, passing generic, corporate businesses where local establishments like Connelly’s Seafood and Elmer’s Musical Bar once stood. Turning right on President Street (where organ grinders from Little Italy kept their monkeys long ago), I took a left on Aliceanna and followed it a mile to Boston Street and the once industrial Canton waterfront.

I parked near a small concrete bridge over what was once Harris Creek, the site of the 18th century shipyard where the U.S.S. Constellation frigate was built and the spot where Dad proposed to Mom in 1953 surrounded by lumber yards, canning plants and the J.S. Young licorice factory. Now, brick and wooden pathways lead to marinas.

Bottle of ashes in hand, I walked to the end of a small pier – a row of ducks watching me from a floating trash boom – unscrewed the cap and knelt down. Dad wasn’t religious but I said an “Our Father” while shaking his dust from the bottle. As the ashes hit the water they made little cloud bursts that bloomed bright white before fading.

I looked to see if a tug might be passing by. Nope. Then I glanced at the ducks, wondering if one of them might gobble some of the ashes. Dad kept a pet duck in his narrow backyard when he was a kid and it ate spaghetti out of a bowl, the noodles wrapping around the bird’s beak. They just sat and watched.

When no more would shake out, I laid flat against the pier and dipped the bottle, getting enough through the narrow neck to swish around the remnants and pour out with the rest. And then I went about the rest of a Tuesday morning, soon learning that as I laid my father upon the waters, his first cousin – Ernest “Juidy” Adornato – was slipping into the world to come.

Uncle “Juidy” was named for his immigrant father, who used to go rabbit hunting with my grandfather in the wilds of 1940s Carroll County. His nickname is an Italian-American corruption of “Junior,” not unlike aleesh.

A quiet man with a great smile and dry, perfectly timed humor, Juidy and I were chatting once at a big family gathering.  Nodding to the crowd, which included many people with whom he’d grown up near the Crown Cork & Seal bottle cap factory, he said, “These are good people, Ralphie.”

The comment puzzled me. Having spent much of my career writing about very bad people, I didn’t see why – out of the blue – he’d made the point. When I asked, he simply said it again.

Rafael Alvarez lives in Greektown in the house where his father grew up. His latest book – Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery – will be released on October 15 by Cornell University Press. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com

2 replies on “Anchovies, anisette and ashes: Honoring a father”

  1. Outstanding as usual! So many shared memories captured in time. I can taste the salty aleesh hidden in each crispy bite. I am grateful that you and Danny join me in continuing this culinary family treasure.

  2. Beautiful story, and what you need to know is that ALEESH, is one way ItalianAmericans say the word ALICI. ALICI is Sicilian and Napoletana (yes, they are different languages) for Anchovy. Standard Italian is Acciughe. So you are using a REAL word. When I started taking Italian in school i first encountered “Acciughe” and many other standard Italian words that were different from what we spoke at home. Beautiful story, esp the anisette.

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