Joe Iracane is a man that knows how to tell a story, and he has a story for everything. His Italian roots are seen in the hand gesturing he uses and each story comes back to two common themes: those he loves and food.
“All of my relationships start around food,” Iracane said.
After friends and family continued to ask for his recipes, specifically his meatballs and marinara, Iracane decided a year ago to make a cookbook. Referring to this endeavor as a “labor of love,” he began weaving the stories and photographs of his life onto the same pages as the recipes.
“From Brooklyn to Bluegrass: Memories and Recipes” is the masterpiece Iracane created out of these stories, photos and recipes.
“I wanted to write the memories as it pertains to me being a Kentuckian,” Iracane said.
Beginning the book with a childhood memory, Iracane fondly told of carrying his grandmother’s brown paper bags as she returned from the corner grocery in Brooklyn, NY.
“I’m bragging on myself,” Iracane said, as he opened the cookbook and began reading, interspersing what he wrote with candid details about playing stickball in the street. “I remember it this way.”
Iracane’s cookbook is full of family favorites, passed down from his grandmother and mother. But the recipes do not all contain exact measurements because, after all, Iracane is a cook and this means there is some of this and some of that — and a whole lot of eyeballing — to make it original.
Iracane continuously bragged on his wife Ronda, both in the book and while he discussed the cookbook and his cooking.
“She is proud [of me] and she laughed a lot reading it,” Iracane said. “She always thinks I make too much of a mess and always wonders why we are cooking so much food.”
Iracane said it has come full circle with his son John’s interest in cooking and John’s wife Ashlie allowing John to do “slop gob,” a term Iracane uses (and passed down) to describe the mess that is created when cooking.
“Ashlie is John’s compliment,” Iracane said.
Iracane’s commitment to his family and friends runs throughout the book, not only in the stories, but also in the pictures. In fact, the cookbook could read as a memoir with recipes for some favorite dishes.
There are mentions of famous people and adventures and activities he has experienced with them, but the heart of the book is the family.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Iracane lived in a house with his maternal grandmother, grandfather and uncle on the first floor; his immediate family on the second; and his aunt and uncle on the third floor. Another aunt and uncle lived three houses down.
Sunday meals were eaten in the basement of this house, because they all ate together and this was the only space that accommodated the whole family.
“Those were very happy times for me,” Iracane wrote. “I loved watching my grandmother and mother cook some of the most unbelievable meals ever. Their meals were infused with maternal love and great care.”
Iracane’s favorite family meal is a traditional Italian Christmas feast. And it isn’t a meal, even though Iracane refers to it as such — it is a series of meals that are steeped in tradition.
Italian tradition says that no meat is to be eaten on Christmas Eve, so only fish is served. The preparation for the Iracane family begins early in the afternoon and each person has a “job,” during the process. Shrimp, scallops, fish, octopus, lobster and more are prepared for the dinner, along with several vegetables and then put on the table for all to enjoy.
“Each grandkid has a job, and so do all of the adults,” Iracane said.
And after cleanup from the “slop gob,” the Christmas Day meal preparation begins, with Iracane’s lasagna being served for the midday meal and a big roast beef with vegetables for the Christmas dinner.
“The fish at Christmas Eve [is my favorite tradition],” Iracane said through tears. “I can see my mom making it… and that is what I remember.”
Iracane is also known to gift his Italian offerings to his best friends, of which there are many. Iracane said that he is not big on giving ties and scarves, so he is always giving jars of homemade sauce to people.
“One of the many lessons I learned from my father was that material things mean nothing and family and love mean everything,” Iracane wrote in his book.
From the stories of friendships forged for decades in New York and Kentucky, Iracane says that spending time with the ones you love, in the end, all comes back to cooking — and eating.
Memories flow through the book, such as how the young New Yorker landed in Kentucky — and then the reason he stayed. Referring to her as his “lifeline to success,” Iracane details meeting Ronda and spending time with her family through the years.
His successes are plentiful as well — playing football at Western Kentucky University, being named to Western’s Board of Trustees, raising money for local causes through cooking, creating a restaurant with friends in Owensboro and his love of horse racing. And with each of these events, there is an example of a shared meal.
And, of course, there are stories about basketball, more horses and the Iracane family’s long lasting friendship with Rick Pitino and his brother-in-law Billy Minardi, which again involves food, cooking, and the sharing of a “wheel,” Minardi’s term for a pizza.
But in the end, Iracane describes his immediate family, just the way he began the book. Sharing stories of his wedding and his children’s weddings, Iracane said he took his mom’s advice to make sure he made a “bonanza” wedding for each of his children, Amy and John.
“All three weddings were a bonanza — from mine and Ronda’s to John and Ashlie’s, and Amy and Jeff’s,” Iracane wrote.
Using these unions as a starting point, Iracane described his grandchildren individually and the role each plays in the family dynamic.
Amy, Iracane’s daughter, is more cautious than John, Iracane said, and though she likes to cook, she also prefers to cook more healthy options. Her son, Joseph, enjoys cooking and was documented wearing the traditional Italian dishcloth over his shoulder, known as a mappina, just like his “Poppie.”
Jenna, Iracane’s granddaughter, stayed up all night when she first received the cookbook. She then told him how she laughed and cried at the memories and the pictures that tell her family’s story.
“She is the happiest, most gregarious of them all,” Iracane said. “She is confident with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Jenna, who was standing close by and bringing him cookbooks to sign at his office, added that she was also his favorite, and both of them laughed.
Iracane said the reception of his book by his friends, both far and near, and those he mentioned in the book “got a kick out of it,” and he sought approval from those he referred to in terms that might seem off color.
“The highlight of my life is in there,” Iracane said as tears formed again.
Several people stop in Iracane’s office throughout the day to purchase a copy of “From Brooklyn to Bluegrass,” and most are purchasing multiple copies to give as gifts and want Iracane to sign them, something he is happy to do. As he put on his glasses, a pair that are so outdated Jenna laughed, he mentioned that he wants his readers to remember what he says at the end of the book — on the page with the picture of Ellis Island:
“Live for the little things in life.
Don’t take anything for granted. Material things mean nothing. God, family, and friends mean everything. Work hard. Make your vocation a vacation. Pursue your dreams. Have faith. As the sun sets on my life, I celebrate my family and friends as blessings and gifts.
I have no regrets, only great memories, some of which will never be told.”
“From Brooklyn to Bluegrass: Memories and Recipes” is available at The Glass Factory, Studio Slant, Ultra Gem and soon it will be available at Amazon.