One summer during college, I returned home to find my father stooped over the kitchen table, carefully divvying up cherries among at least a dozen Ball jars, which he had lined up in perfect rows. He was wearing his signature around-the-house ensemble: white karate pants, a Yankee’s shirt (frayed at the seams), and decaying brown loafers. (When I was younger, he constantly wore a pair of suede moccasin booties with tiny beads on the toes—a fact I can barely believe now, although I remember them clearly.)
It was a weekday, mid-afternoon. Normally, he would have been in a suit, in an office, somewhere else. But this was a half-hearted experiment with retirement. It was clear to us all that it wouldn’t stick. For one thing, he was seriously cramping my mother’s style. She worked at home and was not pleased to suddenly have him padding around the apartment, wandering into her office periodically, bored, asking her what she was doing, wanting a snack. Anyway, this is a man who has cut vacations short because he was so painfully bored sitting under an umbrella, reading and taking in the view.
Therefore, he had found himself a project. The jars on the table were for grappa—or a homemade approximation of it. The real stuff is made from the stems and skins of grapes leftover from or unusable for wine. My father’s version, which he had learned from the owner of an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, was a total fake. This “grappa” is simple: Cherries, which are just coming into season now, are sprinkled with sugar and soaked in vodka for a few months. Similar things have been done under different names all over the world for ages.
My dad returned to the workforce before long, but his grappa, which was given out to many friends the following Christmas, became a staple at any festive occasion for my family. The fruit and sugar flavor the vodka, but it remains rough, hot, and unrefined. The cherries, which lose their bright color and turn brownish, absorb a dangerous amount of alcohol over the months of soaking—we call it lethal fruit, and it’s always what puts me over the edge after a long, wine-fueled holiday feast.
At the end of those dinners, my father innocently says something like “should we have a little grappa?” as he brings a giant jar to the table. He uses a ladle to serve a few sips into each small glass, asking how many cherries we want. He has been known to eat as many as six, but this is emphatically not recommended for the average drinker. “Girls usually have one and guys have two,” he said recently. For the record, I can handle three, and they’re delicious.