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Saucy Miss Grazi
by Leroy Morganti



There are few joys in life more gratifying for someone of my generation than to correct an arrogant young whippersnapper who thinks he is correcting you.

I had that golden opportunity a while back when patronizing a Backyard Burger restaurant in a neighboring state and ordering fries with “Miss Grazi’s Sauce.”

I pronounced the name “Grazi” (to rhyme with Jazzie.) A young guy in his early 20s, who was the shift manager, interjected: “Hey, Pops, it’s pronounced ‘Grah-zie’ (to rhyme with ‘Blah-zie).”

Normally, I am content to let such young “know-it alls” continue to wallow in their ignorance, but the fact he called me “Pops” changed all that. I hate to be called “Pops,” especially by someone who is not of my issue. I don’t know why, but maybe it is because I do not consider myself to be old, regardless of what the calendar says.

“Sir,” I responded in my most formal manner, “upon what authority do you base your assertion?”

“Because that’s the way everybody pronounces it,” he said.

“Maybe so,” I responded, “but that’s not the way the lady herself pronounced it, and besides ‘Miss Grazi’ was just what people called her for short; her last name was Graziosi.”

“And upon what authority do you base your assertion?” he asked, mockingly.

“How about she was my grandmother?’ I said smugly as I picked up my tray and haughtily headed for a table.

A few minutes later, he came over under the pretense of making sure my food was good, then said, “Tell me about your grandmother.”

I was eager to do so because Antonia Maestri Graziosi was a lady for whom I had the greatest admiration.

She came to America when she was 18 from the Allessandria area in far north Italy. A couple of years later, she married Augusto Graziosi, also an immigrant from Italy.

Together, they operated a small farm bordering Highway 1, about a mile south of Rosedale [Mississippi].

When Augusto died in 1940, Antonia never missed a beat, continuing to farm a few acres of cotton, operating a truck farm, keeping a cow or two for milk and the butter she hand churned, harvesting her pecans, pears, figs and peaches, raising a couple of hogs, keeping enough fryers and hens around for table fare and eggs, making her famous “Miss Grazi’s Hot Stuff” pepper sauce and generally minding her own business in an exceptional manner.

Standing less than 5 feet tall, she was a self-sufficient dynamo who would work from dawn to darkness in the “truck patch,” where she grew acres of tomatoes and vegetables my uncle would deliver to grocery stores in Rosedale and Greenville (Do you remember Joe Gow Nue No. 2?).

Rosedale folks traveling down Highway 1 would instinctively glance toward “the patch,” confident they would see “Miss Grazi” out there working away.

Except for an occasional quick trip to Rosedale for business purposes, she rarely went anywhere, protesting that “I cannot leave the house.” We never knew why she could not the leave the house, and our assurances that the house wasn’t going anywhere while she was gone carried no weight.

There were few occasions when she would leave for more than a few minutes.

A devout woman, she was what Catholic priests sometimes refer to as “Easter Lilies” and “Poinsettias,” which meant she went to church only on Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, but that probably was more than she really needed to.

The only out-of-area trips were to Helena, Arkansas, where her brother Joe lived and also operated a small farm. They would swap seeds and visit a while. I don’t remember Uncle Joe ever coming to Rosedale, probably because he “couldn’t leave the house” either.

It seems there was always a stray dog that adopted her. If it were a boy dog, she called it “Boy.” If it were a girl dog, she called it “Lady.” There were no variations.

For several years, she had three ducks. I don’t know what kind they were, but they were large white ones with orange bills that had acne-like bumps. They truly were “ugly ducklings.”

Ugly or not, they were devoted to Antonia and greeted her every morning when she headed to “the patch” and followed her every step until she retired for the day. The vision of Antonia walking across the yard with those three ducks waddling in a row behind her still brings a smile to my memories.

She had a close friendship that I never fully comprehended.

One of the few people she would leave the “truck patch” to spend some idle time with on her front porch was Lena Roberts Sillers, the wife of longtime Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives Walter Sillers Jr. and the daughter of Senator W.B. Roberts.

I marveled at the relationship between this little Italian immigrant who spoke broken English and the aristocratic “Miss Lena.” But they shared a love of growing things, and family lore has that Miss Grazi and Miss Lena concocted the “Hot Stuff” recipe during one of those visits.

Actually, Antonia was not idle during those conversations. She always wore a white butcher’s apron over her print work dress, and she would fold and tie it up double to form a deep pocket to hold whatever produce she was gathering.

During those conversations, Antonia’s hands would be blindly and feverishly working inside that pocket, and every few minutes the right hand would emerge and throw out some peas into a paper bag on that side and the left hand would discard the hulls into another bag on the left side.

When Antonia had milked the work day for all it was worth, she relaxed for a few minutes before bedtime.

Her daily ritual was to pop a piece of hard peppermint candy into her mouth and then pour a shot glass of straight bourbon whiskey. She would suck the candy and sip the whisky while poring over The Commercial-Appeal, which had arrived early that morning.

I suppose she could read a little English because her head was constantly moving from left to right and back, and I’m certain she needed glasses because she held the newspaper so close to her face she would occasionally get ink on her nose.

Until her final days on earth, I don’t recall her ever being sick or taking any medication. Her only “prescription” was the daily dose of bourbon and peppermint. Apparently, she was a disciple of the theory that “a shot in the glass is better than a shot in the . . . (you finish the rhyme).”

Since I was the last born of my generation, all my memories of her are of an elderly grandmother nature. But a family photo, taken when she was in her early 20s, shows a classic Italian beauty with mesmerizing dark eyes.

After finishing my meal, I rose to leave, and the young man shook my hand and thanked me for the story.

“Now, I’m going to have to correct everybody else that comes in here and mispronounces ‘Miss Grazi’,” he said with a grin.

“You do that, young man,” I responded, “just don’t call them ‘Pops’.”



__________________________


Leroy Morganti is a native of Rosedale, Mississippi. He spent the early years of his professional life as a reporter for various Mississippi newspapers and The Associated Press. He joined Delta State University in 1971 as Director of Public Information and retired in 2002 as Vice President for Executive Affairs. He resides at the Benoit Outing Club.

Read more of Leroy Morganti's stories at USADEEPSOUTH:
Mr. Tucker
Camping With Preachers
Robert, My Brother
Close Encounter With A Lie Detector Test
Things My Mother Was Wont To Say


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