My Big Fat Italian-American Holidays!
Oh how I remember the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in our 2-bedroom walk-up apartment in Ozone Park, NY in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Mom and Dad bought mega amounts of food for a huge family dinner and somehow made it all fit in a small white Shelvadore refrigerator. Dad, affectionately called “The Mayor”, called his brothers to insure they were coming. The mantle of gathering the family together fell to my dad, the oldest son, after grandpa passed away in 1954. At various times my 4 uncles and two aunts with our cousins in tow, would make the holiday pilgrimage to our little apartment.
They would come blustering in from the cold and yell up the stairs, “Anyone home?”.
Then the clunk clunk clunk sounds as they climbed the 17 steps to our apartment. We kissed our uncles and aunts and greeted our cousins.
“Wow…what perfume is that you are wearing Aunt Carol?” I asked.
My parents worked together rather peacefully for awhile in preparing the feast.
“Ruthie, hand me the roasting pan” he’d bark like a drill sargeant.
“Patsy we should take the lasagna noodles out of the water now else they will be mushy” mom advised.
In our dining room, the fruitwood dining table was fully extended with at least 2 card tables added at the end as “la famiglia” came together to eat until it hurt.
“Rose, Patricia….get busy setting the table” he declared.
Dutiful daughters as we were, our arms and hands moved in a flurry like two octopi until Voila! China dishes, glasses, and silverware all rested in their proper places. At some point mom and dad started yelling over some disagreement and she stormed out of the 7 x 10 kitchen plopping herself in a living room chair, muttering under her breath. My stomach always knotted when mom and dad fought which was more often than not. It was an instant replay of a scene I experienced over and over again and yet I never got used to it; totally hated their fighting.
Impatient to eat, the kids sat at the forever-hated “kids table” and pounded the shaft end of their forks on the table like little beggars in a scene borrowed from an orphanage.
“OK kids” dad bellowed. “It’s coming right now”.
Soon trays of beloved antipasto appeared filled with olives, cheese, hot peppers, roasted red peppers, anchovies, and my forever favorite Genoa salami. I’d put it in my mouth and take a few minutes to savor its wonderful salty sweetness, then finally chewed it releasing even more of its lusciousness. I swear, I could have a gastronomical orgasm eating that stuff. Mom came around to serve the kids soda.
“Who wants Coke? Who wants 7-UP?” she queried.
We all got our drinks and fell to the usual teasing and laughing as we dove into our food. The grownups shared their recent news and gossip with one another, throwing back their scotch whiskey, beer or wine as they chatted and laughed together while puffing away on cigarettes. I heard a Hallelujah chorus singing in my head as that most hallowed of Italian foods appeared and was set on the table. Ahhhh a large, steaming pan of LASAGNA! that totally divine Italian specialty, treasured food of Garfield the Cat and required staple of Italian-American holidays. There was no escaping it. It was almost like a high mass as hands came together; not praying but to rub against each other in joyous anticipation of this ambrosia. You see, a cherished Italian dish simply had to be there. Yes, we were all Americans but serving pasta allowed us to connect to our Italian roots, lest we forget. Of course grandma Pellegrina could never really let that happen as she still spoke more Italian than English despite being in America most of her life.
When a pan of lasagna was on the table, everyone’s eyes were bigger than their stomachs as we gorged on generous servings. Then began the symphonic sounds of unbuckled belts and unzipped zippers as stomachs pressed outwards. We all needed a break as the golden roasted turkey was yet to come. This is why Italian-American holiday meals take all day and into the evening. No one is going anywhere anytime soon, trust me. Finally the turkey and trimmings arrive and we tried our best to eat it, but that layer of lasagna in our bellies takes its time in making room for more food. Many say it’s all too much, lasagna and turkey. But this is not a lesson we ever learned as these feasts were continually repeated every year with the same grumblings. The holiday table was sacrosanct to Italian-Americans and we honored the foods served there as one would honor holy communion in the church.
Another two hours passed and then it was time for desserts. Scrumptious Italian pastries like cannoli and sfogliatelle (a sort of custard turnover made with leaved [“foglie”] pastry), a huge fruit bowl topped with red grapes, dried figs stuffed with walnuts, a tray of mixed nuts, fennel (we called it finook) roasted chestnuts and espresso with a splash or two of anisette dropped onto the table like gifts from the gods. Of course, the wine continued to flow like there was no tomorrow. Dad often liked to peel and section a tangerine, dropping one or two sections into his glass of wine to soak for several minutes, then eating them. Dad loved to “treat” everyone to listening to Tony Mottola records on our hi-fi stereo console. He played the sound engineer mastering the control knobs for volume, bass and treble; that was an equalizer in the sixties.
At Christmas we added panettone and struffoli (small honey coated fried dough balls) to the pantheon of desserts. Another vivid Christmas memory is one of dad taking me along to visit my aunts Josie and Stella and Grandma Pellegrina at Josie’s apartment on Christmas eve day. This holy trinity wearing cobbler aprons, sat in the kitchen at a medium-sized table babbling in Italian like fish wives as they prepared seafood for the Christmas eve feast later that evening. They expertly shucked clams and oysters, their supple wrists swiftly flexing and turning to get the job done. Then on to cleaning and deveining shrimp and calamari. The smell of the ocean permeated the room and I let it in to fill all my senses.
Christmas was special as it was a two-day event for us Italian-Americans. In the Catholic Christmas Eve meal, we fasted from meat to prepare our hearts for the birth of Jesus. So typical of Catholicism; to prepare for any significant event in the faith we must surely make ourselves miserable first in an orgy of breast-pounding mea culpahs. The meal itself was a smaller event as a few uncles, aunts and cousins would come. The kids ate early so we could get out of the adults’ way. They served us a broth soup with cooked egg in it (forget the name), fried fish, shrimp and scallops. Sometimes we ate linguine tossed in garlic-infused olive oil and Italian bread. Later the adults took over the table for their meal and the kids moved into the living room to watch classic movies and Christmas specials on TV. Excitement mounted as we knew soon we would go to bed to later awaken to Christmas presents under our tree decorated with tinsel, glass globe ornaments and colored water bubble lights. The grownups kept the Christmas Eve vigil, still sitting at the table, enveloped in a dense fog of cigarette smoke. When they all smoked at once we could barely make them out, and used jeweled pinky rings as an identifier (Oh yeah, that’s Uncle Vito).
Often some of us attended Midnight Mass. As I grew into a young adult this was one of my favorite memories, especially if it snowed. The bells of St Mary’s beckoned the faithful and I walked several blocks through the quiet night. The sound of the snowy carpet crunching under my boots was supremely serene; a much needed respite from the fun and sometimes drama of too much time with “la famiglia”.