An Italian Thanksgiving-loosen the belt!

I grew up in a very Italian American household, Sicilian American to be exact, and yes, as you could imagine, food was a big part of our lives. I never ate fast food, never had junk around, no white bread, no instant anything, everything was homeade and fresh. In fact, when we did order a pizza (which was rare, if we ate pizza, it usually came from the Italian bakery or my mom made it), the whole concept of the delivery guy bringing the pizza to our door was so foreign to my parents that they refused to allow it. My father would go get the pizza, make a big event out of it-like dinner could never be so simple as picking up the phone and ordering a large cheese (with anchovies for my mom).

So you can imagine what the holidays were like. I loved every minute of them, especially Thanksgiving at our house. My mom and I would clean the house all day, start in on the turkey, prepare little cheese and cracker trays and usually shrimp cocktail in a big huge crystal bowl. We’d get all dressed up before the guests arrived and then we’d greet my lovely grandparents, my aunts and uncles and many cousins. Having them over was the highlight of my life. We were very close.

Some of my favorite memories are of my extended family all squeezed around our dining room table, fighting to be heard, to get a word in about this politician or that neighbor, to listen to my dad, the funny one, tell a joke, but one thing’s for sure-we never wanted for food. In fact, Thanksgiving was possibly the biggest example of this. My family had a special tradition with our holiday meals-we would have the big, glorious turkey that was carved tableside, yes. We’d have the classic sides of sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing with sausage and without, gravy, salad, and brussels sprouts or green beans, of course. But on top of all that, we’d always have a lasagna to boot! It’s like we couldn’t have a meal without some form of pasta! Lasagna was the grandest of pasta dishes so of course it was the holiday dish that shared center stage with the turkey! The amazing thing to me is-we all ate it. All of it-all the turkey and sides and the lasagna. In fact, one holiday is burned in my memory when one hostess (one of my aunts who shall remain unnamed or else forever carry the scarlet L across her chest) decided to buck tradition and not serve lasagna. Decided we didn’t need it. Well this caused an uproar and my father started singing, “Yes, we have no lasagna. We have no lasagna today!” That was it-all night everyone at some point sang that song and we all had a good laugh! You knew that would never happen again.

After dinner, we would get up from the table, the men would go into the living room and gather around the football game on the TV and doze off in their respective lounging chairs, cigars in hand; the women would be in the kitchen cleaning up the dishes and chatting, and I would sneak off to another room to lie down. Basically, everyone went to sleep after we ate dinner, except the poor women who never stopped moving around in my family.

Somehow, after a little siesta, you’d smell the coffee brewing and there would be a call for a return to the table for dessert. You’d arrive and the table would be covered end to end with desserts-pumpkin pie, pecan pie, coconut cream pie (Grandpa’s fave), cassata cake, cannolis, and someone inevitably made Italian cookies as a precursor to Christmas. So now we’d eat again, drink coffee, maybe a little Sambuca, and then people would start to realize that the only possible next step after this one was to get into pajamas and fast. Where I grew up and when I grew up, Thanksgiving was usually the dead of winter, not like now. My grandparents would get their long winter coats on, their boots and gloves and make their way out, and like in church when the priest walks down the aisle to leave, then everyone else in my family had their green light to go home too. It was time to call it a night, that is, until Christmas in just a few weeks where we’d have more memories, more talking and stories, and yes, we’d have more lasagna!

Recipes from this story:

Cassata Cake 

Rachael’s Lasagna Casserole:  a  new take on an old classic

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