"Food Brings People To the Table"
By Ria Prestia
Thanksgiving was a major feast at my house when I was little. It was an event that combined two worlds, Italian and American. It was a day where seriously the food NEVER stopped! I mean Italians know how to COOK and EAT! Not 3 courses or even 4… after a while you just lost count and your butt was sore from sitting so long at the dining table, but you endured it because the food beckoned you to stay! And it did bring everyone to the table, and that’s what food does—it brings us to the table! I think that most of my memories in my life revolve around a fabulous food gathering of some sort. I mean think about it, before a holiday or even a wedding what do people think of? “What’s going to be on the menu?” And really what is a holiday, any holiday, if the food is not planned and prepared and consumed?
When I was young and growing up in my Italian American home on Long Island, our FEAST started off with an AMAZING antipasto which was not one platter full, but two platters full of tightly rolled salami, and other delectable meats like pepperoni, proscuitto, and spicy capocollo. Along with the meat was cut up chunks of assorted and DELICIOUS cheeses like SHARP Provolone—not the mild one for nonprofessionals, ricotta salad (my favorite) and mozzarella. Then on the platter strategically sat marinated artichoke hearts, marinated mushrooms, sweet roasted red peppers dripping in olive oil and garlic, black olives, green olives, and the shriveled-up oil cured black olives that were a bit bitter, but GOOD! In the middle of each platter sat the GEM of the ANTIPASTO—eggplant caponata! That was heaven! There was never enough of it to go around! Everyone loved it! Crusty slices of Italian bread were piled up in baskets that sat around the table and YES! Round one of the feast began with everyone (somewhere between 12 and 20 of us) digging in.
Round two was pasta. Not just any pasta, but manicotti. These delicious homemade pasta crepes were filled with a delectable blend of ricotta. eggs, cheeses, and seasonings and topped with a fresh meat sauce that was made that morning and mozzarella cheese piled on top like a mountain of snow was served along with meatballs and braciole. One would think that we'd be stuffed by then, but ah…NO…us Italians can go another round! I mean we're still in Italy and haven’t even started the traditional American feast!
Next came the Turkey! The main part of the feast. And yes, he was adorned with gravy, and cranberries and stuffing, but not the boxed traditional stuffing. Our stuffing was made from sautéing onions, garlic, chopped meat, sausage, raisins, chopped salami, pignolis, and parmesan cheese! Not typical at all! Mom made sweet potatoes that were boiled then sliced, fried, and then adorned with maple syrup, brown sugar, and marshmallows before being baked in the oven. There was stuffed mushrooms, stuffed artichokes, and batter dipped fried cauliflower and caduna! String bean casserole wasn’t invited until years later.
It WAS INSANE how much food there was!
And then we rested. But NOT for long!
Next round was choices of cordials (for adults only) of Anisette, Cream de Cocoa, Amaretto, Galiano and fruit and nuts and finocchio—a licorice tasting fennel type of vegetable to help digest the food—was served with them! You think we needed it? Yes!!!
By this time, everyone was STUFFED, but the hours of being around the table brought much loved conversations of dreams, ideas, and memories.
I do admit that about this time some of the family members did take that walk around the block (my aunt Rosie and my uncle) while others (my mom and some of my other aunts) cleaned up dishes, while others stayed at the table talking and enjoying more cordials. Then everyone returned to the table and out came dessert! The white boxes Aunt Rosie brought from the bakery on Hyland Boulevard in Staten Island were finally being opened! And the pastries were carefully placed on the trays.
YES, I said TRAYS! Cannoli, Sfogliatello, rainbow cookies, pignolo cookies, pizzelle cookies, mini rum cakes, and sesame cookies, all hopped out of the box and sat on the table next to my aunt Lina's Italian cookies, Bocconotto and my mother's fig cookies, and the pies! Yes! There were pies too! Did I forget anything? I can't imagine I did, but oh, wait! The chestnuts! Yes “Don’t overcook them, Mary!” my dad would yell in his broken English, as he poured some espresso into his cup.
By then everyone was beyond stuffed and basically moving was detrimental to your health If you can believe it! And so, they (the adults us kids went and played or better yet, rolled into the den and watched television!) remained at the large dining table and played Pokino or Blitz for a few hours and then GUESS WHAT? The food came out again because everyone loves to pick at leftovers at night!!!
Today, I still have a lot of food, but through (34 Thanksgivings I have done) my dad, as he aged, told me to cut back on the dishes a bit. He thought we didn’t need it all, and I listened, and I did. The antipasto is now a smaller appetizer served along with other stuff like artichoke dip and mini meatballs cooked in a chili sauce and grape jelly glaze! It’s really good! A dish I acquired through the years from a friend who didn’t like to cook. They are SUPER EASY, 3 ingredients and delish!
The pasta is no longer a course. Under duress I stopped that many years ago, but I still think one day, I will return to that course! The stuffed mushrooms have stayed year after year, but the battered dipped cauliflower and caduna are not an “every year dish” (It’s a lot of frying and takes a lot of time to make). The desserts have diminished to just the pies and the fruit and nut course isn't there anymore.
Sometimes, I feel sad when I start to prepare the menu for Thanksgiving because in reality there is no way I can prepare every dish that I want in order to keep all of my childhood traditions alive along with my traditions that I have created with my husband and kids, and so through the years, I’ve tried to balance the traditions. One thing I do do is I make my own homemade caponata now, and I make sure there is a plethora of it!
Sadly, through the years, some people have returned home to Heaven (like my dad and my favorite Aunt Rosie), and others have moved to other states. I haven’t lived on Long Island since my husband and I married and then left for Florida with both my parents and his and some other relatives.
My own family has grown with grandkids as well. As much as it would be nice to have those days again, it would be impossible, but food allows us to revisit those wonderful memories and to have them present in our mind as we enjoy the present day and all of those that are with us at the moment. Maybe everyone can’t be physically together, but THEIR PRESENCE is there in my heart. Thanksgiving means something different to everyone, but for some reason I find the memory of particular dishes COMFORTING and UPLIFTING in SPIRIT. Not because they are food, but because THEY ARE FOOD THAT BRINGS PEOPLE TO THE TABLE!
The past that held her captive and lingered deep in her soul washes away through the warmth of the sun
The green envy of desire and needs is softened
The redness of pain that engulfs her heart is comforted by the rays of gleaming light that flows over her . . .
The spirit of love ensues and captures the wrath of fear that fires of bitterness have encased her in for years.
Pain has held her like a chain so tight wrapped around her neck and wrists—keeping her bound and captive.
The wretchedness of hatred that lingers within her has made her old and stolen the beauty that once was hers.
Her soul writhed in deep despair longs to be set free from the torture the past has given her.
The thick iron shield she’s worn melts, and the solitude of darkness is lifted.
Bitterness turns to love
Pain turns to Joy
And death turns to life.
I remember the day Daddy died as if it was yesterday. The phone rang, and I was half asleep, half awake as I fumbled in the dark to pick up the receiver. Quickly, I jolted up and said, “Hello” in a despairing voice. I knew it was one of my fears come to life—a call that changes your life in some way. A call most of us would like to avoid.
“This is Tara with Hospice. I think you better get over to your parents’ house as quickly as possible. He’s made a turn, and it’s imminent,” the voice said through the receiver.
Jumping out of bed, I quickly woke my husband and said, “We got to go,”
He responded as fast as me. Throwing on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt, I ran to wake up the kids. “Hurry-up,” I said. “We have to go to Grandma’s house. Hospice just called.” Within minutes, we were out the door and in the SUV. I was speechless—something that doesn’t happen to me very often. Imminent? How imminent, I thought.
The moon was out and there was light, but darkness was so deep. Streetlights were on and not another soul was on the road. The two-mile trip seemed endless. As I looked at my husband maneuver the vehicle, I wondered how my mom felt and how I would feel if it was my spouse who was leaving me. Random thoughts filled
my mind and emotions were growing quickly and attacking me from all angles, but I knew I needed to be strong. Don’t go there, I thought, stay focused.
As we pulled into the development, I saw the guard at the gate, and he waved his usual wave as we drove by. In my mind, I thought, I’m prepared, but deep down in the basement of my soul, I wasn’t. Deep down, I was twelve years old again, and I wanted this to be a bad dream, no a nightmare. I wanted my dad to live longer.
Before the engine was turned off, I opened the door and hopped out of the SUV leaving my family behind. Tara opened the door, and I headed towards the bedroom. “It’s getting close,” she said. I jutted into the room and quickly stopped. I saw my mom holding his hand, crying and begging him not to go. “What will I do without you,” were the words she said that wrenched through my ears. I went over to her and held her tight. We embraced and with tears streaming down my face, I assured her that everything would be okay. He was going to be okay, and so was she.
I grabbed my dad’s hand as he was gasping to hold on. Tara came up behind us, “It is imminent, but we don’t know how long. It all depends on him.”
I started to talk to him and tell him to go, but he was still hanging on. He was still gasping. He suffered for hours not wanting to leave. Tara left and another Hospice nurse showed up. He too was as kind as all the others were. Finally, I was sitting there next to my dad, and it hit me, he’s afraid, I thought. All of my faith was now looped into a tight ball. What do I do, I thought. He’s afraid of the unknown. No matter how strong he was, he was scared to go—afraid to leave. I remembered all the stuff I had read about death. All the things that I believed to be true, but without actual experience, I had only faith to rely on. I slowly got up and walked to the other
side of the bed. I noticed all the pictures of my family that showed all the years of his life.
My sister was in route, but she wouldn’t make it. He couldn’t last another nine hours before her plane landed. With one hand on the sheet, I gently touched his forehead with my other.
Adjusting his hair, I started to speak, “It’s okay, Daddy. Don’t be afraid. Just go through the tunnel and into the light.” I repeated the words a couple of times. I told him that it was pure love over there and that there was no pain, no suffering, and no hatred—just pure love. I watched as his breath went from extensive gasping—a gasping that had endured for three hours—to a calm breathing. I knew he was going home, and I wanted to stop telling him to go, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t. He needed me to help him go home. My mom and the Hospice nurse were by my side. My husband was there, by the doorway watching in stillness. The Hospice nurse urged me to keep talking to my dad.
My eyes swelled up with tears as I kissed his forehead. Leaning over him, I whispered, “Your soul needs to leave your body. The body is too old. You need to go home and everything will be okay. I promise that I’ll take care of Mommy. She won’t be alone. I love you, Daddy. Goodbye for now.” Then as if on command, I watched as his breathing diminish, and after a few minutes, he took one last breath, and he was gone.
I stood there crying. My mom, next to me was crying as well. I couldn’t believe that he was gone. I felt guilty telling him to go. I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to be the one who had this arduous task. There I stood looking at
him motionless, lifeless. It was the first time that I had ever seen someone die. It came over me like a rush of wave, there is a tunnel, a light, another place, I thought. No one could ever change my mind. The power of my words brought my father from his suffering into calmness, into peace. Where was he, now? When would I see him, again? When would I argue with him, again? When would I hug him, again?
The room was still for how long? I don’t remember. Then there was a rush of preparedness. There were so many things to do and no time to grieve. His body needed to be picked up for preparation for the funeral. I still don’t know where all my strength came from. When it was time, and he left with the funeral attendant, I realized that he would never step into that house again. The home had changed. My mom’s life had changed and, so did mine. I couldn’t ask his advice anymore or call him on the phone and hear him say, “Hi Tootsie, how are you?”
He moved away to a place where I cannot get in contact with him.
Years later, I still miss him. Time hasn’t changed the bottom line—he isn’t here anymore. There is still emptiness deep within my soul, but my faith has helped me believe that he is in a better place—a better world.
The cancer had taken its toll on him. It started without a warning and ran very quickly through his body like a triathlon marathon. There was no stopping it or slowing it down. It was on a mission—it had a life of its own. No matter how hard he fought, it was stronger. He got a little time—a few months. He was eighty when this hit and took his life. Some people may claim that he lived a full life, and he did. But when you are slapped across the face and told, “Two months more, maybe,” what do you do? How do you grasp an entire lifetime in a few months? How do you right the
wrongs? How do you ask for more time? Acceptance was hard. Deep down, I knew he wasn’t ready to die, but who actually is? Who is ready to leave what they know, and the people they know to go to the unknown or unremembered?
My dad died right after my fortieth birthday. That was almost nine years ago. I wrote this directly after his death when the details were so clear. His death awakened me to the fact that time is not guaranteed to anyone. The number of years we get is a secret that only our soul knows. What we do with that time is what we take with us—nothing else.
Something must end for something to begin. The full moon to the new moon symbolizes release and new beginnings. It is a cycle that continues like an ever revolving staircase that keeps going higher and higher away from the darkness or the demons of the past that keep hold on us.
Memories of regrets, disappointments, and unpleasant experiences plague all of us. And yet, we are told to forgive, let go, give it up to God, the universe a higher being. It seems so simple and yet it is difficult for many of us to do. Laughter, I think seems to help. When you can reflect back on a not so happy time and laugh about it, well than healing is happening. You have released it. Sort of like the Griswald's Christmas. Many of us have had moments like that...the holiday that went haywire and all hell-broke-lose! One day, you just have to laugh about it. Time heals normally unless you're like the old lady in the movie Moonstruck who curses the plane her sister is on because she stole a boy from her many years earlier! Mama mia! Let it go!
Maybe it's why we love comedians. They take everyday life, politics, and chaos and turn it into a ridiculous moment that we laugh about. The lighter side of life is necessary because the serious side will way you down too much.
Time is an illusion, but for us who live with it, it seems really real. Don't waste it. It's a precious gift. Memories are a choice. Choosing the ones that seem sad all the time will make you sad. Choosing to remember only the good ones will always make you happy and give you hope. It is a free-will choice. A choice that sets the path to your day and life.
Let go of what makes you sad. Make a real effort to see the silver lining in the good of a bad situation. Try hard to gravitate to love instead of fear and worry. I plan on making that my priority in 2014. I know it's hard. Other people have a way of trying to bring us down, but life gives back to you what you give to life. There is no need to judge people or try to change them. Eventually, life will change them.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
"Let's get married," he said smiling.
"And raise a family?" She asked.
"A girl as beautiful as you are," he said as he softly kissed her lips.
"A boy as strong and handsome like you?" She added.
He gently took hold of her hand as they walked on the grass.
"She'll have soft, long fingers just like her mom."
"He'll be rugged and tough. A protector, just like his dad," she said as she squeezed his hand.
They stopped walking and stared at each other.
He looked deeply into her eyes. "Only two?" He asked playfully.
"Maybe three," she said with a smirk.
"Or four or five," he added laughing.
"A whole tribe!" She yelled.
"A family!" He exclaimed.
"A big family. Full of love, " she added.
"I love you," he whispered.
"I love you, too," she whispered back.
"Let's get married," he said.
"And start a family?" She asked.
"Yes, with the first one," he added.
The moon, she is a mystery of light against the darkness.
She stands alone in the sky and illuminates the Earth. No batteries required. Just a dark curtain of night behind her is all she needs.
She is the sister to the Earth and knows all her secrets. She has traveled along side Earth for thousands of centuries. She has trapped the Earth's history in the bosom of her aura. The cries, the screams, the laughter, the hate, the love of all the creatures on Earth are imbedded in her memory.
She is sworn to secrecy by a special code she shares with her sister, Earth. Keeping the secrets safe until the end of time. Look into her crevices and see years of wear. She is warmth and wisdom.
She glows brighter. Her sliver of light is as comforting as her full radiant glow. She is majestic in her own right, but enjoys her dependency on Earth. A natural reception between the two keeps peace. They share the same sky. There is enough room for both of them.
The moon she is a mystery of light against the darkness.
Snow falling into soft blankets engulfing the Earth . . . warm cookies baking leisurely in the oven . . . a roaring fire crackles in the fireplace as the flames illuminate the room. A good book is sitting on the table waiting for its owner. Beside the book, two cups of cocoa sit waiting to be savored. Sitting in a comfortable chair and watching the roar of the flames, she reminisces of a past and dreams of a future still yet to come. Her favorite season is winter. She finds it an exhilarating time of year. It is a symbolic time to life as it reflects the end and the beginning with the onslaught of spring.
Nestled by a crackling fire and covered with a warm, soft blanket, she begins a journey in her mind. She can feel the chilly weather that in time will turn to bitter cold. The warm cocoa soothes her soul. Remembering her youth, she still longs to go outside and play in it. She watches through the window as icicles form on the trees and roof. Their clear crystal formation reminds her of the magic that is present during this time of year. She can see him in the distance picking up wood for the fire. His hair has greyed, but he is still as handsome to her as he was the day they met.
She hears in the distance the sounds of children running and playing snowball fights, and sledding down hills. Ice skating on the frozen lake with the boy you love holding your hands. Feeling alive as the cold air rushes through you while you glide with ease on the ice at your feet. Dancing together as if you are one.
Staring at the staircase in the hall, she can still hear the sounds of her children running down the stairs on Christmas morning with their eyes all aglow in amazement and wonder at the presents left under the tree by Santa.
Time has passed.
And now grandchildren run on those stairs, and she still skates on the lake with the boy she loved, but a little more gingerly than before. And yes, there is still a spring to look forward too. There is still life moving forward. She feels blessed to have both—a rich past full of love and memories, and a wonderful future full of love and hope. The meaning of the season reminds her to be thankful for all she has and all the gifts still to be received.
Sitting back within her chair, she opens the book that she loves to read. It is bound in brown leather that is etched with scrolls of flowers. It was a gift from her husband—the love of her life. It is simply titled, My Memories, and it is written in her own handwriting.
Love comes in many languages. Sometimes it's not that you don't love someone, but it's just that you each express love differently and the communication is not clear. Some people express love with carriage rides, candlelight dinners, or flowers. Some people express it with a funny card or a hand written note. Other people express love by cooking a meal for you, or packing your lunch everyday. And yet some may iron your shirt or make sure your car is safe to drive.
Some people express it with a hug and a kiss and others with a piece of jewelry or clothes. There are so many ways to express love, and they are each viable. Some women like to compare their husbands to other people's husbands, and some men like to compare their wives to other people's wives. Maybe comparing is not the best thing to do. The person you fall in love with is the person for you . . . not for someone else or else, they wouldn't be with you. You marry whom someone is and not whom that person may become or whom you want to change that person into.
Love is so personal. It may be universal, but it has numerous expressions. However you express love is fine for whom you are. Just always express love because it is the essence of every gift you give. And give the gift without conditions because than it is pure.
Whether one is Italian, Irish, Hungarian, German, or any one of the other multitudes of nationalities, everyone has traditions. One distinct tradition that most Italians remember is the aroma of sautéed onions and garlic in olive oil floating in a sea of ripe tomatoes and puree that is seasoned with basil, oregano, salt, pepper and a bit of sugar. Nestled deep within the pot sat juicy meatballs, spicy sausage, and braciole (thin steaks wrapped in a delicious stuffing of breadcrumbs, cheese, salami, raisins, chopped egg and seasonings, Sunday dinner "gravy" slow cooking for hours on the stove. And to celebrate the feast, there were always visitors to join for dinner. Whether Aunt Lina and Uncle Dino, or Aunt Rosie and Uncle Frankie—someone came to eat. The large dining room table was set with the good china, and loud laughter filled the air as everyone spoke over each other trying to get a word in. If you didn't have a loud voice, your comments would be lost in the group. It was family, and it was fun.
And at times, many times families headed to other towns to visit the multitude of relatives that lived there. Italians have big families and everybody knows somebody. No matter which home you visited as soon as you entered the house the aroma of gravy cooking on the stove permeated your nostrils faster than a speeding bullet. And of course, everyone's gravy was the best, and you always said that to the chef. It was funny though how each cook used the same ingredients but each sauce always tasted different.
Today that fragrance permeates my home on Sunday mornings, too. It has for 25 years. Each time I make my sauce, I remember those childhood days of sneaking into the kitchen, opening the pot and stealing a meatball when Mom wasn't looking, or breaking off the end of the crusty Italian bread and dipping it into the pot, and then quickly eating it before you were caught. Although the dripping sauce on your chin was always a dead giveaway. It was as if the sauce was sacred, and you couldn't touch it until dinner. That sauce was more protected by the Italian woman who cooked it than Fort Knox is. Maybe it was pride that caused the protection, or maybe a strong desire to have traditions. Whatever it was, it was a wonderful tradition that kept families together even if only for that Sunday meal.
In a quaint middle class upscale town north of Tampa, a vintage wedding dress is reunited with its original owner. On a sunny afternoon an elderly lady sat in the beauty salon having her hair done. As she looked out the window of the salon, she gazed into the windows of the clothing boutique across from the salon. Many items caught her attention, but there was one that took her breath away. It was a vintage wedding gown that was displayed up front in perfect view. When the elderly lady left the salon, she walked to the boutique. Quietly, she entered the majestic shop and gazed in awe at all the beautiful items. The boutique was full of vintage and new clothing. In it was a plethora of woman’s clothing. Racks of dresses and tops along with coats, jewelry, furs, handbags and gowns—including wedding gowns adorned every inch of the place. This store was a unique and different store from any other store. Wall to wall . . . every inch of it was adorned with beautiful clothing and accessories—each piece unique unto itself.
The owner of the shop was a vibrant woman who was always full of life and energy. She loved pretty things and loved to share them with her customers. She was happy and helpful, and every customer who entered her shop was treated like a princess—given the utmost of attention. The elderly woman approached the owner and inquired about the vintage wedding dress in the window. Very quietly almost in a whisper, the elderly lady said, “I think that was my wedding gown.”
The owner was slightly surprised and taken back as she watched the elderly lady walk over to the dress and lift it up. “Yes,” the elderly lady said with a smile on her face, “these are the original alterations that were made for me over sixty years ago!”
Goosebumps covered the owner’s arms as she looked at the alterations as well.
“I was married in the 1950’s in Oregon. My husband and I moved to Florida. I donated the dress when I knew I would never be able to have children. How did you get this dress?” she asked the shopkeeper.
“I bought this dress from a vintage shop in Tampa,” the shopkeeper said still amazed at what was transpiring.
“I can’t believe my wedding gown is here in your store. It was so long ago that I wore it. My husband has since past. So many years have gone and yet, it looks brand new. It’s still a beautiful dress.”
“I bought the dress because it was different,” said the shopkeeper. When I saw it, it called out to me, and I had to buy it and bring it to my shop.”
Some time passed and eventually the gown sold. The elderly lady entered the shop again one day and asked the shopkeeper, “What happened to the dress?”
“The shopkeeper smiled and said, “The dress was bought by a mother for her daughter to wear for her sweet sixteen party. The daughter loved the dress immediately, and it fit her perfectly. When I told them about the dress and your story the two of them were deeply touched. The young girl said that she was going to put it away for her wedding day.
The elderly lady smiled and said, “ My marriage was wonderful, and I loved my husband dearly. He was the best husband a wife could have asked for.”
The shopkeeper touched her hand and said, “Well, one day another bride will be blessed in her marriage like you were as she wears your dress and says, “I do.”
“I always wanted a daughter,” the elderly lady said, “I was never able to have children. It makes me so happy to know that my dress is now in the hands of a beautiful girl who loves it as much as I did.”
People sometimes wonder about coincidences. Are they just random acts or does some mystical force that we cannot see guide things in a magical way. Some say, “that all we need is there as we need it whether it is a helping hand or possibly an answer to a prayer.” All we have to do is keep our eyes open for the signs.
Ria Prestia is an author who lives in Florida with her husband, her children and her faithful lab. One of her passions is to reflect on life through the written word.