"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!
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.