I have ethnic envy.
I’m proud of my roots….I just don’t know quite what they are. When asked about my ancestry, I tend to give a vague combo answer like “Irish-English-Scottish” or something similar. Growing up, my family’s “ethnic food” was tuna casserole. For generations, my people have enjoyed jello with sliced bananas floating in a delicious layer. And gravy.
In my young adult life, I found myself yearning for an identity to some specific spot on the planet. Someplace with colorful traditional garments, raucous dances, or unique holiday traditions.
So you can imagine my wild anticipation at the prospect of marrying an Italian. (Yes, there’s Irish in his blood lines, too, but isn’t everyone part Irish?) I’ll admit most of my impressions of Italians came from the Godfather movies, but the music, the food, the landmarks, and the accent were a feast for a mutt like me, and I looked forward to being part of the clan.
My first Thanksgiving was at Uncle Victor’s house. So Italian. Two big families, three generations (with the fourth on the way) and lots of hugging and loud conversations. The kitchen was chaotic. Chopping, slicing, sizzling and stirring. Foil-covered trays coming in and out of the oven, and pots of stuff simmering on the stove.
I’m no cook. Not even close. I was at a loss in this whirl of activity. No jello molds in sight. Fortunately, little was expected of me, except that I keep a glass of wine in my hand and retrieve the occasional oven mitt or a plate from a high shelf. It seemed like hours before we finally trickled into the dining room and found a seat at the long table outfitted mostly in wine glasses of every shape and layers of plates at each place.
A salad started things off. Gorgeous, abundant salad with a perfect Italian dressing, of course. Wine to match it, and soft, lovely rolls to accompany it.
And then, with great fanfare, Amelia – a warm, smiling, classic Italian Ma’-ma – paraded in with a giant, piping hot pan of her famous manicotti. This, I thought to myself, is what Italians eat for Thanksgiving.
And grand it was. Perfect pasta, fresh, rich sauce, endless cheese and the perfect blend of spices. It was the kind of dish that made you heave big sighs of satisfaction as your eyes closed in a heavenly pause. Amelia’s manicotti. It was making me feel quite Italian.
I told Amelia how I felt about her manicotti. She was so very pleased. I think it made her like me more that I was so appreciative of this dish. This one, I imagined her saying to John, is a keeper.
She came to my side more that once with the manicotti pan. And I nodded each time, wanting more of this Italian excellence. Not once missing the turkey and stuffing I’d enjoyed in the first 28 years of my life. This food wasn’t really “Thanksgiving” to me, but I was willing to adapt.
Finally, I was stuffed. I’d allowed myself to begin to entertain thoughts of dessert. Would it be pumpkin pie? Or maybe cannoli? Maybe I should take a break for an hour or so. I think I must have eaten a half a pan of manicotti. More than anyone else. Maybe because this Italian Thanksgiving was new to me? In fact, everyone seemed to rave about Amelia’s manicotti, but – come to think of it – I didn’t really see anyone else taking seconds or thirds. Maybe that’s why Amelia kept coming back to me. I was the only one really acting on my appreciation.
Then just when I thought I might be ready for an after-dinner coffee and a nibble of Italian cookie, a new parade came through the door from the kitchen.
What the hell.
There was a giant roast. And a platter of fish. And a turkey. And a ham.
Oh my gosh, there were potatoes and vegetables.
I had stuffed myself to the gills with what was meant to be the teensy weensy pasta course.
I was so completely full that I thought I might roll off the chair and die.
And I suddenly realized how this must have looked to Amelia and the other Italians at the table. Wow, she can really put it away. You got a real eater on your hands, John. Good luck with that.
Turns out, Italians take the traditional, massive Thanksgiving feast, and stick a gorgeous pasta course in front of it. That’s it.
Then it dawned on me: This feast belongs to America. Everyone adds on. My people add jello, the Italians add pasta. Who knew?
I eventually did marry that Italian and his big Italian Irish family. It’s been 22 years and I have yet to spring my jello recipe on them.
Someday I will. But for now, I have to keep some surprises up my sleeve.