Thanksgiving at the Farm
For Italians, holidays are about 2 things – family and food – not necessarily in that order. So you can just imagine what happens when an Italian family celebrates Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday on steroids. No exaggeration.
Unlike most Italian families, mine foregoes pasta when we celebrate this particularly indigenous feast. All other Italian families I know can’t imagine a holiday – even this traditional American one – without ravioli or manicotti. It just isn’t done.
When I was a child, my Mom proclaimed that Thanksgiving was an American holiday, and there would be no pasta. Amazingly enough, my father didn’t divorce her.
This year, my Mom is 88. She may not be as quick on her feet as she was when I was young, but she is still the adored matriarch of our family, and always has the last word! As she and I sat over morning coffee (hers always hot, mine always iced) planning the menu for this years repast, I realized that our family’s Italian palate had slowly seeped into our Thanksgiving celebration over the years.
“Pete and Anna are bringing the Antipasto, so we don’t need to worry about that” Mommy said with relief. Pete and Anna are my sister Genevieve’s in-laws. They come from Friuli, in the north east of Italy, and make the best polenta you can imagine!
To call Pete and Anna’s Antipasto “abondonza” would not be an exaggeration! In addition to the cured meats, salami, prosciutto, there were marinated mushrooms, mozzarella, olives and seafood salad. Oh yes, let’s not forget the crusty Italian bread from the Bronx! But best of all is a creamy baccala spread that Pete makes. This dish, made with dried salted cod, is a traditional Friulani dish he always makes for us on Christmas Eve. Once we tasted it that first Christmas, we beg him for it every holiday! I’ve tried a number of times to make it, but it’s just not Pete’s.
OK, so Italian food before the dinner is allowed.
At “The Farm”, my family home in Circleville, New York, there is a room off the kitchen we call the porch. This comfortably furnished 20 x 20 foot room, with a huge stone fireplace reaching toward a wooden cathedral ceiling, is anything but a porch. This is where we celebrate our holidays. After an hour or two of Antipasto, cocktails and conversation in front of the fire, we all gather around a large table to share our meal.
This year, as in many years past, our primo piatto (first course) was Grandma’s Soup. This is a special holiday dish my paternal grandmother Pia Cerasoli, made for her family at Christmas. It takes days to make. You start with a chicken….
A rich chicken broth is loaded with pulled chicken, fresh escarole, and the best little fried mini meatballs you ever tasted! As if that’s not enough, you then add little fried fritters made with the remains of the soup greens and the chicken livers. To top it all off, you make homemade pasta, cut it into tiny squares and deep fry it. Called taccazelle, these are strewn over the soup as it is served. We always pass extra taccazelle along with freshly grated parmigiano.
Ok, now we’re ready for the American part.
A large roasted turkey was served, along with a traditional dressing and my Mom’s homemade cranberry-orange-almond relish.
Somehow, the scent of garlic wafted into the dining room along with the turkey… oh yes, that was the broccolini. You can’t serve broccolini without garlic and olive oil… and while you’re at it, why not add some raisins and toasted pignoli? It is a holiday after all.
We did have sweet potatoes. They were chopped into golden chunks, marinated in fresh herbs, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then roasted in a very hot oven. No little marshmallows for this Italian family.
An absolute must for our Thanksgiving dinner is a rice stuffing from my maternal Nonna, Jenny Magri. Frying the ground beef and onions while watching the Macy’s parade is one of my favorite aroma memories.
Nonna’s dish is a simple preparation. It starts with Uncle Ben’s Rice cooked in chicken stock. While the rice is cooking, fry up some ground beef with chopped onions. This is added to the cooked rice along with freshly chopped Italian parsley and grated parmigiano. Be sure to make more that you need, because the leftover rice is an important addition to the next day’s turkey soup.
Then we come to dessert. For us, like most Americans, pumpkin pie is a must… apple too. But there’s always fruit, fresh chestnuts roasted in the fireplace, biscotti, and lots of lingering over espresso and Pete’s homemade grappa.
Oh well, I guess we just can’t help who we are…
As we infuse our Italian tastes and customs into this American celebration, we express the very thing most important to be grateful for in this blessed country of ours… our privilege to recognize and celebrate our rich cultural diversity… ironically, the very thing that makes us who we are as Americans.
Cecilia Cerasoli 2008©