There is nothing like Thanksgiving to kick off your holiday season. While December is filled with numerous multi-cultural and religious observances, Thanksgiving is a truly national holiday celebrated by all people, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation. It’s a gathering of family and friends to share a meal and reflect on things they are thankful for. But for Italian families, it becomes an eating challenge that even the stars of Man vs Food would struggle with.
Once the big day arrives, grandma’s tranquil basement kitchen resembles a subway station at rush hour, overflowing with people scurrying in all directions. With Jimmy Roselli crooning in the background, aunts of all shapes, sizes and hairdos were busy preparing different dishes. My uncles were safely upstairs, claiming every available couch and “relaxing” (which I thought was another word for snoring). While tomato sauce simmered on the gas burners, a giant turkey browned in the oven. Every now and then, one of our aunts would summon us to view the enormous bird as they pulled it out for basting, insuring a moist, beautiful tan. Only the older cousins were allowed a chance at sucking up the bubbling juice with the turkey baster, releasing it slowly over the beast.
If you think you have overeaten at a family Thanksgiving, you ain’t seen nothing like an Italian Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house. Ever have a Thanksgiving meal that started with lasagna? We did, all the time. The food just came in waves, like a tsunami.
Sometimes we started with antipasto or soup, leading into lasagna. After a short commercial break, my father would begin carving the turkey, which was bigger than some of my cousins. As the silverware sat nervously upon neatly folded napkins, the table began to fill with vegetables, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, hot rolls and butter.
Soon, there was food flying everywhere as the women were hustling to fill the plates of the kids and the men. They took care of everyone before they could sit down and enjoy the meal that they spent hours preparing. And to think, just 20 minutes ago, we were stuffing our faces with lasagna.
Some requested white meat, others dark, but we would always reserve one of the giant turkey legs for the traditional family photon. There always seemed to be an infant grandchild, on my grandfather’s lap, holding that giant turkey leg in their tiny little hands, like Bam-Bam from The Flintstones. Our albums are filled with those photos. It’s a family tradition that we still follow today with our children.
As the carnage surrounding the turkey dinner abated, the men retreated upstairs to “relax” again, while the women performed the task of clean up and resetting the table for dessert. In the blink of an eye, the turkey was gone, and all the side dishes disappeared. Magically, a mountain of Italian pastries and traditional baked pies appeared. Coffee and demitasse pots were chugging away as the crowd began to gather once again. Soon, we kids would be wolfing down pie or ice cream topped with chocolate syrup, while the adults settled for cannoli and other artery clogging treats.
And just when everyone had caught their breath to relax and watch some TV, someone would break out the leftover turkey and rolls to make sandwiches.
As you got older, you were able to survey the room and truly understand where you came from. You didn’t need a DNA test from 23-and-Me, or an ancestry history to confirm you were a part of this family. My mother and father had six brothers and sisters each, so there were plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins to go around. Everywhere you looked, you saw a part of you in everyone. You had your grandfather’s hair line, your aunt’s eyebrows and your uncle’s waistline. You were blessed with your mother’s sense of humor and your father’s eyes. And when you look at your children, you see a part of everyone in them, also. This is your family, for better or worse. They defined you and helped lead you on the path to who you are today.
And they always made sure you had a turkey sandwich to go home with.
Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a 2018 Press Club of Long Island award winning columnist and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.