Celebrating Thanksgiving With My Big Italian Family

At a traditional Thanksgiving dinner celebration, family members gather in an orderly fashion around the table and politely pass platters of succulent turkey, homemade stuffing and sweet potato pie. Italians, however, are not satisfied to celebrate such a holiday according to an expected code of culinary conduct. These food-loving goombahs are known for putting their cultural spin on anything American. No holiday is safe from Italianization, with Thanksgiving, the quintessential food-fest, a major target of such tarnishing.


Part One: Pregame

Prior to the start of the sit-down feast, there is a smaller spread which takes place over several hours. To non-Italians, it could be considered a meal all its own. However, to Italians, it’s simply an appetite-whetter. Enter the antipasto, Italian for appetizers. However, you won’t find chicken wings or guacamole dip lurking around our table. Instead, you will find a spectacular pinwheel of Italian meats and cheeses arranged on a grand platter. In addition to the usual suspects of pepperoni and salami, you’ll find other savory bites such as prosciutto, capocolla, soppressata, provolone, mortadella, and other noshes right out of a Godfather movie. And who needs plates? Just slap some prosciutto and provolone together and serve it up on a crispy hunk of Italian bread.

 

The Opening Act: Pasta

No self-respecting Italian goes without a pasta product during a meal. However, on Thanksgiving, pasta is not a side dish, but rather a course. Cue the large trays of baked ziti, manicotti, stuffed shells or lasagna, and pair it with its svelter sidekick, a tossed salad. To those unaccustomed to the ways of the ginzo, this course would be enough to leave one feeling sated. Not to the Italian, however. We’re just getting warmed up.

 

Kickoff: Goombah With a Side of Turkey

Once all family members have loosened their belts a notch, it’s time to sit down for the real show. Grandpa assumes his patriarchal seat at the head of the table while Great Uncle Louie sits opposite him; his cloth napkin tucked into his shirt like a bib. Cousins, nieces, nephews and parents assemble while Grandma brings out trays of piping hot chicken parmigiana. Next come the bowls of broccoli rabe sautéed with olive oil and garlic. And we can’t forget the red onion- green bean salad with balsamic vinaigrette or the fresh tomato, basil, mozzarella and prosciutto salad. The table is a collage of Italian flag colors. But as we pick up our forks and knives to dig in, Grandma jumps up from the table with a start. In a moment she’s back with a large platter of glistening turkey and a bowl of bread stuffing. I glance sideways at Uncle Louie and know he’s wondering how he can parmigiana that bird.

After a brief moment of thanks, arms begin reaching past innocent bystanders and elbows make contact with faces and noses. Serving spoons clang against platters and wine flows freely from the crystal decanter.

            “Gimme that plate of motzserell.”

            “Who’s got the bread?”

            “Lemme have some more chicken parmigiana.”

            A sonorous belch.

            A wet hiccup.

            “Can I have some turkey?” a young one asks.

All eyes turn toward the naïve cherub. Grandma forks a slice of the second-stringer onto the plate.

            He’ll learn, she muses.

 

Half-Time Show: Fruits and Nuts (and I don’t mean family members)

After the table has been cleared and the women are in the final stages of washing dishes, wicker baskets filled with fresh oranges, pears, figs, and assorted nuts are placed on the table. It's an appetizer before the real dessert and the time men sit around and talk politics or sports.

 

Fourth Quarter: Desserts

Because we haven’t gorged ourselves quite enough, we prepare for the finale. Alongside dainty cups brimming with espresso and Sambuca, you will find a myriad of Italian pastries: cannoli, svigadella, tiramisu, sfogliatelle, Italian rainbow (flag) cookies. You may also find one obligatory apple or pumpkin pie, but it serves as decoration rather than dessert. 

When not a crumb is left, we push our plates away, satisfied, and reflect on the meaning of the holiday. Thanksgiving is a time for gathering with loved ones. It’s a time to be thankful for all we have; for the bounty of food that autumn brings. But most of all, it’s a celebration of those who came before us, even if they didn’t know the value of a good cannoli.

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