Every family has its Christmas traditions. Some we look forward to with enthusiasm, others we tend to avoid thinking about until they are upon us, like my grandmother’s tomato aspic, or my Uncle Ted’s kamikaze-style wet kiss on the mouth, which he places only after gripping my head with both hands in a vice-like snare. These kinds of memories we try bury deep in our subconscious with a gentle pat-on-the-back and desperate plea to never resurface. With any luck, I won’t be unpacking those bags someday in a therapist’s office.
Food plays a central role in my family’s holiday traditions, and while most people can recall the moment they discovered that Santa didn’t exist, finding out another piece of key, Christmas related information far surpassed the shock at finding out my grandmother’s neighbor was, in fact, Santa. Not surprisingly, the moment of revelation included food and I’ve never forgotten it. It was the moment I found out, after taking my first bite, that my mom regularly included the gizzard and other innards of the turkey, all boiled and ground up, in the Christmas stuffing. No doubt about it, my family could have taught those Native Americans a thing or two about utilizing the whole animal…
Like some people go to church, my family goes to the Christmas dinner table. There are customs, rituals and rules that need following. Rule number one is that Christmas dinner needs to be exactly the same, year after year. For as long as I can remember, or at least as long as my Italian grandmother was alive and in control of the situation, Christmas dinner meant two kinds of roasted meat, turkey and ham; mashed potatoes; real butter; homemade butterflake rolls; three gravy boats; homemade ravioli; carrots, peas with pearl onions, homemade cranberry sauce, a jello salad, and two bowls of dressing – one with the dressing that came out of the bird, and the other that just cooked in the oven. The tension created by the in-bird stuffing was palpable; everyone wanted it passed to them next, fearing they’d have to eat the slop that was cooked in a casserole dish. Not only that, but anyone who suggested that the non-bird stuffing was just as good as the in-bird variety was immediately asked if they were crazy – and definitely NOT in a funny, rhetorical question sort of way. It was more like a scene out of Perry Mason. My grandpa, the angry judge, bending toward the poor defendant, while all eyes were on him: “Answer the question, sir, ARE YOU CRAZY??) That’s how serious our family food traditions are. Make no mistake, it was an equally grievous, even unheard of idea not to make everything by hand; even the stock that went into the making of the gravy was from scratch. My aunt and mom bought extra turkey wings, legs and necks in order to prepare fresh turkey stock in the days before Christmas. There was also a rule, I mean tradition, regarding appetizers: few were allowed because of the fear that everyone would fill up and ruin their appetite. So, all we ever had was a clam dip, some salami and sliced cheeses, home-cured olives and peppers, mushroom torta, grilled paninis, chilled shrimp with cocktail sauce and a cheese ball. Homemade, of course.
Now that another year is out of the way, and the food traditions packed nicely way like ornaments in those little sectioned boxes, my family is free to go back to their willy-nilly menus that on any typical night might include as many as two food groups. But that’s another story.