Some traditions should not be tampered with. Maybe slightly, this year.
In our family, Thanksgiving is a Sicilian-American holiday. My forebears did not set foot in America until the early twentieth century, way after the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and the pilgrims (who apparently were not nice to Native Americans). So it was easy to believe as kids that the feast arrived through Ellis Island with our four grandparents.
On Thanksgiving my family, like many Italian Americans, would not think of foregoing the ravis (ravioli), meatballs, sausage, and many other old-country dishes. Nor would we skip the turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and other pies, and all the classic American dishes. Truly a hyphenated festivity.
Curious friends often asked me what my big family of twelve (ten kids, all sired by same two parents) did for Christmas. The question aroused somber silence. Not much, I answered. The pressure of gift-buying always stressed our parents. My father’s mood got dark. But then I would remember, The Feast, a month prior to Christmas. And I would rhapsodize about how together our family was for that holiday, with dishes besides the ravioli and cannoli, that only appeared on the menu at Thanksgiving; and the many relatives, at least fifty, all squeezing down our cellar for the day, around long tables covered in white cloths. All we had to do was eat, tell stories, sing, the music of Sicilian dialect filling the air. It was always a happy time compared with Christmas.
My best Thanksgiving memories are there, the olden days back in Rahway, New Jersey, where the twelve of us lived under one roof in a Cape Cod of less than a thousand square feet (no kidding!). “Down the cellar” (nobody had “basements”) was the only place we could fit all the guests. Tight squeeze it was, but personal space was not in our lexicon.
The dishes that most signify Thanksgiving back then were the ravioli, cannoli, fennel (finocchio), and stuffed mushrooms. These were among the extravagant foods that only appeared at Thanksgiving. The ravioli were and still are homemade, big fat uneven pillows stuffed with a rich ricotta cheese mixture.
The hand-cranked machine in the photo left would never have been used back then. The dough was mixed and kneaded by hand, rolled on a huge pastry board with a long rolling pin that looked like a broom handle. The ravis were laid on white linen on a bed to dry before being cooked. Mom’s brother Patrick (born Pasquale), was the taste tester. The ravis had to be cooked to his liking—not too al dente. (Uncle Pat just died a week ago as I write, at age 96.)
The cannoli came from Bella Palermo, a bakery in Peterstown, an enduring Italian enclave in Elizabeth, New Jersey (where our four grandparents landed after arriving from Sicily). In later years when we were grown and Mom had time, she made the cannoli, both the crunchy pasty shells and the divine creamy filling. (Find her recipe in her cookbook La Cucina di Carmela.)
My brother Tom, who taught his Irish wife to cook, was master of the stuffed mushrooms (recipe below). If you think they call for too much olive oil—the main fat we consumed as kids from gallon tins of Gemma or Progresso brands—you can cut it. We never counted calories. If anything we counted mouthfuls of nourishment and pleasure.
I mention fennel, which we call finocch’ and which I thought of as licorice-flavored celery. It appeared on the antipasto tray, raw slices that we ate between the many courses throughout the day, helping digest all that food. The old Sicilians said it was, like all our dark greens and the bitter brown cynar liquor they drank, “good for the liver.” Today I like to braise fennel with Marsala and stock. The humble fennel bulb might be for me what the madeleines were to Proust.
Thanksgiving truly was the feast for body and soul but the rest of the year, with twelve mouths to feed on a postal worker’s paycheck, the food we ate was simple and good, a mix of basic Sicilian dishes as well as American fare. We knew our food was different from what our friends ate and we knew it was exceptional because our friends loved to be invited to eat with us. Especially when it was macaroni (we didn’t call it pasta back then) or pizza pie, which Mom made from scratch on meatless Fridays, with the thick crust Sicilian style. In above black and white photo there are eighteen people, three generations, in our tiny kitchen where there was always room for more. Mom is in striped blouse. Dad is taking the photo. That’s Grandma Cusumano, front right. Aunts, uncles, and cousins stopped in, food and drink appeared.
Food is love. Food holds deep recall. Our eating culture has become wonderfully complex, yet at times too outré, over the top with involved, difficult, time-consuming steps. Before Mom died at ninety-three in 2015, she left us her folksy cookbook filled with recipes for dishes that were meant to feed her large family. They are mostly simple recipes steeped in a different sort of richness and complexity, that of the memory of what nurtured our bodies, souls, our early tender years of growing up, things as simple as garlicky greens, macaroni with ricotta or peas.Our grandparents had a garden and they grew Italian vegetables and the dark greens that are highly revered today — Swiss chard, dandelions, broccoli rabe (rapini) — but that were nowhere to be found in stores back then. The Italian market in Peterstown carried many of the foodstuffs that our immigrant relatives recalled from the old country.
To this day, the ten of us are spread around the country and the world, but Thanksgiving is our hallowed Sicilian holiday. We celebrate, often with an East Coast and a West Coast contingent. This year will be different due to the pandemic. Still, somewhere this Thursday many of us will be saying , a tavola, mangiamo. Buon appetito!”
1 pound large mushroom caps, stems removed
1/2 cup flavored bread crumbs (we always loved Progresso or Colonna brands)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1 clove minced garlic
1/4 cup, or more olive oil
Wipe mushrooms of any grit and remove stems (which you can save and add to soups or stews). Combine bread crumbs, cheese, and garlic. Fill mushroom caps with bread crumb mixture. Drizzle some olive oil on each cap. Bake at 375 degrees for 15–20 minutes. Serve as side vegetable dish.
Braised Fennel — A delicious way to cook the fennel bulb. Slice the bulb and in a baking dish cover the slices with a mix of beef or chicken broth and Marsala. Braise in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes or until the fennel is tender. Serve it on an appetizer tray with olives and roasted peppers. Also goes well with sage butter—blend finely chopped fresh sage leaves with softened butter. Garnish the cooked fennel with dabs of it.