You don't have a choice; you're either born Italian or you're not. I thought all people were like us. It was years before I found out that my family was different from most.
Growing up, churches, schools, and stores were all Italian. Social gatherings were spent with other Italians. There was no baseball at our picnics; you threw the softball at a hanging salami. Everyone, including children, drank red wine. There was always a cousin named Angelo who played the accordion badly because his hands were so sweaty, but if you ever needed a date, he was there.
Our holidays were special, and Christmas was my favorite.
It took weeks to get Christmas dinner ready. You had to check the vinegar in the oak cask. When the taste left you gasping for air, it was ready. Our garden presented us with fine butter lettuce, garlic, and rosemary to season the beef tongue.
An unlucky rabbit in the hutch disappeared and reappeared accompanying the polenta. Tiny roasted potatoes bathed in virgin olive oil, antipasto trays laden with sausage and sardines. Ravioli stuffed with Swiss chard and finely ground pork, stuffed in the middle of a foggy night so the dough would stay moist, and then laid to dry on clean white flour sacks. Soft rolls on the table for soaking up anything left on your plate. Oh yes, and a turkey.
The miracle every Christmas was that the turkey ever got to the table.
Josephina, my grandmother, did the cooking. She wasn't my we-have-the-same-blood grandmother. That grandmother had died during the war before I was born. She was Louie's second wife. She spoke very little English. My sisters and I learned to speak a little Italian, and when we didn't know the words, we used our hands and talked louder.
Every Christmas, as the smell of the roasting turkey drifted through my grandparents' apartment, so did the sounds of their angry voices. It was a tradition, much like some people sing Christmas carols. One year, my grandparents threatened each other with teaching the turkey how to fly; another time they told each other where they could each put the turkey which was, apparently, a place where the moon didn't shine. Then there was the dangling of the partially cooked turkey out the window. Thank GOD we owned the building, no one dared to call the police.
When my sisters and I thought we might really lose the turkey, my aunt from upstairs came down and refereed. We didn't have an uncle, she was a spinster. The family said she was a spinster because she was skinny, she didn't know how to cook, and she had gone to college. What nice Italian boy would marry a girl who was smarter than he was? We prayed for her.
If the oven door started to clang like a bell, then we had to run and get our cousin (by marriage but still our cousin) to come and help save the turkey. It was a long run, he lived in the basement. The rent was cheaper. He was saving his money so he could get married. He wasn't married yet because he worked on the garbage truck and when nice girls were awake, he was just going to bed. We prayed for him, too.
But mostly, we prayed for the turkey.
The most memorable Christmas of all, my Mother decided to bring her own turkey! It was cooked, it was sliced, it was still warm. There were no threats, no warnings, no fights. It was on a pretty platter and decorated with tiny whole cranberries.
We ate our turkey in stunned silence.
The silence was broken when my Grandfather looked up and declared, "But Dolly, this turkey is so dry!" Maybe it was, but my Mother sure taught that turkey to fly, and the cranberries were such a nice touch.
Follow Denise Vivaldo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vivaldogroup