I would like to say that growing up in an Italian-American family with all the wonderful food at holiday dinners was very important to me. I would like to say that but the truth is, I am a horrible Italian-American. I loved getting together with family, seeing my Grandmother, my Aunts and Uncles and especially my cousins, but when it came to the food, I was terrible. I was an adopted loaf of white bread in a family of exquisite pastries.
My mother was a wonderful cook -- people raved about the food she prepared. She made dishes that people talked about the rest of the year. But as a kid, for me, she would have to make a separate bowl of spaghetti with plain tomato sauce (or is it gravy? Someone please explain that one to me).
Luckily for me, it wasn't just about the food -- it was about getting together with family. It was the moment that the dining room table magically expanded into the living room. It was when mismatched chairs appeared, herded from every room of the house, and surrounded the table. Everyone sat down at one o'clock in the afternoon. My grandmother, mother and aunts would perform this wondrous ballet as they moved between the kitchen and the dining room, putting down platters of food and returning empty dishes to the kitchen to be re-enlisted for the next course.
By the time the turkey made its entrance, it was no longer needed. Instead, it was returned to the kitchen, carved and made into sandwiches for everyone's ride home. Miraculously, though, there was always room for desert -- a holiday miracle.
Having grown up with these large holiday dinners I was very happy when, after three months of dating Arlene (future ex-wife), we went to her sister's house for Easter dinner. There, straddling between the living and dining rooms was a very long table with mismatched chairs. There were dozens of platters of appetizers and fruit and baskets of rolls. At one o'clock, we sat down and for a short time, I felt like a kid again. As people started to take their seats behind the long table I thought of the painting The Last Supper as each chair was filled.
We were done with dessert by three-thirty (amateurs), but it was nice to know that the tradition of big family holiday dinners was going to continue.
Looking back, there was a reason that dinner reminded me of The Last Supper.
Because it was.
The Thanksgiving after my daughter, Amanda, was born we were going to Arlene's mother's house for a three o'clock dinner. At noon, Arlene went off to meet some friends for a mini-high-school-reunion -- she would meet us at her mother's afterward. Amanda slept for most of the afternoon, so by the time she woke up I didn't get to Arlene's mother's house until three-fifteen. No problem, I thought, people wait for the whole family to arrive before starting dinner.
I walked in and everyone was in the living room, watching football. It took me a second, but then I noticed it -- their body language and the looks on their faces.
They had already eaten.
My suspicions were confirmed as I looked passed them into the kitchen. The carcass of the sacrificial bird was on the kitchen counter, its ribs visible where actual turkey meat used to be. Mashed potato encrusted relief mapped plates were stacked by the sink.
Before I could say anything, Arlene's sister's Andrea turned away from the television just long enough to say, "We told you dinner was at three. There's food left in the kitchen." She went back to watching television, not waiting for, or wanting, my response.
After that, I learned what Thanksgiving was at Arlene's family's house -- or any holiday, actually.
Welcome to Thunderdome.
You started in a standing position around the table, knees slightly bent to allow for a little more flexibility. When the whistle blew (not a real whistle, more like, okay, lets eat) it was every man, woman and child for themselves. Hands and arms crisscrossed the table in search of food. Family history talks of a second cousin who lost a finger that was never found to a carving knife while reaching for a drumstick; legend has it that finger was delicious.
Every family has their own traditions. Even within each family tradition, we have created our own version of those memories. For some families it's sitting around an elongated table for seven hours, for some it's to finish dinner in fifteen minutes and then go watch football for the rest of the day.
For me? I remember a separate bowl of spaghetti with plain tomato sauce (or is it gravy?).