12/23/2011 05:14 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

Coffee Corretto

A sense-memory of Christmas as a kid hit me full-on this morning. It's Christmas morning and I'm an 11-year old, hanging around the catastrophe of discarded Christmas paper in the living room and taking it all in: something herbal and licorice; the grown-up aroma of black coffee; the sounds of adults talking in the kitchen, enjoying each other's company. It was the "corretto" in their coffee that I smelled -- not fancy anise liqueur like Sambuca Romana which I love, but the staunchly bottom-shelf stuff. And the coffee, too, I'm sure wasn't imported Italian roast; it was Maxwell House percolated, probably too weak and burnt. But to me it meant Christmas morning.

Christmas was a loud and messy affair in my childhood home. Amidst the torn wrapping-paper flung everywhere, was Dad, cursing and trying to assemble some toy or other. My sisters would be trying on their new clothes, and Mom, at that time a depressed and oppressed housewife of the 50s if ever there was one, would be standing, distracted, waiting for the chaos to subside so she could begin to cook Christmas dinner. In our Italian-American family, the menu for Christmas dinner was prescribed; the expectation was that all the elements would be there--the lasagna, the meat balls, the sausages, but also, with a nod to "being American," a ham crowned with halos of pineapple studded with maraschino cherries. Multiple desserts would include pastry-shop cannoli, roasted nuts to crack at the table, chestnuts to break open and comment on ("these are overdone; these could have cooked longer; where did you get these this year--they're big ones...") and fresh fruit.

And inevitably into the fracas of Christmas morning would walk Aunt Connie and Uncle Ray, Dad's youngest brother. Dad beamed with pleasure at the unannounced visit, proud that his brother chose to spend his Xmas morning with us when he had several other brothers to choose from. Mom who usually seemed angry about the interruption greeted them then turned silently back to her kitchen duties.

Dad took over. Out came the anisette and onto the stove-top went the percolator and within minutes it was a party. He was in his element. Everyone was happy, and I felt safe again.