Thursday, November 29, 2007

Secret Family Recipes

December is nearing, and the seasons are changing, but it doesn't yet feel quite right to me. I always get the holidays in Italy mixed up because of the lack of Thanksgiving--seasons seem to change from Halloween candy and fall colors straight into Christmas ornaments around the beginning of November, and I'm still used to there being a holiday right in between those, perfectly placed to transition well from one festivity to the next. Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays, and now that it has passed, quicker than I expected, I'm still a bit nostalgic. How can I really consider Christmas shopping when, instead of feeling like I'm getting an early start on the holiday, it seems like Christmas has been lurking for ages, and I've been doing my best to ignore it with turkey and stuffing and persimmon pudding?

Thanksgiving and Christmas are always a little bit unusual for the expat in me, since, no matter how it works out, at least one of these typical family oriented holidays gets spent in unfamiliar territory, either among Italian friends and Antonello's relatives at our house, or at my brother-in-law's house, in front of a plate of cannelloni. This year, as you know, we had Thanksgiving here, and my Christmas holidays will be spent in the states. This situation is the harder of the two: I actually have learned to love Christmas in Italy, and many of the times that I've been here for Christmas, my parents have been here as well--we've celebrated together, in the Italian style: having a huge family dinner, playing a few games of tombola, and then going to midnight mass. While it isn't the same as my white Christmases back home, it is still magical here, and I love the streams of light that are hung above Italian roads, bringing the starlight closer to our feet. Markets line up around mid-December here, and every night is alive again, with stores open, the evening passeggiata mingling with the merchants, and laughter and talk like Christmas carols echoing through the streets.

But Thanksgiving isn't so easy. As much as I like sharing my heritage and holiday with Italians, the day has so much meaning to it when it is spent with family. Every Thanksgiving that I've spent alone here has been a good one, and I've been happy every time, but there's always that feeling like I should be at home, in America, talking in English and breaking a wishbone with my brother.

Since the start of my Thanksgivings in Italy, I've been asking my mother and brother to send me recipes, and every year it seems like I have a pile more to sort through, to pick out and decide from, to broaden my Thanksgiving possibilities. The first year I called my mom every minute while making my first persimmon pudding, saying, "Is it SUPPOSED to look like this?" And while my days in front of the stove have constantly meant calling family, asking this and that, making absolutely sure that the pie crust should be this flaky, or that the turkey can be served without being stuffed, each year I have fewer questions, and each year I find myself a bit more confident in my own skills as Thanksgiving day cook. I always have help too, which means a lot: I've always had friends close by to take a look at the pie or taste test the devilled eggs. Thanksgiving is by no means something you do alone.

This year I told my mom, "Thank you so much for your help with Thanksgiving!" And she said, "When was I there? What questions did I answer?" And I realized that, even without all of the typical phone calls this year, my family was close by just the same. All of those recipes that have been piling up, that I've been sorting through and picking from, in order to choose the day's menu--each and every one of them has some note, some way of being written, that brings out my mother's voice, right there in the kitchen, miles and miles away. I can hear her, or my brother, over my shoulder when I read what they wrote, and each thing is so uniquely their own--even recipes that they're passing on to me from books. There's always some comment, some mention, some addition that comes right from their lips, and it's enough to make me feel a bit closer to them. Paul's side note--you might want to add two eggs to the stuffing if you don't want it to be too dry; Mom's gentle reminder of how many cups are in a pint, and how many pints are in a quart. I know that without these little words, these little suggestions, I wouldn't be able to make my way through a Thanksgiving day menu, I wouldn't have the patience one needs to prepare. So I told my mom, "It wasn't just the phone calls--it was the way you wrote your recipes, the bits of advice that you wrote out for me." And it was. There was my family, giving me words of wisdom on scraps of paper that I had counted as recipes. They were in the room with me as I rolled out the pie dough (you need a thick crust so it doesn't soak through on the bottom) stirred the persimmon pudding (the stirring part is important. I'm sure you'll figure it out when it's cooking), and served the quiche (You can serve this at any temperature you want. I prefer it warm, half an hour out of the oven).

And after the dishes were prepared, it was no longer just the words on the recipes that brought me home. It was the smell and taste of Thanksgiving like my mother and brother made, it was gathering around the table and passing around the plates, it was watching my husband carve the turkey, like my father would do. And here I was, in the middle of Italy, among Italian friends, sharing something so intimate, so American, with them.

What a blessing it is to find a place where family and friendship come together in unexpected ways. Sharing those memories, and creating new ones, is something to sincerely be thankful for.



At 4:53 AM, Blogger Texas Espresso said...

That was very touching. made me a little teary :) nicely put

At 10:49 AM, Blogger rowena said...

Wow Jackie...that was so tender, pull-at-the-heartstrings meaningful that I'm wishing that I had made an attempt to host a Thanksgiving here. I should, given the fact that a turkey was the reason why I chose an almost restaurant-sized oven instead of a regular one! I remember the saleslady questioning my insistence on a big oven. "Ah, yes...american! It's for the turkey on Thanksgiving Day!"

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, very nice.


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