Holidays are a time to gather with family and friends, which usually includes a favorite feast. This is a memory I have of a time when I was young and our family was visiting the “Italian relatives”!
My brother, Mike, stuffed the second-to-last black olive into his mouth. They were the best thing on the appetizer tray, and 99% of them sat in the bottom of Mike’s stomach.
Before my other brother, A.J., my sister, Pam, or I could snatch the last olive, Uncle Tony announced, “We’re gonna have a little snack-a.”
I was eight years old, and my family was visiting my dad’s Italian aunt and uncle. Later that day, we’d gather at his cousin Lucy’s house for a big homemade Italian meal.
But first, the “little snack-a.” Uncle Tony strode into the dining room, his smiling face as pink and round as the ham he carried on a flowered china platter.
While Uncle Tony sliced the meat, Aunt Nic bustled between the kitchen and dining room, bringing rolls, mayonnaise, mustard, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and pepperoncinis, those slightly spicy, pickled peppers.
Using a thick slice of ham as the foundation, the adults built towering sandwiches. But for us kids, simple was best. We spread plenty of mayonnaise on both pieces of the soft sweet rolls, added a couple slices of ham, a pepperoncini or two, and bit into one of the best sandwiches we could imagine.
To top off our not-so-little snack, Aunt Nic passed around a tray of pizelles: thin, delicate cookies flavored with anise, a spice that tastes a bit like licorice. The pizelles were made in a special press like a waffle iron and looked like hand-size snowflakes. I took small bites, creating my own pattern as I nibbled my way to the center of the cookie.
When we were all sufficiently full, Uncle Tony said it was time to go to Lucy’s house for dinner. Each of us took a moment to hold our stomachs and silently cry, “Already!?” Then my parents, not wanting to insult, and my siblings and I, on our best polite behavior, piled into the car and mentally prepared ourselves for another meal.
Aunts, uncles, and cousins filled Lucy’s house. We took our places around the long rectangular table. For the first course, Lucy carried a steaming terrine of soup to the table. Taking my bowl from Lucy, I breathed in the savory smell of the chicken broth. With my spoon, I bobbed the marble-size meatballs under swirls of egg and wilted endive that floated in the soup, and then ate every drop. Most people might know this as Italian Wedding Soup, but to us it was—and still is—Great-Grandma Soup.
When I thought I could not possibly eat another bite, Lucy proudly carried in a large cutting board that held the main course: polenta smothered in tomato sauce, Italian sausage, and Parmesan cheese.
A cloud of spicy smells drifted across the table, and though my stomach was full, my mouth watered.
Uncle Tony cut a wedge of polenta for each person. “Eat-a! Eat-a!” he said. “There’s plenty for everyone!”
Later, we groaned, but still we ate dessert: more pizelles along with slices of spumoni—layers of pistachio, strawberry, and chocolate ice cream filled with pieces of maraschino cherries and other candied fruit.
Meatball, egg, and wilted endive soup? Pepperoncinis? Green and pink ice cream with bits of dried fruit? Not your typical kid-pleasing food, but I loved it all.
And now, whenever I stand at the stove stirring some thickening polenta or cook up a pot of Great-Grandma Soup, memories of gatherings with my Italian relatives come to mind. Their loud cheerful discussions, speaking with voices and hands. The large portions of mouth-watering Italian home cooking. And Uncle Tony saying, “Eat-a! Eat-a!”
That dinner showed me what food is all about and what it’s meant in my life: a time for family and friends to gather for laughs, conversation, and delicious food, especially Italian style!