By Pauline Dyson
On a recent November morning I woke up early from a dreamy sleep remembering that Thanksgiving was almost here. Two different holiday memories drifted through my barely conscious mind. Both reveries were of Thanksgivings past, and both were replete with food images.
However, there was a 50-year gap between the occasions.
The more recent memory, 30 years ago, was of a large, delicious stuffed turkey with mashed potatoes, gravy and all the fixings served on Wedgwood china at my in-laws’ downstate.
That traditional fare eaten in the evening followed a cocktail hour by the living room fire where a choice of drinks, including my father-in-law’s master martini in icy cold glasses, was served. An alternative choice from the home bar were “Zazaracs,” Shirley Temples with red cherries as garnish for our children.
Conversation featured Grandpa, in his leather chair by the fire, regaling us with stories from his Navy days during World War II when as a lieutenant commander he was stationed in Washington, D.C., where important war decisions were made. Such lovely and interesting memories I have of what a true Yankee American holiday called Thanksgiving was all about.
My other memory on awakening was of my own family Thanksgiving some 70 years ago. Growing up in a Little Italy neighborhood, it was termed “La Festa della Gallina” (Chicken Feast) or as more properly called today in Italy, the American Festa del Ringraziamento (the feast of giving thanks).
There was no roast turkey on our kitchen table at my Italian American home. However, there was no absence of plentiful food – only different types. Since my Mediterranean heritage did not include the quintessential and historic American turkey, the closest alternative poultry was a roast chicken, about five pounds in weight, compared to the turkey my husband’s family consumed that was 10 pounds heavier.
No stuffing or cranberry accompanied the bird. Instead the side dishes might include Italian greens rabe or broccoletti. The chicken was not the center of attention as a turkey might be in a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. In fact, the chicken delivered at our home by our local “chicken man” was the second course and decidedly a second thought plate.
The main act in Italian households like ours was pasta. My mother would make homemade pasta, which occupied her day before Thanksgiving. Cut on my father’s handmade cutting board, this fine, almost angel hair-size egg dough pasta would be served in a sauce made with garden tomatoes.
The sauce, as most Italian Americans know quite well, was stirred for hours the previous day with as much care and attention as my American in-laws took in getting their homemade turkey gravy just right – not lumpy or over-salted.
Other Italian families spent long preparation time making lasagna, another pasta-based dish that can be equally labor intensive.
No matter the ethnic origin of holiday foods, no matter if served in an elegant dining room or a cozy kitchen, it is the care in preparation that pays homage to the family gathered together that makes a Festa della Gallina or a happy Thanksgiving.
Pauline Dyson, of Williamsville, grew up in an Italian household where turkey was seldom served.