By Karin Gall
Our family celebrates holiday dinners at Grandma’s with a feast fit for an Italian emperor. Julius Caesar has nothing on Grandma. When I first introduced my husband, Tom, to our family’s elaborate holiday meals, he was stunned.
The traditional Italian fare begins with crispedes, a pan-fried dough ball concoction stuffed full of anchovies. It’s best washed down with Chianti for those brave enough to try them. If you love anchovies, the fishy aroma delights your senses. If you don’t, it’ll gag you for hours. Several family members sniff, wrinkle their noses, and walk away.
Ohio winters are cold, and today it’s ten degrees below zero outside. Some of the adults make excuses to get out of the house—one insists on making an important phone call on the front porch, another wants to see Uncle Guido’s new car.
I lower my voice and speak into my husband’s ear. “No one likes those. You don’t have to eat them.”
He gives me a baffled look. “Really? They’re wonderful.”
Tom munches the anchovy appetizers, and Grandma beams each time he takes a bite. Without intending to, Tom has made it to the top of Grandma’s good list, which makes him the envy of the family.
After a few glasses of wine, my aunts and uncles relax enough to tolerate each other. All my family are of Italian descent, except for Aunt Carol. Uncle Joe broke with tradition and chose an American wife, for which he has never been forgiven. But I digress.
Dinner is served in the family room. A blonde dining room table is covered with a hand- crocheted tablecloth, which is covered with plastic. Covering furniture with thick, see-through vinyl was popular in the sixties, and Grandma has never changed her decor. Twelve matching straight-back chairs, also covered in plastic, are arranged just so. Settings of green depression glass sit on each placemat along with sterling silver utensils. White linen napkins emanating the odor of mothballs sit at the side of each plate. A smaller table is set for the children in the adjoining room.
No sooner do we sit down than the sparring begins. As usual, Aunt Sophia and Aunt Gina go at it like two participants in a roller derby event.
“I brought the antipasto,” Aunt Sophia says, her Roman nose tilting slightly upward. “I bought everything at Balducci’s.” Aunt Sophia is the wealthy one in the family, and she likes to lord it over everyone. Uncle Leonardo owns a successful construction company that always seems to get the most lucrative contracts.
The antipasto tray sits laden with goodies. Sweet midget pickles, black olives, shaved prosciutto with chunks of fresh cantaloupe, roasted red and yellow peppers, fresh mozzarella, hard salami, and capicola are mounded next to each other. The meats are dry cured from ham and pork shoulder imported from Italy.
“Hmm,” Aunt Gina says, selecting a piece of pink prosciutto. She sniffs it, and chews thoughtfully. “I don’t think this is as good a quality as you bought last year. Tastes like that stuff I bought on sale at Walmart one year.”
“It certainly is not! It’s the best prosciutto they have. Straight from Parma. Tell her, Leonardo,” Aunt Sophia says, spearing a piece of hard salami and a black olive all on the same fork. I’ve always admired how effortlessly she can do that.
“Now, Sophia, no need to get your hackles up. I was just wondering,” Aunt Gina says, ever the passive-aggressive one.
“Who brought the salad?” Aunt Sophia asks. She’s the oldest and assumes management of all family events.
My smile falters. “I did.”
“Of course, you did,” Aunt Gina says. She smiles, showing a set of pearly-white false teeth. “Well, I suppose that’s okay. You can’t really mess that up, can you?”
I stare and shake my head. Grandma raised me, and she knows very well that I’ve received my culinary instructions at her knee. My cooking can compete with anyone’s.
“Wait until you have some of my Italian Wedding soup,” she says. “It’s really good.”
“Oh, did you put veal in the little meatballs this year?” Aunt Sophia asks. “I remember when you used that hamburger with soy in it. That was awful.”
Aunt Gina flushes. “Meat was very expensive in the ‘80s. I was trying to be conservative.”
My husband leans over and murmurs, “They don’t get physical, do they?”
I smile an assurance while Uncle Guido pats Aunt Gina’s hand and says, “Ladies,” in a warning voice. “How about that game last night?” he says, changing the subject.
Aunt Sophia smiles and says, “Tom, what do you think of the prosciutto? You did have some, didn’t you?”
My husband, ever the diplomat, says, “Sure. It’s great.” Then he nudges me and says, “Which one is the prosciutto?”
“Never mind,” I say. “Here’s the soup.” Steaming chicken broth, laden with acini de pepe pasta (I always called them dots when I was young), spinach, Italian parsley, and miniature meatballs sit in a large white tureen.
“Let’s serve the salad with the soup this year,” Aunt Sophia says, directing a look at me.
“Who’s first for soup?” Aunt Gina asks, grabbing the ladle.
“Mmm. Can’t wait,” Tom says. He whispers, “Is it going to be like this for every course?” He follows me into the kitchen to help carry the large bowls of salad.
“Not every course. Just the ones that Aunt Gina and Aunt Sophia made.”
“Oh, man.” Tom pours himself another glass of wine. “Can’t we all just get along?”
“We are getting along. Hurry, we don’t want the soup to get cold.”
Tom stops in the doorway and asks, “Why doesn’t your grandmother say anything to those two?”
I smile at his naivete. “What would she say?”