If I had to rate holidays in order of their appeal factor, Thanksgiving would be my number one. Why? My taste buds are the first to roar in unison, because of the food, duh… Horrified at such a base answer, my conscience reprimands the chorus, No! It’s about celebrating all the things in our lives that we are thankful for—family, friends, health, love—everything that make us happy. Actually, they are all right. And it always has a way of taking me back to the Thanksgivings of my childhood…
The only place the entire Lambo family could eat together in was a room in the basement, which had been finished off with a second kitchen just for such occasions. The long, high-ceilinged, wood-panelled room had a large bar at the far end. Made from the same panelling that was on the walls, it had a red speckled linoleum top and ran just about the width of the room. A large casement window above and behind the bar looked out onto the driveway letting in quite a bit of natural light. My cousins, my younger sister Diana, and I often played behind the bar, rummaging through an assorted collection of treasures—cool bar ‘stuff’—coasters, glasses, vases, old photos, and cocktail stirrers made of glass and plastic, all topped with fruits, animals, odd shapes, and, close your eyes now, even naked women.
In front of the bar, planks of plywood pieced together and set on saw horses served as our holiday table. We were, after all, at least twenty people: young, old, small, and large (some extremely large). The oven at the near end of the room was reserved for the most important guest of the day, in this case, Tomasso Turkey. On other holidays and some Sundays Roberto Roast Beef, Fredo the Fish, or Huberto the Ham would find themselves shoved inside.
Thanksgiving with my stepfamily gave food orgy its name. Looking back, I suppose it could also be considered to have been somewhat sexist. While the women hustled and bustled up and down the stairs between the two kitchens, the men and younger children leisurely ate their antipasti in the living room: olives—green, black, Spanish, Greek, with holes and without, both stuffed and empty; peppers—in oil, dried, red, green, yellow, sweet and spicy (the hotter the better for my Aunt Rose, “The only good pepper is one that make’s you cry!”); stuffed mushrooms, cheese—provolone, parmesan, others that were smelly, and some not so smelly; salami, prosciutto, gabagool, pepperoni—all kinds of other things I refused to taste so I can’t tell you now what they were—well, maybe octopus comes to mind.
This was just the beginning of a very long day. To the tunes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet spinning on a victrola, the men played a card game called pinochle while we children drew pictures on the steamed-up casement windows with our fingers until it was time to watch Laurel and Hardy’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” For some reason, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was never a big hit with us.
By one o’clock it was, “Time to go downstairs!”
Steaming bowls of homemade ravioli were the kick-off. And no civilized ravioli would be caught without its friendly paisanos the beef chunks, brassiole (rolled beef stuffed with parsley, pine nuts and parmesan cheese), meatballs, and homemade sausages. I can still see Nana pushing her hair out of her face and stuffing pork into the grinder while Poppa seasoned the meat and stuffed the derma. “The what?” I asked once. “The pig’s intestines!” Poppa answered. I didn’t want a biology lesson, but I got one anyway. Eeeew!
The gravy, known as tomato sauce everywhere outside New York’s five boroughs, was always thick and delicious, even though there were curled up tomato skins still floating in it. “So, pick’em out!” Nana would say, clicking her tongue. And then, the lactose intolerant’s nightmare—a bowl of freshly grated Parmesan—would make its way around the table. A quick glance and you’d immediately know who had drawn the short straw for grating the cheese—scratched fingertips and raw, scraped knuckles singled out the last victim of that silver, spiked tower. Oh, I almost forgot the bread! Long, crusty loaves passed from one hand to the other. It was never cut. You just tore off a hunk. Poppa only ate the crust, so I’d either eat those fluffy middles or squish them into little balls and throw them at my cousins. The bread was multifunctional—used to sop up the gravy and wipe the plate clean—a kind of pre-wash in the days before automatic dishwashers—efficient and, at the same time, ecological.
By this time, most bellies were rather full, but no one would admit to it. There was never enough of a breather between courses since the day was just not long enough to accommodate the massive amount of food.
All too soon it was time for the bird, with all its trimmings: potatoes—mashed, sweet, roasted, twice-baked with cheese; vegetables—corn, string beans, salad, and artichokes (boy was that ever a weird one—pull off a leaf, slide it between your teeth, chew and swallow the residue—no thank you! I’m still not a big fan); stuffing made with mozzarella and of coarse, sausage (minus the derma). No chestnuts and cranberries for this crowd. My cousins big Johnny, little Johnny and little Davie (my father was big Davie even though his name was Vito—go figure) would fight over the drumsticks. I was always happy with a wing—still am. Now, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some specialty or other, but I’m getting stuffed just remembering the day.
Okay—time to clean up—AGAIN! And while the ladies stacked and washed dishes, the nuts—pecans, almonds, wall, and pea, would come out onto the table in the accompaniment of a few fruits. We kids would be amazed at how Poppa could crack walnuts with his bare hands while we got bloody fingers using the nut cracker. Then we’d beg him to turn his eyelids inside out just so we could shriek at the sight while at least six different conversations were going on to the sound of running water and banging pots. Everyone (the adults, that is) sipped homemade red wine until the coffee, canole, and cheesecake made their appearance. This usually took some time since the coffee had to perk for a while in a percolator.
The last and final course was a choice between a short grappa and a tall Alka-Seltzer.
Many Thanksgivings have come and gone since then, along with way too many family members. I have kept some Lambo Family traditions, and celebrate them with my own family. Even now, decades later, every time a Thanksgiving Day draws to an end and I’m standing at the door saying good-bye to my guests—a picture comes to mind:
Nana—wearing her red gravy stain splotches and splattered olive oil spots like medals awarded a general after a long, laborious, yet triumphant battle—calls out the door, “Davie—are you sure yous don’t wanna take a few sangwiches for the road?”
Then Poppa shouts from the kitchen, “Man-aaj Rose! It’s only a twenty minute drive!”
I hope you’ll share a Thanksgiving Day memory with me. What was, or still is, a favorite tradition of yours? And—many thanks to you all for visiting my world today.