Once upon a Thanksgiving Day, the only room large enough to host the Lambo family was in my grand-parents basement that had been fitted with a second kitchen just for such occasions. The oblong, wood-panelled room sported a bar at the far end fashioned from the same panelling that covered the cinder-block walls. Its red speckled linoleum top ran just about the width of the room under a casement window that looked onto the shrub lined cement driveway.
A few cousins, my younger sister, and I often played behind the bar, rummaging through an assorted collection of treasures—pirate ship embossed coasters, gold-rimmed wine glasses, wrinkled sepia photos of the old country, and glass cocktail stirrers topped with fruits, animals, and, close your eyes now, slim naked women.
Stretched out in front of the bar, planks of plywood set on wooden saw horses served as our holiday table. We were always at least twenty people: young, old, small, and large.
The oven closest to the stairway was reserved for the most important guest, in this case, Tomasso Turkey. On other holidays and occasional Sundays you’d find Roberto Roast Beef, Fredo Fish, or Huberto Ham holding the place of honor .
In those days, every holiday at the Lambo’s had the women bustling up and down the stairs between the two kitchens while the men and younger children lounged in the living room nibbling on antipasti: olives—green, black, Spanish, Greek, both stuffed and empty; peppers—red, green, yellow, sweet and spicy, soaking in oil or dried—the hotter the better for my Aunt Rose who believed “The only good pepper is one that make’s you cry!”
There were never too many stuffed mushrooms or variations of cheese—provolone and parmesan, to name a couple. Homemade cured meats included salami, prosciutto, pepperoni, and something we called gabagool paired with things I refused to taste so I can’t tell you what they were—well, octopus does come 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 kids played tic-tac-toe on steamy black framed 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 dotted the table and no civilized cheese pocket would be caught without its 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 strands of unruly hair out of her face with the back of one hand while stuffing pork chunks in the hand-cranked grinder with the other. Then Poppa seasoned the ground meat with salt, pepper, garlic, and fennel seeds and packed it into the derma. “The what?” I asked once. “The intestines!” Poppa chuckled. I didn’t want a biology lesson, but I got one anyway. Eeeew!
The gravy, known to everyone outside New York’s five boroughs as tomato sauce, was always thick and delizioso, even though curled bits of tomato skins still floated in it. “So, pick’em out!” Nana would boom.
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’d drawn the short straw for grating the cheese—scratched fingertips and scraped knuckles singled out the last victim of that silver, spiked tower of pain.
Oh, I almost forgot the crunchy, golden bats of bread. It was never cut. You just tore off a hunk and passed it on. Poppa only liked the crust, so I’d either eat the fluffy middles or squish them into little balls and throw them at my cousins. Most used it to sop up the gravy and wipe the plate clean—a kind of pre-wash in the days before automatic dishwashers.
By this time, most bellies were full, but no one would admit to it because – Ta da…
It was time for the bird and all its trimmings: potatoes—mashed, sweet, roasted, twice-baked with cheese; vegetables—corn, string beans, salad, and artichokes; stuffing made with mozzarella and of course, 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. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some specialty or other, but I’m getting stuffed just remembering the day.
Then it was time to clean up—AGAIN. And while the women stacked and washed dishes, the nuts—pecans, almonds, wall, and pea—were thrown onto the table in the company of a few fruits. That’s when Poppa could dazzle the kids by cracking walnuts with his bare hands. 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 blended into the sound of running water and banging pots. Everyone (the adults, that is) sipped homemade red wine until the coffee, cannoli, and cheesecake made their début. This usually took some time since the coffee had to perk in a percolator.
The final course was a choice between a short grappa and a tall Alka-Seltzer.
Many Thanksgivings have come and gone since then, and still, when I’m standing at the door waving good-bye to my own family and guests—a picture comes to mind:
Wearing her red gravy splotches and splattered olive oil spots like medals awarded a general after a laborious, yet triumphant battle—Nana calls out the door, “Davie! Are yous sure you don’t want a few sangwiches for the road?”
“Man-aaj Rose!” Poppa shouts from the kitchen. “It’s only a twenty-minute drive!”
Thank you for visiting my world today.
Do you have a holiday memory to share?