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Cin-Cin to the Italian-American Thanksgiving

Our contributor shares the humorous memories of his Italian American Thanksgivings and the abundance on the table.

An Italian American Thanksgiving.

An Italian American Thanksgiving.

There are few moments in life as intense as experiencing a true Italian-American Thanksgiving. It’s a feat ordinary civilians can neither comprehend or imagine: a stunning marathon of food, a collision of cultures, a culinary ride that people with neither weak constitutions or small appetites should even dare to try without strict medical supervision and/or alcohol. Some skydive to get their blood pumping. Others bungee jump. But do those daredevils know what it’s like to try to eat a slice of pumpkin pie after consuming approximately 29,000 calories?  

The stories I’d hear of Thanksgivings of yore are legendary. The seemingly never-ending feasts start with overflowing trays of antipasto, transition to massive bubbling pans of lasagna or ravioli. Then, just when you think you're full, done, finito, can't eat one more bite: out of nowhere like a horror movie, a whole new meal appears with turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings. And that’s even before dessert: apple pie and sfogliatelle inexplicably sharing a table together, both no doubt perplexed by the other’s mere existence.

“It was absolutely ridiculous,” my Aunt Josephine recently said while looking back on the experience as if she was reflecting on a moment when the patients ran the mental hospital. “We’d start at 3 p.m. with all the Italian food, and then by 5 p.m. we’d have turkey and everything else, but by then nobody could even eat, the whole thing was left.”

The family of author Rob LeDonne.
The Family of Rob LeDonne at Thanksgiving (circa 1980).

Because of the insanity, as the years went on, cooler heads and younger generations have sadly prevailed. My parents flatly refused to start with any Italian food; it wasn’t even a question. The concept of it was akin to starting a meal by drinking lighter fluid: “Why would we do that?” The only vestige they kept was my mother’s stuffed mushrooms as a light starter. Sensible, yes. But the holidays are not for being sensible.

Let’s compare a sample dish from both American and Italian Thanksgiving tables. Consider a plump juicy ravioli, slathered in a simmering sauce with slices of fresh garlic and delicious olive oil. Now, imagine a gelatinous cylinder of “cranberry” sauce made in a lab from Red Dye #2 and other questionable chemical compounds slowly sliding out of a dusty can. All this while the FDA inexplicably turns the other cheek. Even stuffing isn’t safe: either it’s merely decent or something that even the Puppy Chow people would have second thoughts about selling. My grandmother Olga did not immigrate from Naples to eat something with a generic name like Stove Top.

Naturally, because my parents were against a go-all-out version of a true Italian-American Thanksgiving, the concept of it while growing up was enticing. And for the first Thanksgiving I was in charge of and cooked, I wanted to revitalize the old tradition as if I was trying to bring Frankenstein to life. Trust me, I was well aware of the dangers. But as John F. Kennedy once sorta said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (and also not having lasagna on Thanksgiving).”

The author's grandmother, Olga, and father, Bobby.
The author's grandmother, Olga, and his father, Bobby.

That first year, I was resolute about making a lasagna with fresh sheets of noodles. Luckily, I have a homemade pasta shop in my neighborhood: Savino’s Quality Pasta in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “How many pounds do you want?” Pounds? I don’t know. How much does a typical lasagna weigh? Can’t be more than five or six tons, right? Or maybe I’d just need a half a pound of sheets, since it’s the filling that makes up the weight? To be safe, I bought extra, and I actually got way, way too many sheets. I think the patient employees there were disturbed as to how much I was actually buying. Needless to say, we had leftovers.

But isn’t that the glory of a true Italian-American Thanksgiving; when you peel open aluminum foil from the fridge at like 11 p.m. and you pile on a slice of lasagna right next to turkey and gravy? And what the heck: throw some Apple Pie right on top, nobody’s watching.

So, I’d like to propose a toast: to those meals that leave us panting and comatose. To those long nights with far-flung family when your liberal aunt gets so high and your conservative aunt gets so drunk, that they swap parties. To having leftovers until at least President’s Day and frozen hunks of forgotten “something” until the Fourth of July. And to get serious, may we all bow our heads and say a solemn prayer for the non-Italian guests who show up to the table and are truly confused as to what the heck they’ve gotten themselves into.


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