My mother loves to tell this story …
It was the night before Christmas and I was eight years old. My sister and I had worked hard to organize the perfect plate of cookies, glass of milk and note to leave for Santa. Once it was all arranged by the fireplace, my mother recalled how I was distinctly dissatisfied with our offering. According to her, I went back into the kitchen, took out some prosciutto and started rolling it around some breadsticks. When my mom asked what I was doing, I looked up and said, “Just in case Santa is Italian.”
For some, tinsel and bubble lights conjure up childhood memories of happy holidays, but for me, it’s cardoons and cuccidati. To me, Christmas is always about food.
I have one man to thank for this, my grandfather, Papa Charlie — my hero and one of the funniest men I’ve ever known. A Sicilian-American with a heart of gold who treasured his family above all — with food, drink and a pack of Kent cigarettes a close second.
In my family, cooking, not shopping, was what kicked off our holiday season with Papa Charlie as the captain of our Sicilian-America ship. His job was to keep us all on schedule for The Main Event — Christmas Eve dinner.
Two weeks prior we made the cucidadas. Papa told us it was a recipe passed down by Italian nuns from the town in Sicily from which we hail, Polizzi Generosa. Not sure to this day if his story was true, but nevertheless, the way he told it always made me laugh. He would take out an old metal meat grinder (the one that we only saw once a year) and he would load in raisins, piñoli nuts, dates and molasses. He would let me turn the handle and every year he would pretend that I caught his finger in the grind. This of course would require him to take a “medicinal” swig of wine before continuing on with the baking process. To be honest, I never liked the taste of these cookies but I loved the part when his finger would get stuck.
The week before Christmas was for shopping and for making the Bolognese. I felt so special that he chose to take my sister and me on this annual trip — a ritual, really — into Brooklyn in his grey Cadillac. First, we would stop at the butcher, then the cheese shop, the ravioli store and finally to get the mushrooms, cardoons and artichokes (all in wooden crates). Of course all the storeowners knew my grandfather by name and they always gave my sister and me some special snacks. Once, a man once gave us gold crosses that he kept in his pocket as if they were pieces of candy. We were, after all, in the real Italian section of Brooklyn.
On the ride home, the car literally bursting with food, my sister and I sitting in the front seat with no seat belts, he would roll down his window to smoke his beloved Kent and then pull into the Carvel drive-thru. “But only if you promise not to tell Grandma that I had two cones.” Papa was a big man who loved life and food equally.
Once home, we would unload the packed car, get rid of the Carvel evidence and my grandmother would make the Bolognese that we would use for the lasagna on Christmas Day. The Bolognese recipe was a secret that only my grandmother knew. To give you an idea how crazy my family is about food, I offer the following story: when my grandmother began to show signs of a forgetful mind, one of my uncles was overheard saying “Make sure you get her to write it down before she no longer remembers it.” Yup …
Finally on the morning of Christmas Eve, our kitchen would be packed like the prepping stations at Babbo. My sister and I would stuff the artichokes and mushrooms, while Papa would fry the cardoons with a cigarette dangling out the side of his mouth. My mom would be busy cleaning and breading the fish.
Ahhh the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But don’t look to me for a recipe. Papa and I shared a common hatred for the smell of fried fish. So he made me what he called “Mariuccia’s Pasta” a.k.a. carbonara (MY FAVORITE). So while all my family would feast on eel and baccalao, Papa and I would have a delicious plate of pasta with just the perfect amount of pecorino, bacon (pancetta was too fancy for us), egg and black pepper, like we were our own special supper club.
Then wine, wine and more wine, which too was homemade by my grandpa and my dad every October. At midnight, the kids would be allowed to open presents, while the adults would gather around the piano and attempt to croon their best Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra. My Papa Charlie would sneak the kids red wine with sugar cubes in it and laugh when we would make funny faces upon the first taste.
So here I am the week before Christmas, making my own plans and food shopping list in a hurry. Of course, Papa is gone, I’m older and I now realize that those memories, smells and tastes were more precious than any of the wrapped gifts I received as a child.
These memories are almost sacred to me. Here were three generations of people together in a room, sharing their recipes, stories, secrets, all the while laughing, crying (remembering the recipes of loved ones who had passed) and singing, always singing. I consider myself lucky that an artichoke can make me smile and remind me of Papa’s laugh; and that a cookie recipe which the nuns may or may not have created allows me to recall the smell of my grandfather’s smoke-filled Cadillac.
This year, I’m basking not just in nostalgia for years’ past but really in the simplicity that was the holidays for my family as I grew up. And with that in mind, I’m on a mission. This year, I’m going to “be” more Papa Charlie like.