It’s hard to believe another summer has come and gone, and I find myself wistfully reflecting on the seasonal changes as I pack away yet another two-piece swimsuit with the tags still on and a long expired economy-size jug of SPF 300. Despite the fact that it’s 85 degrees, I tackle my to-do list with a sense of urgency: dropping storm windows, stacking firewood, airing out mothballed cable knit sweaters. Donning my trusty asbestos gloves, I fire up the old wood stove, settle in with a mug of hot cider, and contemplate plans for the holiday season, which will be upon us before we know it! As I sit here mopping my sweaty brow with the sleeve of my woolen cardigan, I am reminded of festive family gatherings of my childhood, massive affairs hosted by my Italian grandmother whose culinary skills were legendary throughout the five boroughs. I remember begging her to take me under her wing and constantly pestering her with a barrage of queries on technique, ingredients, and the necessity for blast furnace conditions. Googie brooked no argument, brandishing her wooden pasta spoon like a cudgel. “We do it like that because it’s tradition,” she’d say. “You don’t mess with tradition!”
It was working alongside Googie in her cramped, steamy Bronx kitchen where I acquired a true appreciation of traditional southern Italian fare and the many generations of Calabrese women it represented. This appreciation was shared by friends and family who braved the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Triboro Bridge to overindulge in Googie’s famous Thanksgiving feasts. Sure, I knew the historical significance of Thanksgiving, having learned when I was a mere tot about the pilgrims’ journey to our shores, and the native folk who taught them how to survive the vicious New England winters, which led to a shared meal that would become part of the very fabric of American traditions. But were they cooking up manicotti and braciole in the hearth? Did the locals bring along cannoli and sfogliatelle for dessert? It never occurred to me that our celebration was not, in fact, how the pilgrims did it.
Decades later, my then boyfriend, Max, invited me to partake in a holiday feast with his family, whose American roots went back centuries. I was betting they celebrated just as those newly arrived, intrepid souls had celebrated. But would this fete live up to Googie’s very high standards? I kept my expectations low.
What I discovered at my future in-law’s table was a celebration of a different stripe, with savory delicacies I’d only ever read about in fancy cooking magazines. A bird the size of a Cooper Mini was center stage, surrounded by fancy tureens of aromatic vegetables and mountains of mashed potatoes, a spread I could easily envision gracing the banquet halls of King Henry VIII. There were jellies and gravies and stuffings galore, with nary an eggplant parm or even a garlic knot to be seen. Still, I was quite eager to dig in and see for myself how it all compared to Googie’s Calabrese feasts. But before I could raise a perfect forkful of turkey and gravy to my mouth, Max stayed my hand, and passed me a steaming bowl of something that looked, for all intents and purposes, like cottage cheese gone bad. What was this heinous concoction? I was instructed that the proper English way to enjoy a proper Thanksgiving dinner was to slather my otherwise perfect plate of turkey and fixings with this evil looking thing called bread sauce. Naturally, I couldn’t say no. As expected, it had a nausea inducing texture, and the added offense of the loathsome bite of mace, the culinary world’s most despised spice. But once my eyes stopped watering and my gag reflex settled, I found the exemplary flavors of the rest of this beautifully prepared meal were, in fact, nicely enhanced by the stuff. My enjoyment was met with much delight by the family I would soon grow to know and love as my own. Yes, I was one of them now. I had passed the test. I’d eaten the bread sauce, and found, dare I say, I didn’t hate it.
And so, as I sit here with the thermostat inching towards triple digits, sweltering under my flannel lap blanket, I count the days until the next festive gathering with my extended family. I imagine the feasting table, piled high with all things reminiscent of the Misty Isles, picturing the joy on my mother-in-law’s face when the bowl of bread sauce comes my way. Will I partake of it? You bet I will. As Googie would say, you don’t mess with tradition.