I grew up in an Italian American household. My father was born in Brooklyn, but both of his parents were Italian immigrants. My maternal grandmother had a similar background, and even though her husband, my grandfather, immigrated from Cuba, he never shared his culture with us. He preferred to let my grandmother share her Italian heritage, so I considered myself Italian.
As an Italian family, we grew up knowing that Sunday was a family day. You never made plans outside of the house, because dinner was going to take all day. Sunday dinner was at least a four-hour food extravaganza. After church, we sat at the dining room table, stretched to accommodate fifteen, set with crystal, china, silverware, and cloth napkins on a red, damask tablecloth. I was always expected to set the table for the family. As a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do was to sit for several hours at the table, but it was tradition and it was expected.
You would not think of changing the way the meal unfolded or adjust the time spent at the table. Every course was served in order: soup, salad, pasta, meat, potatoes, vegetables, and then the break to stretch and wash the dishes. During our short recess, we prepared for dessert; the rich espresso gurgled and bubbled on the stove, the pastries placed on an enormous platter, and the table was set with baskets of fruit and demitasse cups. Then we all gathered once again, to close our meal. The aromas of the coffee served with a twist of lemon peel, and a small glass of Sambuca was a treat for the senses. When I smell it today, it immediately brings me back to my dining room table and all the people seated there.
The pastry platter was passed and we would choose a delicacy. I would never eat the cannoli; I thought the filling was strange, and the dried fruit was bitter. I usually selected the pignoli nut cookies and a tiny eclair frosted with chocolate. The pastries, had an essential place at the table because my grandmother brought them to New Jersey from the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lived. Apparently, they were authentic, and everyone looked forward to them with eager anticipation.
I never really understood why the meal had to be so long, why we had to eat the foods we always served, and why we had to put social plans on hold for the entire day, but as an adult, I wish I decided to continue the tradition to some degree. The modern family cannot seem to make enough time to sit for hours and linger over conversation and coffee. I guess that is why the holidays help me remember to be grateful for the family around the table; the laughter shared and of course the traditional foods that remind us of our heritage.