Ever since I was a kid growing up in Southwest Philly, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I remember how it used to be at our home, with my Sicilian mother preparing the feast for the whole family, immediate and extended. The Thanksgiving meal was kind of unique in an Italian-American household back then, and I’d venture to say it still is in many families. Of course we were Americans and proud ones, too, but the meal had an Italian touch that tended to be quite different from what the typical non-Italian family would prepare.
When it came time for dinner, usually 1 p.m., out came the escarole soup with little meatballs Mom had prepared the day before.
First of all, upon awakening, I could smell the fabulous aroma of sweet and hot sausage frying in the pan. Next came the frying of the meatballs, with the mixture of beef, pork and veal hugging each other to form what was sure to be a delicious complement to the sausage. Not to be outdone, a nice chunk of pork would also take its turn in the pan. All of these meats would then be put into a big pot and left to simmer, for hours, in the mixture of tomato paste and tomatoes that would become Mom’s delicious gravy. The gravy would be served on top of our traditional pasta for this special holiday meal, and that was homemade ravioli. I remember watching Mom, usually the day before, as she rolled out the flattened dough on the kitchen table. Flour would be right there to be used at needed intervals as she added it to the dough as required. Then Mom would place the special mixture of ricotta cheese, eggs and other spices strategically on top and then fold the dough over to cover the ricotta. An inverted drinking glass would be used as a cutter to form the ravioli. It was my job or my sister’s job to use a fork to go around the circumference, of the ravioli, to seal it and make it ready for the pot of boiling water.
When it came time for dinner, usually 1 p.m., out came the escarole soup with little meatballs that Mom had prepared the day before. Then came the ravioli and gravy along with the Italian bread. After that, the meat was served along with the salad. We never ate salad before the meal. It always came later or last. I feel it necessary to mention that Mom didn’t forget that Thanksgiving was Turkey Day. After all of the other food was served, she’d bring out the stuffed turkey and vegetables. Of course, by then we were full and just about ready for a nap. The turkey was primarily there to pick on later that evening, when other family members visited, or to be enjoyed during the week in the form of hot turkey sandwiches, with brown gravy.
At the end of the meal, even though we were as stuffed as the turkey, there was always room for a bowl of roasted chestnuts, filberts and almonds with a healthy supply of figs. And finally came Mom’s deserts, usually cream puffs, pineapple upside-down cake or her three-layer coconut cake with vanilla icing.
Later that evening, there would typically be visits by extended family that usually ended up with card games. The rules were simple. The men played in the kitchen and the women played in the dining room. No one entered the domain of the other. My father, his brothers and my Grandpop played their games for keeps and bragging rights. The women played for fun and giggles, the latter directly proportional to the amount of Grandpop’s homemade wine consumed. Between the men arguing over their game and the women laughing out loud, it got to be a tad noisy. I and my boy cousins rough-housed and tormented our girl cousins whenever possible.
I remember one particular Thanksgiving when I was about 15 years old. One of my friends, who happened to be Irish, asked his parents for and was granted permission to eat with us. After chowing down on two dishes of ravioli, meatballs and sausage, he couldn’t believe his eyes when Mom brought out the turkey too. The next Monday at school he told a few of our buddies about it. Several of them were surprised but not all of them. Mario and Tony had had feasts of their own.