My maternal grandparents landed at Ellis Island in the late 19th Century, following others from their home state of Calabria to West Virginia. After more than 15 years working in the mines, my grandfather built a bakery in the North View section of Clarksburg that, to this day, my cousins continue to operate.
Sunday family dinners at my grandparents’ home, replete with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles, are happily and indelibly seared in my memory. Those Calabrian-inspired feasts, washed down with jugs of home made red wine, would begin shortly after noon and proceed until early evening.
I think of those family gatherings, particularly this time of the year, as I peruse the family reunion cookbook to select the menus for the holidays to come. Italian-American families can eat and drink like elite athletes run and jump, and the multi-day Christmas season is truly the Olympiad of all gustatory holiday celebrations.
I know this because as a youngster, growing up in my little corner of north-central West Virginia, I learned from the accomplished eaters and drinkers in my large family the difference between a sprint and a marathon. You had to be in it for the long haul to enjoy it, so it was essential to savor the feast in moderation, a term with an elastic definition – kind of like spandex.
This was particularly important given the family’s tradition of visiting each other’s homes beginning Christmas Eve and extending through New Year’s Day. In a one- hundred yard block, there were eight separate homes or apartments where my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins lived.
Five of the eight surviving adult brothers and sisters conceived by my grand parents, along with three married cousins lived, loved, argued and (especially) ate with one another in this small space.
It all began with a visit to Grandma’s home where you risked bodily harm (from Grandpa) if you refused to eat something. It really didn’t matter what you ate – an olive, a piece of cheese or a crust of bread – just that you ate it and had something to drink – usually wine.
Then it was off to visit each family abode and that could take several days to accomplish since we were hosting family visitors in our own home during that same time frame. And while each family’s dining room table was heaped with the edible bounty of the season, certain family members were noted for the special dishes they “owned.”
For example, no one would dare prepare squid lasagna. That was one of Aunt Notie’s culinary masterpieces –her piece de resistance – and it would have been considered a serious affront for some other family member to feature the dish, particularly on Christmas Eve when everyone cooked their version of the “feast of the seven fishes.”
That’s not to say that our family was shy about claiming superiority in the preparation of just about any other traditional Italian dish. To suggest to Uncle Frankie, for instance, that your stuffed artichokes could in any way compete with the ones he prepared was to elicit an epithet-laced tirade that could shatter crystal.
Oh, yes, we would argue – and on just about anything! But food topped the list. Who had the most unique dish? Was it Aunt Katie’s braised rabbit in red wine… Uncle Johnny’s home made Italian sausage… cousin Gloria’s spinach and cheese stuffed leg of lamb…?
By the end of the day on January 1st, most of us required the Italian version of Alka-Seltzer – Brioschi – which was prescribed to the rest of us by the women in the family who practiced a form of moderation less elastic than the rest of us.
It is traditional in the holiday season to give, receive or sip Bordeaux (also known as Claret), Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux-style blend. Here are a few Christmas Clarets for your consideration:
2009 Chateau Palmer; 2012 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon; 2011 Joseph Phelps Insignia; 2010 Chateau La Dominique; 2010 Spring Mountain Cabenet Sauvignon; 2009 Chateau Montrose; 2010 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; 2000 Chateau Brainaire Ducru; 2010 Merryvale Profile; 2010 Chateau Cos d’Estournel; 2010 St. Supery Elu Red; 2010 Cain Five Cabernet Sauvignon; 2010 Pontet Canet; 2005 Leoville Las Cases; 2009 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; and 2010 Guado al Tasso.