Christmas in 1947
Merry Christmas, babes. The first time I sat down to write this post was in Nannu's kitchen in West Virginia, with a tiny glass of chilled limoncello, and the sounds of raucous 85 year old Italians echoing up the stairs. And then as Dean Martin was coasting into a really dramatic declaration of l'amore, the wifi cut out and my initial yammerings were lost. I said fuck about 12 times and decided to drink more limoncello -- the Italian response to agony. Here I am for round two.
This was one of my favorite Christmases for a few reasons: it was the first with my brother-in-law (hi Alex! are you wearing the sweater I bought you?), it was the first time I've helped cook the traditional Xmas Eve "feast of the seven fishes", and it was the first time I've really zeroed in on the work, authenticity, and care with which every morsel of food is prepared.
I believe for every writer there is a topic that's too close to their imagination to adequately be captured. And for me, that place is West Virginia. For many (okay I'm talking about liberal New Yorkers), it's a red state in the polls, the origin of some very ick jokes, and outside the zone of intelligentsia culture talk. But for me, it's mythic. Nothing more, nothing less.
My family came to the States in 1947 from Calabria in Southern Italy and landed in a tiny town called Weirton, near the steel mills. And in the last 50+ years, we've whittled our way into the rock face, preserving our Italian traditions and incorporating American opulence (and a good Cadillac) when appropriate. Where Nannu (my grandfather) lives is essentially a tiny Southern Italian town transported. Which is to say that tiny little aunties knock on the front door at 8am, bearing cantaloupe and lady fingers, biscotti and almond brittle. After dinner you "visit", walking down the street for tiramisu that's so eggy and whipped it's almost pudding, and the dreamiest thang you've ever tasted, and everyone has banging gold jewelry of the Carmela Soprano variety. Italian hospitality is alive and well in this land; you don't leave Nannu's house without a bite of fontinella and a wedge of his homemade soppressata. And yes, you're having a third meatball. Mhmm.
West Virginia - in some ways - is the land that time forgot, and that's exactly why I love it. This is the land of smoke stacks rising off the river, mysterious horses breaking down the wild, wonderful pastures, off-brand cafes of pink and purple, and casinos with names like "Misty's Palace" which are never occupied and never close. For a writer, West Virginia is where imagination roams free.
And the food is dank, to tell you the truth.
Mom, Tzi Lisa, and Nannu cooked Christmas Eve dinner and I played sous chef, peeling potatoes for the fish soup (with Buster + Missy at my feet, two of the best dogs ever), seasoning & flouring the baccala (cod) and dropping it into searing hot Canola oil, refilling the wine (Nannu's!) where appropriate. We had a test kitchen going, sitting at the table to bite and assess the fried cod when it was done, eyeing each other's chopping jobs (Nannu is the pro, obviously) and recalling Christmases of years past.
In the end, dinner was about 25+ people and totally delish - fish soup and linguini with clams, angel hair, salad with chopped apples and vinegar, smelts (fried anchovies) and glass of glass of vino rosso. And for dessert: Tzi Lisa's amaretto cake which is somewhere between traditional bundt cake and boozy heaven (you get drunk off of it the second day, but that's a family secret), Prantl's almond torte (a Pittsburgh classic and my cousin's wedding cake for her upcoming nuptuals), Tzi Lisa's "nutty Irishman" (coffee, Frangelico, whipped cream), and Italian cookies, best when dunked into coffee.
Christmas dinner, the following evening, is at Nannu's house and is my favorite meal - his meatballs, penne in red sauce, broccoli, and Italian wedding soup (chicken broth, tiny meatballs, escarole, orzo, carrots, garlic, parmesan, heaven). This is the OG dinner - just the inner circle fam - and it's when we really get into the pili which is to say gossip/details. Sometimes that's evaluating my grandfather's love life, sometimes that's roasting me about my lack of a groom, sometimes that's pinching each other's asses. But generally it's the best.
Oh, did I mention that the backdrop of this din is wallpaper of the Southern Italian coastline? You know you're Italian when.
I'm often asked about my favorite NY italian and I gotta be real with you: when you have a family like mine, you're ruined for everything else.
Happy holidays, y'all. Wishing you thickly sliced cantaloupe, cups of coffee in 1950s floral china, midnight bowls of pasta, and airy eggs with day-old green beans in oil.
Baci grande from 1947.