On Sundays, we had a big roast beef or pot roast or leg of lamb which we ate Monday as leftovers. Tuesday was meat loaf or roast chicken with my Mom’s tasty gravy. Wednesday a lamb or pork chop. Thursday’s was Italian--spaghetti with meat sauce, not bad considering we were dopey Irish. Friday was Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks or pizza or welsh rarebit made with gooey Velveeta cheese. Never meat on Friday in Holy Name parish in the late 50’s, early 60’s—hell for eternity if you wolfed down a dog.
All meals arrived with gobs of potatoes—baked, boiled, mashed, au gratin—and vegetables—peas, string beans, corn, the usual. My father always made a huge salad in a wooden bowl with oil and vinegar, eaten after the meal which lore has it he learned in France during the War. And if every crumb wasn’t devoured, we heard the hysterical admonition about starving children of China. So if I finished my mound of mashed, all the little Chinese kids would be fat and happy?
My Mom’s specialty was gravy, near perfect and never to be tasted again since she took all recipes to the grave, including her Thanksgiving apple pie. “It’s too much work,” was her bored response to pleas that she write them down. After her death, we found recipes on index cards, but in shorthand which she mastered in secretarial school and used all her life. Especially when she attended college after my father died. All her class notes were in shorthand. “Mom, what do you take down?” I asked scanning pages of wavy lines. “Everything the teacher says,” she replied with indignation.
Meat, potato, vegetable. Not exactly haute cuisine but way above average considering many families in my Brooklyn Irish neighborhood wouldn’t go near vegetables, fish, spaghetti, even Chinese food. And no one thought it odd. “Can’t even stand the smell.” So I always believed we were culinary royalty until I dated Nancy Cirrito and was invited to Christmas Eve dinner.
I thought I knew Italian food cause on special occasions we would go to Monte’s on Carroll Street for veal parmagiana with a side of spaghetti. And pizza was eaten nearly daily along with fat meatball heroes from Romano’s on 13th Avenue. But to be honest, my exposure was just a trifle parochial. Right after we married, I tossed away an omelet sitting on the counter. “What did you do with my omelet?” Nancy asked. “It was bad, green, threw it away.” “It was a squash omelet. It was supposed to be green,” as she rolled her eyes and tried to figure out whether the “in sickness and in health” vow included stupidity.
Back then any dinner at a girlfriend’s house was a big deal. It isn’t like today where you never know who or how many will be mooching down your favorite foods. It signified serious romance, meeting the relatives, using a napkin, eating stuff you hate. And since Christmas was the grandest, being invited to her family feast probably broadcast that I was The One which was kinda funny since we were babies--19 and 21 and were dating less than a year. And I didn’t even try to wiggle out of it since I was clueless and my Christmas Eve only meant last minute shopping.
And you’ll play Santa for my sister Marilynne’s three kids? So along with chatting up her relatives, attending midnight Mass, exchanging presents, I had to make sure I didn’t screw up the beard and the ho ho hos. Nice.
The Cirritos owned a two family red brick across from the monastery in Borough Park. Simple, small with plastic covers on the beige couch, some fancy lamps and an oriental rug. Whenever I arrived to pick up Nancy, her mother, kind smile gentle voice, would inevitably ask:
Would you like something to eat?
No, thank you.
How about some soup?
No, that’s OK.
No, I’m not really hungry.
Macaroni? I can heat it up.
How about a peanut and butter sandwich?
No thanks really.
Sweet of course, but different from my world where the first question involved drink and, if you were lucky, a handful of pretzels.
So at 7, wrapped present in hand, jacket and tie, I rang the bell. The Christmas tree sparkled. The dining room table was loaded with china, crystal glasses, fancy napkins. Then the food started. And never ended.
I had eaten shrimp, and some clams on the half shell from Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay. I once had a lobster, but that’s about it. Everything else was, well, different. And all home-made. Hot, light sfinge sprinkled with powdered sugar were the pre-appetizer appetizer while milling about, saying hello. Have one more.
Cold fish salad—lobster, shrimp, squid, calamari, scungilli, crab, octopus—in a huge bowl, with green and black olives, celery cut small, capers, peppers, lemon, parsley, olive oil. After a bowl or two, the main courses began: fried smelts and eels; linguine in white clam sauce and macaroni in red sauce with cabbage; fried and baked shrimp; baked clams; stuffed calamari in red sauce.
“Be careful. The stuffed calamari are sewn closed with thread.” “Thread?” “Yes, like when you sew a button.” “So your Mom sewed these, er, what are they called, closed?” “Yep, they’re called calamari, and she stuffed them and then sewed them so the stuffing wouldn’t fall out.” “Never had a meal with cooked thread before.” Who would have the patience, care enough to spend hours on just one of the myriad dishes. No one I knew.
Thin slices of broiled sole in butter, lemon and white wine. Lobster tails and baccala, “It’s what we call it, really a cod like from Cape Cod.” Just when I thought there couldn’t be more, there was another dish, another food I never tasted, could barely pronounce.
Shiny string beans sat in oil and garlic; artichokes with breadcrumbs. “How do you eat these things?” Stuffed baby eggplant covered with homemade tomato sauce and dripping with mozzarella; broccoli steamed littered with slivers of garlic shining with olive oil; stuffed mushrooms. Sometimes my Mom would serve peas and corn because Bird’s Eye frozen foods packaged them as one, but a half-dozen vegetables at a meal? Ha.
Crisp loaves of Italian bread were used to soak up the sauce or the juice or whatever was left on your plate. “I don’t see any butter.” “You don’t eat Italian bread with butter.” “No, what do you eat it with?” A few chuckles told me to shut my trap.
Everyone ate everything. Even the kids all under 10. No one screamed, ewwww eels, disgusting. The family ate and talked and laughed and ate some more. At home, hearty meals were cooked and eaten quickly. Not at the Cirritos. After one serving, dishes were collected, cleaned. We’d shuffle into the kitchen or living room and soon another course would appear. I started strong, eating seconds and remaining silent as food was heated on my plate. How much more could there be?
Desserts included shiny strufoli—honey balls—covered with sprinkles. Cannolis, sfogliatelle, a huge platter of Italian cookies, homemade cheese cake and a pie or two. There were more desserts than people. “Try this.” “Have a small piece of this.” “One more.”
We’ve eaten that meal on every Christmas eve for more than forty years. First sfinge, now made by my children, and then cold fish salad the same as that wonderful evening so long ago. The food is the passion, art really, to be savored, cherished. Yet it is more—family, love, memories. Santa with the pillow still appears and my kids and their cousins, now mostly grown, climb on his lap laughing, excited. Presents are opened. Look what I got. Hold it up, let’s see. After a bit, we wander back for dessert: strufoli, cookies, cheesecake, a pie or two.
Ken Nolan is a lawyer who has always lived in Brooklyn.