My father said, “They don’t have turkey in Italy.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. It was Thanksgiving, I was on school vacation, there was a high-school football game earlier that day, a chill in the air, and our family was about to have a Thanksgiving feast.
I thought that the only differences between this day and the usual Sunday dinner were that we ate turkey, rather than chicken; there was cranberry sauce; and the day was Thursday. I was wrong. The differences were much more.
My grandparents had known nothing of Thanksgiving when they arrived in America.
“But they found a way,” my aunt said. She continued, “My mother was progressive. She learned how to stuff a turkey and taught everybody else. She learned about yams and cranberries. She made us speak to her in English. She wanted to learn everything she could about her new home.”
Grandmother never saw a turkey before arriving here from a small town in southern Italy. She knew nothing of Pilgrims and how they celebrated their good fortunes in America. She was comforted, however, when she learned that she shared something with those early settlers: they had all arrived in fear, ignorance, expectation and hope. Because she felt this bond, she became more involved, more American. Thus she learned how to cook a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving not because she had to, but because she wanted to.
I returned from the football game to the wonderful aromas floating up the rear staircase of our Providence tenement, permeating all the floors. I opened my grandparents’ door. Our families sat around a huge table. The warm light streaming through the dining-room windows brought something — magic perhaps — that made every Sunday and every holiday dinner beautiful. The children had their own table, just as splendid as the adults’, in the adjoining parlor.
The feast began after a thankful prayer. Antipasto first, followed by requisite lasagna, then hot dumpling soup. A lull, then the stuffed turkey was presented as king, symbolically carried by grandfather followed by my proud grandmother. Mashed potatoes, turnips, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce accompanied the turkey. Grandfather scooped out the stuffing, carved and served the turkey. We ladled out brown, not Italian red, gravy. When finished, we thought that we neither could nor would eat another thing, certainly not the desserts.
But, oh those desserts! In addition to traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin, apple and custard pies, we had torrone, spumoni, confetti (candy almonds), biscotti, noce (nuts), mandorle (almonds), nocciole (hazelnuts) and gelato. Stovetop-roasted chestnuts followed. Coke and Nehi sodas, Grandfather’s homemade wine, and espresso washed everything down.
Late in the day more family arrived, uncles carrying guitars and mandolins and music that extended the day’s festivities.
My grandparents, though immigrants, did what people in America have always done for Thanksgiving.
They appreciated and embraced it, added their culture, and then taught it to us. They taught us that it was our holiday, our American holiday, new and now familiar. It may have been “Italianized,” but it was now clearly American.
* Published ‘Grandfather’s Fig Tree and Other Stories.” New River Press, 2008