Today is Thanksgiving in the United States, and the inevitable political innuendoes aside, it’s usually a holiday I like. I’m fond of my family — both my own and my wife’s — and glad to see them, although in recent years we have dwindled down to a few. Still, I basically have good memories of these meals. Having said that, it’s also a time when Americans eat too much, and although I’m not a big eater (and even less so as I age), any big holiday meal always makes me think of the first visit to my wife’s extended family. I come from a laid back Jewish upbringing (I dumped any religious observance at the earliest possible moment, before I was 12) while my then wife-to-be came from a traditional Italian American family in New York. She grew up thinking most Catholics were like Dorothy Day (founder of The Catholic Worker), although her God parents were under no such illusions. While her father believed in the Golden Rule and that was it, her God parents were the kind of vicious right wing shit heads that made the innumerable holiday dinners of her youth, hosted by them, a nightmare. Now she had me to protect her and there seemed to be a mutual understanding between them and me that we wouldn’t provoke each other and I never had a problem with them. An unspoken truce with the Heathen, I guess.
I’ll say that Mrs. R.’s parents and sibs and cousins have been nothing but warm and generous to me for 4 decades, but the god parents were a real piece of work and in the early years of our marriage (now 37 years) I went to many family feasts at her god parents’ house. It was the first one I remember most vividly.
Picture this. It wasn’t Thanksgiving. Probably Easter, but I can’t remember. One long table in the basement, with a bar on one wall. Mrs. R.’s God father had been cooking for two days. He was a big man. Size 52 belt. I think that qualifies as big. I was new to the god parents (the future Mrs. R. and I were, as far as they knew, just “courting” — yeah, right) and I was actually looking forward to the meal. I was hungry and I like Italian food. It was already around 1:30 pm and we had driven a couple of hundred miles to get there. Out comes the antipasto. Lots of it. I paced myself for the main course. That came out next. Various kinds of pasta (stuffed shells, macaroni and cheese, rigatoni). I wanted to show I appreciated their food and their culture and I was hungry. So I dug in. Even had seconds. Of the main course.
Which wasn’t the main course. That was the ham, the roast beef and the turkey, with four or five kinds of vegetables. Everyone else knew this was coming but I already had pasta coming out of my ears. I tried filling my plate with smallish portions of each thing, but there were so many my plate could hardly hold it all. I ate. Then I ate some more. I was turning green. I wasn’t sure how much could fit in there, but apparently one’s stomach is fairly extensible. Fortunately Italians aren’t that big on desserts, so I could finesse the fruits and the nuts and the cookies and the pastries, but I was pretty close to an unseemly emesis by the time I watched with blessed relief the dishes being cleared from the table and I could hear the left overs being wrapped for further distribution in the kitchen.
But then I became aware that it wasn’t just cleaning up going on there. No sooner had the last dish been cleared away (now 3 hours post prandial), when they started “breaking out the sandwiches.” Yes, that’s right. They started eating all over again. Roast beef, ham, turkey sandwiches. Pastry and coffee. I thought I was going to die.
If you do that often enough you wind up with a size 52 belt. Despite my long and happy marriage in that family, I still have a size 33 waist, so it’s proof I’m educable. I learned how to endure and even to enjoy. I still eat too much on Thanksgiving, although now it is we who do the hosting and my poor son-in-law and daughter often are on their third holiday meal by the time they hit our house.
But they’ll figure it out. Just like I did.