The holiday meal

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.

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Very nice story Revere. That's what I love about this blog; you share so much more than your professional expertise.

Hope you and Mrs. R's day is filled with the kind of stuff that makes these kind of memories.

By Don in VA (not verified) on 26 Nov 2009 #permalink

Sounds like you just did not know the culture. Nobody expects that a Thanksgiving or Easter meal is all eaten in one day. You eat the left overs for a week or at least over the weekend for Thanksgiving. You should never have wasted your appetite on the appetizer (pasta being served is no surprise for those of Italian descent, but never as a main meal), but you did not know better in your ignorance. You have to pace yourself to make it to the finish line.

I never did hear of Turkey, Ham and Roast Beef being served together. But then, I have no idea how big the group was or how diverse the tastes (in my family we have Chinese, Mexican, and Muslim in addition to us Irish Catholics, so we stayed away from Ham and offered beef as well as Turkey for those who did not have much of a taste for Turkey). Best we ever did was 2 Turkeys and steaks for 15 of us, and that included pie for desert, and nobody in this group except for me had a 52 belt. All in their 30's. Plenty of left overs, no heart attacks.

The good things about these holiday meals is there are only 3 per year, so you don't do it every week or year. It's what you do every day that determines your belt size.

In China of course I have to deal with my mother in law pushing me to eat every time I slowed down during holiday feasts, or just did not enjoy one among a dozen dishes that may include chicken blood, fish eyes, intestines, or the repeated toasts that force you to drink too much, but thats the way it is there, you just have to adopt and not be too judgemental.

Pork, beef and poultry - the variety was offered every working day at lunch (or dinner as my neighbors called it) on the dairy farm where I worked as a teenager. Four or five vegetables, home baked biscuits (with honey) bread, rolls and gallons of iced tea rounded out the menu. Along with fresh unpasteurized milk.

The only places that I have seen equal amounts consumed are at the local all-you-can-eat buffets by patrons that should be avoiding that venue at all costs. However, my neighbors/employers were apparently quite healthy except for the occasional loss of a digit or portion thereof in machinery. As I recall, the grandfather was in his eighties and worked rings around me.

By Don in VA (not verified) on 26 Nov 2009 #permalink

LOL-you described an Italian holiday dinner perfectly.

My first meal with my future in-laws was much the same as you describe. I had no idea what to expect, having grown up poor shanty Irish Catholic (the worst fate, as Frank McCourt described in "Angela's Ashes"). On the way home, I burst into tears, telling my husband-to-be I thought his family would go hungry because they had put all their food out for one meal to impress me!!