November means Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving means food and family. In Italian families, food and family are one and the same. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Italians are cannibals. What I am saying, however, is that an essential attribute of Italian and Italian American life is a frequent loving communion within the family.
When Italian and Italian Americans gather for a family meal, the food is a sacrament. Speaking from the context of Roman Catholicism, the dominant religion of Italians, receiving communion is the consumption of the flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we receive communion, we take Christ into our bodies; it is metabolized, making us of one flesh with Christ and all other Catholics who have consumed that same flesh.
When I was an altar boy at Saint Agnes Church, during communion, the choir would sing, “We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord.” This was especially the case with the communion served at the family dinner table. My parents’ love provided and prepared the food. Then they shared this food with the family. The same bread and meat I took in making my flesh was the same meat and bread taken in by my siblings and other family members which made theirs. We were one flesh through the sharing of this food. This is the Italian family meal, the family communion.
While it may seem that I am waxing poetic in my description of the Italian family meal, it is something of which Italians are very aware. When I started my career many years ago, I worked for a second-generation Sicilian. I was the only other Sicilian, or at least partial Sicilian, who worked in the office. I recall once, during a business meeting, how he had learned that another person in the company had undercut him. After his initial shock, he looked over at me with a pained look. “How could that guy do this to me,” he asked. “He’s been to my home. He’s eaten at my table.” To an Italian, there is something especially heinous about a man who could one day eat your bread and the next stab you in the back.
Not only did the substance of the food become the substance of our bodies, but the familial love that was a part of that meal also became part of who we were. When I ate my mother’s arancini, what made it so good was the love with which she made it. I understand this could easily be dismissed as a trite cliché, but the care in the preparation of the food was an expression of love.
The love was translated into ensuring everything was of the highest quality. The ingredients she chose were the best we could afford. For example, she ground her own sausage because what was at the butcher shop just wasn’t good enough. There were no shortcuts in the preparation of a meal either. Like most Italian moms, her Sunday sauce started on Saturday morning. Sure, slowly simmering the sauce was more work, but that was how to make the best sauce.
I could see the love in my mother’s eyes when she made one of our favorite meals. My family lived on the second floor of a house with three apartments. I can remember how, on more than one occasion, when opening the door to the stairway that led to our apartment, the smell of my mother’s stuffed artichokes would hit me. Like a runner leaping from the blocks, I would take flight up those stairs. Rushing to the stove, I would lift the lid off the pot, bathing my face in the fragrant steam. Although she did not crave artichokes the way I did, there was a smile on her face as she watched me eat. Looking back, I realize the pleasure she had in knowing how happy her efforts made me.
This is what I learned about cooking from my sainted Sicilian mother. It is an act of love. This Thanksgiving, I will do for my children what she did for me for so many years. We will gather in a loving communion with one another, thankful for that love and our Italian American heritage.