Guest columnist Marisa Labozzetta: A holiday for all Americans
Published: 11-23-2023 6:00 AM
Modified: 11-24-2023 10:27 AM
I grew up in a predominantly working-class Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn.
My father, the sole college graduate, was an exception who worked his way through school laboring in the construction world along with the rest of his family by day and taking classes at NYU at night, always ashamed of not being able to shower after work before riding the crowded subway to school.
Togetherness was the key that held any large and extended Italian American family together, that and the importance of preparing and sharing food. While the women, many of whom worked as talented seamstresses in the garment industry, turned out meals that could rival any of those depicted on Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy,” nothing brought out their skill as did holidays.
Salted bacalao bathed in water for days in preparation of being smothered in a piquant tomato sauce with olives and stuffed tripe for Christmas Eve, along with a myriad of other intricately prepared fish and seafood platters fried, baked, or broiled. The fingers that fed fabric under the needle of a sewing machine kneaded yeast dough filled with anchovies just as deftly and without written recipes.
There was, however, one exception to their culinary mastery: Thanksgiving. While they still prepared the customary, complicated, and familiar dishes of their heritage, certain new items were foreign to them. But that did not mean they were omitted from the menu. Amid all their native fare, the glistening golden roasted stuffed turkey sat like the guest of honor observing its hosts devour stuffed artichokes, veal birds, and braciola until it would be carved and consumed for a snack later that evening or for lunch the following day.
Nor were the accompanying dishes ever left out: canned jellied cranberry sauce, canned yams, and store-bought mincemeat and pumpkin pies that no one particularly liked or ate and passed up for the Italian pastries always present. The new Americans may not have known how to cook these foods in a more creative fashion, but they knew their importance and significance. They knew that by having them, they were celebrating being American.
And were these people not American? These people whose sons had immigrated to this country and who had proudly displayed the portraits of these uniformed sons in their front windows. One son in the South Pacific. Another in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge. Another on a destroyer. Another in the Merchant Marine.
Were these men, sons of those who had been labeled “vermin” that Europe was “vomiting “on America’s shores, dirty, rapists, and thieves by one of their adopted country’s presidents (no, not Donald Trump, but Teddy Roosevelt) not Americans? Sons who, 10 months after their arrival, saw the nation pass an immigration act that would deny their kind entry into the United States for the next 20 years.
Of course they couldn’t be any more American, and Thanksgiving any more deserving of being observed and combined with both their cultures, old and new. They were American, just as those “new” Americans are, and celebrate today. Let none of us forget who we are or where we come from. And may we be grateful to celebrate something together — this day we each call ours, this day of Thanksgiving.
Marisa Labozzetta lives in Northampton.