If you have Italian friends, ask them about the Italian Thanksgiving. Their pupils will grow wide, their faces awash with wonder. Then they’ll grab you by both shoulders, stare intently into your eyes, and ask one very important question: “Have you seen the 25-pound lasagna?”
This week’s blog post serves as a loving heads-up for my future wife and in-laws, who are making the trek to New Jersey to take part in a Monaco right of passage. They’ll join me for a spectacle that can only be described as the Italian Super Bowl of food.
Similar to how the real Super Bowl has taken on epic proportions, my family has taken a simple meal and turned it into a daylong tour de food filled with pageantry and a cast of characters. Much like an NFL game, things kick off at 1 PM with 22 people running into one another trying to get to the pound of fresh mozzarella and typically ends nine hours later with people out of breath, dizzy, and clutching their sides.
We even have performance enhancers—a little drink called grappa (Italian for “battery acid”). This potent liquid actually provides you with the ability to eat more, which is a necessity on a day like this.
You see, there are at least seven courses in an Italian Thanksgiving feast. Each is a culinary delight and a test of one’s fortitude. You either need to find an extra stomach or you leave your self-respect at the door. The day begins with a parade of Italian meats and cheeses, typically followed by turkey soup, a pasta course, a break for naps or a walk, the turkey, fruit and nuts, and cookies. Oh, plus lots of sides. Then, if you’re not already in a diabetic coma, we end the day with a selection of pies and sweets. You’ll think, “I couldn’t possibly touch another thing. Wait, is that a cannoli over there?”
The pasta course is where the traditional Thanksgiving meal and ours diverge. While the turkey still plays a big part, it’s almost an afterthought. For us, the star of the show is the mega-lasagna: a mountain of cheese, tomato sauce, meat, and pasta that approaches the table and towers over you like an Italian version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. You’re at once captivated by its majesty and terrified by its intentions.
But more even frightening for my new family might be this: my blood relatives. Every good holiday is filled with tales of relatives behaving badly, with these stories repeated year after year. I need to prepare Kristin and her folks for the great debate we constantly have: Who is fatter—my uncle or my grandfather?
My grandfather is five-foot-four and weighs 300 pounds. He’s known lovingly as Fudgie, after the iconic Carvel ice cream cake Fudgie the Whale. One Thanksgiving, he lay down on his back in the middle of the dining room, demanded my uncle join him, and asked that someone get a tape measure to see whose stomach came the farthest off the ground. This was followed by Fudgie vs. Son of Fudgie II, when my grandfather claimed he was only 25 pounds heavier than my uncle and said he’d pay $100 for every pound beyond the 25 he clocked in at. As my uncle is probably a good 70-plus pounds lighter than my grandfather, he went after a scale thinking this was easy money. No sooner was the scale in sight when Fudgie called off the bet, claiming he couldn’t do it that day because he had his “ten-pound shoes on.”
But this is the kind of stuff that has made the day so much fun. Thanksgiving is the rare holiday that is not about presents or religion; it’s just about family, food, and life—a microcosm of what Italians are all about. It’s because of this that I couldn’t think of a better first holiday to share with Kristin and her family, as a way of welcoming them into mine.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!