Passing down Christmas Family Recipes

By Barbara Canale
Sun contributing writer

When Pat and I got married 28 years ago, I wanted to “fit in” with his family. But no matter how hard I tried, I felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. The pointed corners to my personality were so sharp. I accompanied Pat to every birthday party and holiday celebration at his family home – a three-hour drive down windy country back roads. I always left feeling like I missed the mark at every social gathering. Yet, I desperately wanted to be accepted into his tight-knit family.

Pat’s mom was a quiet woman. His dad was the opposite, singing in the kitchen as he sprinkled spices in an enormous pot of spaghetti sauce, seasoning it with a little bit of everything he could get his hands on. He gave me a glass and his stories flowed as easily as the wine. Every tale described how his parents emigrated from Italy and how they struggled to feed their hungry children. The best stories were built around food.

Every visit to Pat’s family ended the same way: with his brothers and sisters huddled around the cozy dinner table filled with endless pans of lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs and eggplant parmesan. Pat’s dad made the best salad dressing in the world. It was a recipe he concocted. Although I have tried to replicate it, I could never get it to taste as good as his dad’s. He would try my version, look upward, and say, “This is good.” He would nod his head approvingly, take a few more bites and smile. “It just takes practice,” he said. “You’re getting there.”

“I don’t understand how mixing catsup with brown sugar and vinegar can taste so good,” I said.

“There are two secrets to this recipe,” he said quietly. “The spices are very important.” He paused, looked over the rim of his thick glasses and continued, “Tossing it wildly, mixing everything up, is essential.”

Pat’s dad filled plastic containers with leftovers and sent us on our way at the end of the day. He would wave good-bye as he stood on his porch. He did this no matter how many harsh words were spoken throughout the day or how many tears were shed. Above all else, he wanted peace in the family. The way he chose to achieve this was through food. We always came together to share food and talk about recipes. We could set aside any ill-feelings and escape to a world of pasta.

I started some of the arguments while we played games. One quarrel erupted over the game “Scruples.”

“How could you accuse me of being a thief?” Dad snarled. His crimson face wore a shocked expression.

“It’s only a game,” I said, trying to lure him back to the sofa.

“I don’t want to play anymore,” he said, walking into the kitchen.

I looked at Pat and felt dismayed as he whispered, “Nice going. How could you be so insensitive to my father?”

“Why can’t we play a game without a fight ensuing?”

“Let’s have wine,” my father-in-law said, carrying a handful of glasses by the stems. He set them down on the coffee table and filled each halfway with a luscious burgundy from the Finger Lakes region. “This is an exceptionally mellow grape harvested two years ago in Hammondsport,”  he said. Swirling the wine he held his glass high and said, “Salute.”

And with that, the family brawl ended on a happy note.

The family dynamics changed with Pat’s parents passing away and a sibling moving out-of-state. The family home was sold and household items divided. His sister took the casserole dishes; a brother took the pie plates and loaf pans. Pat took the pasta pot.

The family remained vibrant through food. Every Christmas, Pat made a pan of ziti, exactly the way his dad used to do it. The family would take turns celebrating Christmas at each other’s house. Pat always brought the pasta. Thankfully, the only thing missing was the arguments.

This past Christmas was challenging because there wasn’t extra money to spend on gifts for each other. A few family members had lost their jobs, others had their salaries lowered, and we all were trying to pay for college educations.

“Let’s exchange Mom and Dad’s recipes instead of presents,” Pat said excitedly. “It doesn’t cost anything and it will be the best gift!”

I nodded my head, knowing he was right. “I’ll write to everyone and get them all on board,” I said.

Pat and I enjoyed sorting through our recipe box, reading handwritten recipes that were passed down from his parents. We compiled a special file and presented it to his family at our holiday celebration. Everyone chose their own unique way to commemorate the family meals that we had shared over the years. Pat’s sister compiled her recipes in a booklet with this note included:

“Our family has gathered for over 50 years for birthday, holidays, weddings, graduations, funerals, or just for the heck of it. The centerpiece of all of these celebrations was to come together for a meal, to share our lives, our memories, our love. Over the years we enjoyed many classic dishes like Dad’s spaghetti and Mom’s apple pie. While there were many successful feasts, there were a few failures too, like Dad’s canned eggplant. It looked like a science experiment that had gone bad. Food was a big part of our gatherings and no one could cook them like Mom and Dad. If you went away hungry, it was your own fault! May God bless and continue to allow us to gather for years to come, just as Mom and Dad would want us to do: to create more memories and to help us to appreciate each other. We are their legacy.”

By the time I finished reading her note I had tears in my eyes as I realized I always had been a part of this tight-knit family. Each family member was like my father-in-law’s Italian dressing recipe: a lot of different ingredients that came together to make something exceptional. The secret to its tasting so wonderful was the spice and mixing it up. Those two magical elements made our family uniquely extraordinary and I am reminded of it each time I use their recipes, especially at Christmas.

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