All families have their own personal histories. And even if the main outlines of major events are etched in stone, the details always change from family member to family member. My family is no different. We all have our own spin on the milestones of growing up. But there is one historic Christmas meal we all remember in sync: The time we went to Sicily.
And if you think this is going in some sort of Italian Catholic celebration direction, think again. The Christmas in question was 1972. And my family – unobservant Jews from Missouri – had just moved to Rome. Rather than spend the holiday break in the shadow of St. Peters (which would have actually been kind of nice) my father decided to take us on a road trip: to Sicily.
Even though my family is Jewish, my sisters and I grew up in the suburbs of St.Louis celebrating Christmas. A huge tree and lots of presents. I know there must have been food involved, (and I do have some dim recollection of pot roast? And something vaguely festive called Duck Jubilee) but food, at least Christmas food, was not the thing. The thing was presents. And lots of them.
So as my father packed up the Fiat in Rome, and we headed south, my sisters and I had one worry: how were we going to celebrate Christmas with no tree and – more to the point – no presents. Though I was too big to still believe in Santa, my sisters were worried he wouldn’t be able to find us. Me. I knew the boot of the Fiat was already over packed with suitcases filled with clothes.
Autostrada to the port in Naples. Ferry to Palermo. Then a solid week of touring in what turned out to be the rainiest week ever on record for the island. The heavens opened. Torrential downpours. Flooding. In my memory – and those of my sisters – it was a horrible week. We sat in the back of the car, looking through rain-swept windows, at a decidedly soggy landscape. And when we did manage to site see, it was crumbling Greek temples, dusty museums and Baroque cathedrals.
None of this boded well for Christmas day.
We found ourselves in Catania on Christmas, where we checked into a somewhat dreary and wrongly named Jolly hotel (I think most hotels in Sicily were pretty dreary in the seventies.) I guess Catania can be a charming place, but the black lava stones that are the building blocks of the city takes on an even more sinister gleam in the rain.
Taking out his trusty Michelin red guide, my father started to figure out where we would celebrate Christmas. A great plan. Of course all the places we would have chosen – small homey trattorie, known for their charm as well as good food – were closed over Christmas. We finally settled on a restaurant located in a hotel in the center of town. By the time I was twelve even I knew full well to avoid hotel restaurants at all costs. But we really had no choice.
With absolutely no expectations and great trepidation (and not a small portion of complaining on the part of me and my sisters) we sat down in the rather stiff and formal hotel dining room. And proceeded to have one of the best, funnest and most delicious meals of my life.
The hotel was family run, and as it turned out the entire family was very much in attendance. Having celebrated themselves earlier in the day, at lunch, the grandparents, children and grandchildren were spread out between the entrance hall, dining room and bar. We were soon running around with girls our own age, and the owner wouldn’t even let us see a menu, but convinced us to trust him: we would eat well.
I can’t even tell you everything that we had to eat amid the many plates that were brought to our table over the course of the following three hours. Small plates of tiny balls of rice, fried to a crisp in a breaded coating; individual terra cotta bowls brought steaming to the table with meaty baked pasta; huge slabs of roast pork, surrounded by potatoes that I can still taste to this day. I know there was other pastas, vegetables and plenty of desert, but they have blended together over the years into my memory of ‘one of the best meals ever.’
But was this Christmas? What about the presents my sisters and I had been so worried about? Yes, at the end of the meal my parents did give us each with a small, gift-wrapped surprise. It as probably another Barbie. But it’s not their gift that I remember. Instead, as we left, the owner gave each of us each a majolica dish, with the name of the restaurant and the year “1972.”
While it might seem like a ceramic plate is the last thing that would appeal to a 12 year old girl from St. Louis, there was something about this gift that summed up the entire meal. Forty years later, I still have the dish. And am still writing about that meal, and the many meals in Italy that followed.*
*This article (and the lovely illustration by Door Dan Williams) originally appeared (in Dutch) in the Dutch magazine Sabor, Winter 2011.