I have no idea how my grandmother did it. With six children, a small home and post depression finances, she still managed to prepare dinner for her family and any visiting relatives every single Sunday. Not just any old meal, but a feast composed of six or seven courses including meats, pastas, fresh vegetables, fruits and desserts. But she was Italian American and it was accepted tradition that this was how Sunday was to be enjoyed. Sunday was a day for family to linger in conversation over course after course at this Italian dinner party.
This tradition was started long before I was born, but it was still going strong even after I arrived on the scene. Before the family grew too large, and Grandma became too old for the work, her home was the destination each Sunday afternoon after Mass. I looked forward to seeing my best friends - my cousins, and my aunts and uncles who were like my extra parents. We'd all gather by 1:00 p.m. for Sunday dinner and the group never broke up before 7:00 p.m. when it was time to take the younger kids home to bed.
The tablecloth was usually a plain white linen, which quickly revealed the stains created by splashed wine or gravy (tomato sauce to non-Italians.) The dinnerware was nothing fancy, and there were plenty of plastic bowls and glasses for us kids. Money wasn't spent on flowers or a centerpiece - not when there was so much food to buy! Jars of crushed red pepper flakes and dishes of grated locatelli cheese were our table decorations. Fresh, fragrant Italian bread, picked up that morning from the bakery, was a fixture on the table ready to accompany the antipasto or soak up the gravy from the macaroni (we never called it pasta in those days).
The children would sit at the dining room table with the grownups as long as the group wasn't so large that a kids' table in the kitchen became necessary. Children were introduced to wine from a very early age, and nobody felt there was anything wrong with that. The first taste came on the tip of a grownup's finger. It progressed to a splash of wine in the cream soda of grade school age kids. The balance of wine to cream soda gradually shifted as we grew, until small glasses of wine were served to the teenagers. We didn't drink to get drunk. We drank to enjoy the beverage that everyone else was drinking and no child ever became inebriated or sick under their parents' watchful eyes.
The first course was usually an antipasto of meats (Prosciutto, salami and ham), marinated vegetables, cheese such as provolone and mozzarella, and roasted red peppers. You'd better take a little walk after that course to get ready for the following items. There might be a soup course; a stuffed pasta dish such as homemade ravioli, lasagna or manicotti; meat that was cooked with the gravy including meatballs, sausage and braciole; roasted chicken and/or roast beef. Sweet potatoes, stuffed artichokes, salad and string beans could all serve as accompaniments.
The dessert course completed the final couple of hours since it included fresh figs or other seasonal fruit, cakes, pignoli cookies and Italian pastries. Nuts in the shell sat in bowls, waiting to be cracked and picked over as the grownups engaged in heated discussions.
As much as I marvel now at my grandmother's ability to serve this kind of meal every week, I also can't fathom how we managed to eat that much food. I think the pacing of the meal, and the constant chatter and cross talk on the table stimulated our appetites and worked off the calories at the same time.
I've created a menu for you to try that simulates the feasts I enjoyed while growing up as an Italian American. I've cut back on the number of courses - only Grandma could cook that much food for one meal!
Cent'Anni! To One Hundred Years!