December 16, 2010

December 23rd....The Bronx!

Maybe it didn't snow for Christmas every year in the Bronx back in the '50s. But my memory of at least one perfect snow-bound Christmas Eve makes me think it did often enough that I still picture my neighborhood as white as Finland in those days when I lived along the choppy waters of the Long Island Sound.

But for all the decorations and the visits to stores and Rockefeller Center, it was the sumptuous Christmas feasts that helped maintain our families' links to the Old Country long after most other immigrant traditions had faded away. Food was always central to everyone's thoughts at Christmas, and the best cooks in each family were renowned for specific dishes no one else dared make.

The assumption that everything would be exactly the same as last year was as comforting as knowing that Christmas Day would follow Christmas Eve. The finest ancestral linens were ironed and smoothed into place, dishes of hard candy were set out on every table, and the kitchen ovens hissed and warmed our homes for days. The reappearance of the old dishes, the irresistible aromas, tastes and textures, even the seating of family members in the same spot at the table year after year anchored us to a time and a place that was already changing more rapidly than we could understand.

It's funny now to think that my memories of the food and the dinners are so much more intense than those of toys and games I received, but that seems true of most people. The exact taste of Christmas cookies, the sound of beef roasting in its pan, and the smell of evergreen mixed with the scent of cinnamon and cloves and lemon in hot cider were like holy incense in church, unforgettable, like the way you remember your parents' faces when they were young.

No one in our neighborhood was poor but few were rich. Yet we mounted feasts as lavish as any I could imagine in a book, and in the days preceding Christmas people took enormous joy in spending their money on foods only eaten during that season.

It was still a time when the vegetable man would sell his produce from an old truck on Campbell Drive, and Dugan's and Krug's bread men came right to your door with special holiday cupcakes and cookies. We'd go to Biancardi's Meats on Arthur Avenue, while the butcher on Middletown Road usually carried fresh fish only on Fridays, but he was always well stocked with cod, salmon, lobsters and eel during the holidays. The pastry shops worked overtime to bake special Christmas breads and cakes, which would be gently wrapped in a swaddling of very soft pink tissue paper tied up with ribbons and sometimes even sealed with wax to deter anyone from opening it before Christmas.

By Christmas Eve the stores ran out of everything, and pity the poor cook who delayed buying her chestnuts, ricotta cheese, or fresh yeast until it was too late. Weeks in advance the women would put in their order at the live poultry market for a female rabbit--not a male-- or a goose that had to weigh exactly twelve pounds.

Biancardi's Meats, The Bronx

You always knew what people were cooking for Christmas because the aromas hung in the hallways of the garden apartments and the foyers of their homes-- garlicky tomato sauces, roast turkeys, rich shellfish stews, and the sweet, warm smells of pastries and breads could make you dizzy with hunger. When you went out into the cold, those aromas would slip out the door and mingle with the biting sea-salted air and the fresh wet snow swept in off the Sound.

At the Italian homes in the Bronx ancient culinary rituals were followed long after they'd lost their original religious symbolism. The traditional meatless meal of Christmas Eve-- "La Vigilia"-- which began centuries ago as a form of penitential purification, developed into a robust meal of exotic seafood dishes that left one reeling from the table. According to the traditions of Abruzzi, where my father's family came from, the Christmas Eve dinner should be composed of seven or nine dishes--mystical numbers commemorating the seven sacraments and the Holy Trinity multiplied by three. This was always my Auntie Rose's shining moment. She would cook with the zeal and energy of a dozen nuns, beginning with little morsels of crisply fried calamari. She made spaghetti on a stringed utensil called a "ghitarra" and served it with a sauce teeming with shellfish. Next came an enormous pot of lobster fra diavolo--a powerful coalescence of tomato, garlic, onion, saffron and hot red peppers, all spooned into soup plates around shiny, scarlet-red lobsters that some guests attacked with daunting, unbridled gusto while others took their dainty time extracting every morsel of meat from the deepest recesses of the body, claws and legs.

Few children would eat baccala, a strong-smelling salted cod cooked for hours in order to restore its leathery flesh to edibility, and stewed eel, an age-old symbol of renewal, was a delicacy favored mostly by the old-timers. But everyone waited for the dessert--the yeasty, egg bread called "panettone," shaped like a church dome and riddled with golden raisins and candied fruit.

Christmas Day came too early for everyone but the children, but as soon as presents were exchanged, my mother and grandmother would begin work on the lavish Christmas dinner to be served that afternoon. It was always a mix of regional Italian dishes and American novelties, like the incredibly rich, bourbon-laced egg nog my father insisted on serving before my grandmother's lasagna, in which were hidden dozens of meatballs the size of hazelnuts. Then my mother would set down a massive roast beef, brown and crackling on the outside, red as a poinsettia within, surrounded by sizzling roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding glistening from the fat absorbed from the beef. Dessert reverted to venerable Italian tradition with my grandmother's prune-and-chocolate filled pastries and honeyed cookies called "struffoli."

After such a meal, we needed to go for a walk in the cold air. In other homes up and down our block people were feasting on Norwegian lutefisk, Swedish meatballs, German stollen, Irish plum pudding and American gingerbread. If you stopped and listened for a moment, you could hear the families singing carols in their native tongue.

By early evening people got ready to leave and leftovers were packed up to take home, belying everyone's protest that they wouldn't eat for days afterwards.

By then the snow had taken on an icy veneer and the wind died down to a whisper. I remember how the cold air magnified sounds far, far away, so as I crept into bed I could hear the waves lapping the sea wall and the rattling clack-clack, clack-clack of the El running from Buhre Avenue to Middletown Road. It was a kind of lullaby in those days, when it never failed to snow on Christmas in the Bronx.

CHRISTMAS IN THE BRONX .......by John Mariani, article published in Esquire Magazine

Antonietta's Gnocchi
2 eggs
8 oz. of ricotta cheese
About 3 cups of flour
1/4 cup olive oil

In a large bowl, mix eggs, ricotta, and salt. Add flour in half-cup intervals, until you reach a doughy consistency. Flour your surface. Break the dough ball into 4 equal quarters. Roll each one out into a fine, long, 1/2-inch wide roll — about the width of a fork. Slice the roll into 1/2-inch links or segments. Take each segment and, starting at the top of the prongs, press a fork into the dough with your finger so it rolls down the prongs and takes on the indentation of the fork. You should also have a hollow section inside each one, with prong marks on the outside. Set them out to dry for about one hour on a cotton hand towel, covering with an additional hand towel. Bring water to a boil and add a quarter cup of olive oil and salt. Add gnocchi gently while making sure they're not sticking together. Test if done by slicing into one and seeing if they're cooked through. Add sauce and grated cheese

Antonietta's Red Sauce for Gnocchi
1 can crushed tomatoes
2 cloves fresh garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 full plant of fresh basil
1/2 stick butter
Dash of oregano
3 dashes of balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup freshly chopped chives
1/4 cup red wine
 Salt and pepper
Directions: Warm everything in a pot, except for the fresh herbs. Add them about 5 minutes before you take the sauce off the heat. They'll wilt and burn out if you add them too early. Pour over pasta. Add freshly grated cheese, if desired, and serve.

Antonietta Russo née Pulcrono and her children: Patricia, Nancy, and Gelsemina.

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