My Italian family did not set a Thanksgiving table until 1960, when they first discovered America. My father, who was an immigrant in an American elementary school, came home and said all the other kids were talking about eating turkey on Thursday. So, his parents picked up one at the supermarket. When my zia put it in the oven to cook, she did not realize the gizzards were in a plastic bag in the cavity of the turkey. It wasn’t exactly the kind of stuffing you would want to eat. Needless to say, they ditched that first turkey for lasagna. Nowadays, we put both on the Thanksgiving table.
I’m thankful we’ve gotten much better at the celebration since then. Truly, Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday all Italians can get behind. Everyone gathers around the table to break bread, drink wine, laugh, and enjoy. That’s our thing. To distinguish the day from Nonna’s house on any given Sunday, I always set a special table. Discover some of my favorite ideas:
Always have a printed menu.
Mine have included the one above featuring a vintage postcard image I found online. I’ve also written the menu on a large chalkboard that served as background for the buffet table. You could also frame one 8×10 menu and put it near the food or on the table.
Create a beautiful centerpiece.
Usually, I create floral arrangements inside cornucopias, which I have from our wedding day in 2008. (We had a vow renewal in the United States Thanksgiving weekend, one month after our wedding in Italy.) In addition, I’ve made floral arrangements in a basket shaped like a turkey and a bowl in the form of a pumpkin. I try to get the kids involved in making centerpieces now. One year I had them paint acorns in bright glitter paint colors; then, I put electric votive candles inside a clear vase and surrounded the “candle” with the acorns. They are painting pinecones that we’re going to turn into woodland creatures for this year’s table. My hope is to make a little diorama-type scene atop a crystal cake stand.
Let the food be the showstopper.
There are few things in life Italians appreciate as much as food. Because Thanksgiving is all about the food, you should let the dishes shine. Cook up your best recipes. Of course, serve them in beautiful dishes and on your best plates. I recently began using my grandmother’s china, which my grandfather carried all the way back from Italy. I also have a few serving pieces – a copper-colored dish shaped like a maple leaf and individual gravy boats in the shape of a turkey – that often make an appearance.
In addition, you can use the food as decoration or centerpiece. Add artichokes, apples, or pears to a cornucopia, bowl, or floral arrangement. Use breadsticks standing in a glass goblet or antipasto platters featuring salumi to catch the eye at the center of your table.
Put out handmade place cards.
This is good practice whenever you are celebrating with extended family. Place cards can be an exquisite touch. But they also keep Mario from sitting next to his arch enemy cousin Guido. In the photo above, you’ll notice that I made edible place cards. That one is a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a turkey. I featured names on the belly by using cookie stamps. I have the complete alphabet of stamps. You can also attach name tags to a pear, apple, or gourd using a decorate push pin. Using food markers on those items works, too. Or you can be a traditionalist and make place cards out of paper. Personalizing each menu is another option.
Use fabric napkins.
Paper is can be beautiful, too. Don’t get me wrong. But fabric napkins indicate this is a special day. Also, you can more easily fold fabric napkins elaborately or wrap them with a napkin ring. The ambitious among us may try to fold each napkin into a turkey. Now, that’s a Pinterest goal.
It’s not what you think. This is not a political story, nor is this the story of a child of the DREAM Act frightened about today’s United States. Actually, this story should inspire anyone of any group – both Democrats and Republicans – who reads it. It is a reminder for me of whence I came. This is my favorite story of the American dream, the one about my peasant people and how they got here and how I came to be an American, born and raised. It’s how I’m choosing to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Once upon a time in a land shaped like a boot, far, far away from my beloved New Jersey, there lived my ancestors on both sides of the family. We come from the island of Ischia, a province of Naples in Italy. While the two families were friends back in the old neighborhood, they couldn’t have imagined that two of their children would meet and marry years later and make them all family. But before any of that could happen, there would be great suffering, the kind that changes the course of history and the lives of individuals. Fascism rose in Europe and around the world. World War II happened. And my people were hungry, literally hungry, for a better life that included steady work and food on the table. They scattered. Some people went to Argentina, others to Canada. Some went to France, others to Algeria. Some went as far as Australia, others went to the United States of America.
My maternal grandfather Rocco Di Costanzo went to France first. But America e’ sempre America, America is always America. And he wanted a slice of that good life he had been hearing so much about. His mother wrote a note to Giovanni Luciano, my maternal grandmother’s father, asking if would be willing to marry off one of his daughters to her youngest son, so he could get a green card and work in the U.S. Luciano had moved to the United States from Ischia years earlier and indeed his wife was a U.S. citizen and his children were all American born. One of his daughters was already pretty much taken, and the other – my grandmother Concetta – was deep into a crush but still very much single. So, my great-grandfather packed up my grandmother, who was 19 at the time, and headed home to Ischia. My grandmother will tell you with tears in her eyes – tears for all she lost and all she gained on that trip – how she sat at a table with my grandfather’s entire family. My grandfather’s mother turned to her and said, “Well, are you going to marry my son or not?” At 19, she looked around and saw no allies, not even her own father. She didn’t want this. But she says she was too embarrassed to say no, so she said yes.
Within a week, she was walking through the streets of Ischia with all her long-lost relatives and their neighbors throwing confetti at her feet and a string of children – some as young as 3 – sitting on the altar. We’re pretty sure my father – who would eventually marry their daughter – was among the kids as his in-laws, who barely knew each other, wed. While marrying an American is still a legal gateway into the nation, there are conditions. To begin, as it was then and now, couples must prove their union is for real, to create a life together and not just to get a visa. The system tries to root out sham marriages.
This was a sham if ever there was one. My grandmother felt forced into the union, and my grandfather, just barely 20, continued to write to his beloved in Italy and even promised he’d eventually go back to her. My grandparents didn’t even honeymoon together. My grandmother, her father, and another woman who married someone from Ischia went to Venice together. And my grandfather had to go spend some significant time in Canada before he could enter the United States with papers. Proving your marriage is real is something with which I’m familiar because I went through it with my husband. It took two years, and we needed to show shared bills, joint tax returns, family photos of our extended families together, our son’s birth certificate, and get grilled in interviews with immigration agents. Twice my husband was put in immigration jail at the airport (it’s a real thing), and ours was a union built on love. We had two friggin’ weddings for goodness sake. Who would pay that kind of money for a fake marriage? Things weren’t as strict back in my grandparent’s day, pre 9-11, but you still weren’t supposed to marry for citizenship. But I digress.
Of course, my grandparents never did part ways. They were married for nearly 60 years and had six kids before my grandfather passed away in 2015. Love certainly grew. My grandfather lost touch with his beloved in Italy long, long ago. In the technical sense, they might have been considered illegals. If that’s not illegal enough to satisfy you based on what I promised in the headline, then look at my father’s side of the family. They fit the bill. We were WOPs, without papers. My Zio Michele, my father’s oldest brother and classmate to my maternal grandfather, was 18 years older than my father and grew disgusted with work in Ischia.
The family had been selling wine to distributors when, in the night, someone stole the barrel and dumped half of it on the ground. It takes a year to make a barrel of wine. That meant that a year’s worth of work was now worthless. My grandfather cursed those who did it, and indeed they ended up dying ugly deaths. (I’m not supporting this, but man that evil eye seems to work, so be warned.) And Zio Michele had had enough. My grandfather gave him his blessing and found him a spot as a stowaway on a ship headed to the United States. Ironically, he was with a cousin of my mother’s and they hid in a closet. An ally keeping their secret would bring them food.
Toward the end of the trip, someone found silverware that fell through a vent near where they had been hiding. They were swiftly put into a jail. Shady police officers (sorry, but it’s true) ushered them out of the jail, hid them under blankets on the floor of a car as they left the parking lot, and delivered them to relatives already in the United States. My maternal great grandfather wouldn’t help his cousin. He feared for his own American citizenship, so he sent him back to Ischia. Zio Michele, however, had uncles in New York, who hid him on a farm. For a year, he tended to the farm and mostly stayed in a loft bedroom. He kept a ladder that could be thrown out the window near his bed, so he could run from the authorities if anyone came looking to deport him.
After a year, friends from Ischia, who were living in New Jersey, dressed him like an American soldier, brought him to church, and told him to pick a wife among the parishioners. He chose my aunt, an Italian American, whose family came from Calabria but who was born in the United States. At first, she turned him down. She assumed he had another family in Italy and this was all a ploy. But my uncle was persistent, and she changed her mind. Indeed, marriage would also make him legal. They were married more than 50 years and had four children together. Again, whether it started as a sham or not, it was real in the end. In 1960, 10 years after becoming legal, Zio Michele brought my paternal grandparents, two of my aunts, and my father, who was 13 at the time, to the United States.
The rest of us – we owe our lives, our Americanness – to my grandparents and uncle. Without their willingness to sacrifice everything and take on the fear of the unknown, we would not even exist, let alone have the chance to thrive. It’s humbles me every time I think about it.
My father, his sisters, and grandparents had tickets to American and even made friends on board the ship that brought them over. They watched movies and speculated about what their new life would be like. They had more hope than those who came before them. In many ways, my father would become the most American of the bunch. He was the only one to go to school in the United States, and he graduated from a New Jersey high school. He is the only one who married an American – my mom, whose family comes from Ischia but who had been born, raised, and educated in the United States. Yet, in many ways, he was also the one who stayed the most Italian. He travels back to Italy often, maintains all the traditions (winemaking, building a large presepio or nativity scene every Christmas, speaking the dialect of his hometown), and still keeps in touch with friends and family in the Old Country. And I, his daughter, married a native of Ischia, which keeps us all the more connected. Perhaps, it was because as the baby of the family, he was protected from the hard times, the suffering, the famine. He was born after World War II. Perhaps, it was because in Italy he had a sacred childhood filled with playing soccer in the piazza and getting comforted by his mother. He often says he has only love for Italy.
Still, America is always America. My father credits the country with educating him and allowing him to build a business and have a family with some financial security, something he realizes was not quite possible – or at least not in the same way – in Ischia. Now, the United States, of course, is home. That’s something for which to be more than thankful. God bless America!
I know. I know. Thanksgiving is an American holiday. But Italians in the United States have embraced this one, and they have put their own spin on it. Mostly, they include antipasto and lasagna before the turkey. And they indulge in Italian pastries and cookies – as opposed to pumpkin pie, which they think is the work of the devil.
Really, a holiday that is all about food is perfect for Italians. But there are a few American traditions regarding Thanksgiving that Italians poo-poo for lack of a better term. The one that gets me most is the rejection of a beautiful tablescape.
My guilty pleasure is going through Pinterest and blogs in the weeks before a holiday or celebration in search of decor ideas. Blame the Libra in me, but I just can’t resist a shiny bauble or fabulous floral arrangement. My heart swells for pretty place cards.
But be still my swelling heart for my Italian people enter the dining room, see the place cards and tell me they are silly. That’s right before they switch them around or just push them aside and sit wherever they want. Fine, I still have my gorgeous centerpiece. Wrong. A few minutes later my father will say, “Beautiful flowers, move them out of the way and make room for the lasagna. Oh and take the candleholders, too, because the other dishes are not going to fit here.” True story.
All my pretty things are then strewn about on the top of my china closet and the flowers usually end up banished to the basement because the kitchen is also full of food. You would think I would have learned by now. Alas, I have learned nothing. I am still planning an elaborate table set with carefully folded cloth napkins and acorns that the children of the family have painted with glitter and love. Although I’m pretty certain, Nonno is going to toss aside the jewel-toned fall leaves I faithfully dried and laminated, I will not be stopped. Oh no, I will not be stopped.
Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. This year was a tough one. In addition to being in Italy, a country where no one else celebrates turkey day, I was also facing untold challenges, the particulars of which are not really important. It’s during these trying times that it is easy to dwell on the negative, and I’ll admit being guilty of this. Blame it on my training as a journalist or my Neapolitan heritage or whatever you may, but I tend to expect the worst, especially when things are clearly not going my way.
But I took a deep breath after all the cooking and eating were done on Thursday (my Italian relatives were kind enough to allow me the fun of celebrating Thanksgiving with them) to count my blessings. I realize they are countless – to name a few, my wonderful friends and family, my marriage (and my husband), my health, the memories I have made that no one can take away from me. I still have work, so the money necessary for survival is coming in. And above all stands Baby Boy, whose little hands are responsible for the turkey in the photo above.
Baby Boy loves me like no one else has ever loved me in the history of the world, and I love him like no one else I’ve ever loved in the history of the world. He gives me purpose. He drives my hope for a better tomorrow. With that realization, I’m aiming to give thanks every day for the rest of my days, even when nothing else is right. God has already blessed me with a son. What more can I ask for?
When it’s raining on an island, the ocean comes to your door. If you don’t have to go out, you don’t go out. Since it poured all day, you can bet that I was in the kitchen cookin’ up something good. I decided to try and replicate a turkey cupcake cake I saw on Pinterest. I couldn’t possibly use as many cupcakes as in the photo because I didn’t have a tray big enough. But my scaled back version is still cute if I do say so myself. And it was much easier than I thought it would be. I made the funfetti cupcakes and chocolate and vanilla frosting that I’ve been making often recently. I made most of the cupcakes in small silicone forms, but I also made a few bigger ones in larger disposable aluminum tins. Once the cupcakes cooled, I used one larger cupcake to serve as the turkey’s body and then positioned the smaller cupcakes around it in anticipation of creating a turkey head and feathers. The cupcakes should all touch one another. You could make yours bigger by adding another row of cupcakes.
I had disposable cake decorating bags, but you could use Ziploc bags with the points cut off for the same effect. I decorated the head and body with chocolate icing. Then, I dyed some of the vanilla frosting with red food coloring. Warning about this – I ended up having to settle for pink feathers because I had already used too much food coloring and the liquid from it was thinning out the icing too much. Gel food coloring might have been different. Or you could make them orange or green or some other color you like. Rather than doing my usual circles with the icing, I tried to elongate my strokes, so they looked more oval like a feather would be. I was also sure that the icing on each cupcake touched the ones next to it just a bit, so it looked like they were all part of the same turkey.
My husband insisted the turkey had legs. So, I cut two long strips of yellow construction paper and folded them accordion style. Then, I cut out triangles and cut out another little triangle in each to create claw-like turkey feet. And I glued those little claws onto the bottom of the strips of folded paper and just tucked them underneath the body (with nothing to secure them). You could make them ahead of time and tape them to the tray before adding the cupcakes if you have more forethought than I do. I brought the “turkey,” along with the Thanksgiving invite, to my in-laws, who seemed to appreciate both. Mission Thanksgiving in Italy is underway.
My family is new to Thanksgiving. Having moved from Ischia, Italy in the 1960s, they didn’t always know of this holiday. The first time they made turkey they cooked it with the plastic-covered giblets still in the cavity of the bird. They’ve gotten to know turkey – and how to cook it – since then. But it’s always been more of a side dish than the star of the meal. Lasagna or baked pasta or manicotti has always overshadowed the bird on our table. So, what Italian dishes show up on your Thanksgiving table? Let us know by taking the poll to the right of this entry. Can’t wait to see the results. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
I know what you’re thinking. Why is she writing about a Thanksgiving craft after Thanksgiving? The answer is simple. I found these amusing place cards to be so much fun to make and so adorable on our table that I’ve thought of ways you can apply the method I used to create darling decorations for other holidays and celebrations. All I did was get origami paper, and fold it accordion style. Then, I folded the accordion in half and glued one half to the other to create a fan. Next, I attached an adhesive foam gourd to the fan, and hot glued googly eyes and a triangle (that I cut from card stock) to create the face. Finally, I hot glued a mini clothespin to the back, so that I could clip the name tag (which I printed for free online) and a paper napkin folded to form a triangle.
You could nix the gourd sticker and just make the fans using paper that illustrates your theme or party colors to adapt this project for another dinner. For the holidays, you could use foam stickers with holiday shapes – Santa’s face, an elf’s face, a snowman, a wreath, etc. You could get really creative, and glue photos of your guest’s faces on the fan. Then, you wouldn’t have to even attach tags with their names. These fans are truly versatile and you can use them as decorations rather than place cards, too. It’s up to you and your imagination.
This is the final installment of Ischia – Italy’s Islanders
Chapter Thirty-Three – The End Means a New Beginning
As many of you know, for the past four months, I’ve been debating what to do about this fictional story of real events that unfolded in my life. I was unable to post a new blog every Monday because I thankfully had to tend to three new jobs, in addition to the ones I already had – two book deals and my baby boy. So much has changed in the last year and a half, but especially in the last few months. For starters, I am working on two books – one as a consulting editor and one as THE author (more to come about the books in future blogs) and I became a mom to a healthy, gorgeous baby boy (see photo above). These jobs – the most important of which is being baby boy’s mommy – have taken up most of my time. As a result, this blog took a backseat to everything else. But I don’t want to leave you hanging. So, this will be the final chapter, and I’ll wrap everything up. Here goes:
When I last left you, Tony and I were just beginning our long-distance love story and we were struggling with jealousy issues and fears of infidelity. These issues would continue through our relationship. But, as we got to know each other better and our love grew, the long distance got easier. We got engaged in 2007 and married in 2008. We had two beautiful celebrations in Italy and the United States, and we were surrounded by those who we loved most. The memory of that love would carry us through some hard times.
In 2010, I got pregnant and miscarried. It was devastating, and I still haven’t quite recovered. I thank God that my parents and siblings and Tony’s mom and siblings were there for us, as were countless cousins and aunts and uncles. I had a slew of health problems, and we weren’t sure if I was going to be able to have a baby – at least not for a long while. Since I was already in my thirties, I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen at all. We stopped trying. We decided to have fun and forget about the people who thought Tony and I shouldn’t be together (there was and is lots of that, too) and any jealousy we had, to put the tragedy of losing our baby behind us. And a miracle happened. I became pregnant in 2011.
I was in the middle of my darkest hour, feeling alone and sad, but somehow the new year ushered in all this wonderful. In September, our bundle of joy was born happy and healthy, and he continues to be more than Tony and I could have ever hoped. Our marriage was strong despite the naysayers – and now we are a family. Even I have moments where I am not sure if we’ll make it. But we did and we have so far. And I made it through labor and delivery beautifully. It was much easier than I imagined, thanks to the epidural, and the help of baby boy who wanted out two weeks early. My health is pretty much completely restored. Although I miss the angel baby I lost and think about him everyday, I know he paved the way for the miracle. When I talk to the souls above, I thank our lost baby all the time for the son I get to hold in my arms everyday.
Both my babies were inspiration to write this blog. I started writing it as a means of telling my side of a crazy love story that was intertwined with family, friends, and their crazy stories. When I first imagined such a book years ago, I thought you would see the eccentricities of the people I love most through my exaggerated versions of them. But I never imagined what was going to happen next.
You see, one person told a big lie. That lie exploded like a bomb and injured all those around it. This lie nearly killed me. I won’t go into any further detail about the lie to protect both the innocent and the guilty except to say that I learned some valuable lessons. Our actions truly have repercussions, and the truth – no matter what it is – is almost always better than a lie. We must think long and hard about what we do because we have the potential to hurt other people. But my holiday present to myself was to let go, pray for only good things for the people with whom I’ve lost touch, hang tight to the good memories we shared over the years, and start new chapters with my son and Tony and the others with whom I share an unbreakable bond of trust and who I know will never leave me. I had to give up on the anger, disappointment, and sadness – or else the lie would really kill me. The only person I was hurting was myself.
As you might have imagined, Roberto and Lisa broke up, and they both hurt each other badly. It ripped apart our whole group. As a result, they don’t talk to each other or any of us. We’ve lost touch even with Roberto’s family, my cousins. I’d like to believe they are both doing great things somewhere other than Ischia, a small island where everyone judges, everyone knows everyone’s business, and opportunities are limited to say the least. But I simply don’t know what’s happening in their lives. Still, I will never forget the good times we shared or the role they played in our wedding and vow renewal, back when I thought our family ties and friendship would last a lifetime.
Although there’s a certain sadness when you part ways with friends and family, there’s also a happy ending for Tony and me. We’re still together after all these years, and now we’re raising our son. There are lots of exciting memories in the making, firsts for our boy, and a dream of an even happier tomorrow. Despite all the tests that are consistently thrown our way, we’re still in love to boot. For a while, I was bitter and regretted these other relationships and the moment I ever stepped foot on that God forsaken island. Ischia, once my paradise, has become, perhaps, my least favorite place on the planet. Now, however, I realize that without Ischia or those relationships, I would never have found my way to Tony or baby boy. As a result, I will forever be grateful to all those relatives and friends who have cut ties with me for they brought me to my greatest gifts. Grazie a loro, tutti voi, e anche Ischia! Felice anno nuovo, felice vita per tutti! [Thanks to them, all of you, and even Ischia! Happy new year, happy life for all!]
Some names and identifying characteristics of the real people involved have been changed.