Cooking is power and Grandma dominates from the high altar of her experience. Photo by Vladimir Soares on Unsplash.
The sheer scale and variety of traditions, between regions and families alike, makes it impossible to offer to the reader a comprehensive overview of Christmas celebrations in Italy. But wherever you are in the country, this is it: the big day, the main event, the Olympics of holidays. Our focus for this first installment is a proper Christmas lunch in Romagna and the protagonist, some may even say the hero of the Christmas’ spectacle, the Matriarch.
Grandma, aka the Matriarch
Cooking is power. She who controls the stove keeps all other family members in check via their stomachs. Grandma dominates from the high altar of her experience; after all, she has been cooking for more than sixty years. Disputing her dominance is futile. Daughters and granddaughters stand aside as her authority is absolute and beyond question. The matriarch chooses the menu, and everyone else will adhere to it. Contributions of food not prepared by the matriarch herself are acceptable only if explicitly requested; if done otherwise, her wrath will be incurred, and it will reverberate like a holy tremor.
Christmas lunch: first course
The Matriarch starts preparing Christmas lunch at the beginning of November, by the very latest. Anything that can be made in advance and frozen — such as pasta and broth — is so done in several installments. To make a sufficient amount of cappelletti to feed the thirty hungry people who have been waiting since last Christmas to eat it, she will require 300 eggs, 10 kilos of flour, a sturdy rolling pin, 5 kilos of ricotta, 5 of casatella, 2 of parmesan, 5 lemons and 1 bulb of nutmeg. The actual components of the filling are a widely debated subject. Each household has its own traditional recipe, which is therefore the one, the only and the most authentic recipe. Some put meat in their cappelletti or even a piece of candied fruit. I will not comment publicly on my personal opinion of these people as I must save my strength for commenting on the pictures they will post on Facebook throughout Christmas time.
The wider family is involved only when it comes to crafting the individual cappelletti. The matriarch has prepared a dough consisting of 1 kilo of flour and 10 eggs and has pulled it to less than a 1-millimetre thickness. The dough is then precisely cut into 2×2 square centimeters. The matriarch is in charge of adequately filling each one of them as such work cannot be trusted to underlings. Immediately after the filling is applied, a family member is charged with the delicate task of picking up the parcel, folding on the diagonal, closing the parcel into a triangle, and sealing it on its two edges. It is a complicated operation: the entire action must be completed in seconds, lest the pasta becomes too dry for the seal to hold. By no means can the filling seep into the broth; it must remain safely secured inside of its glutenous packet. Making cappelletti takes at least 10 evenings, and it is a widely held truth that no machine apart from a human can seal a cappelletto.
Therein follows the broth in which to cook the cappelletti: immense pots of boiling water with chicken, beef, capon, tomatoes and vegetables are always on the stove. A good broth should simmer for a whole night, and you’ll need a lot of broth for all these cappelletti. In Harry Potter, Snape would say: “I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses…” And grandma’s broth definitely “ensnares the senses.”
But Grandma never rests. Will only one first course at Christmas suffice? You pagans, of course not! You need something else, like lasagne, or pasta verde, or cannelloni.
Though this requires a lesser amount of dough, we are still in the prodigious range of 50 eggs and 5 kilos of flour. According to any decent recipe will also call for several kilos of ragù, 5 litres of bechamel sauce and spinach, ricotta and other cheeses. Grandma dances around the kitchen: the stove plays host to alternating pots of ragù and broth, with the other two burners dedicated to the daily repast.
Christmas lunch: main
Now that we understand why the matriarch needs a month for the primi, our attention turns to the surrounding feast. Appetizers such as salame, prosciutto, cheese, and eggs filled with tuna and mayo are prepared for the day before Christmas, which is also the faithful day for cooking the main course: meat. The umbrella term meat can signify grilled pork, roasted chickens, rolled chicken or veal and also paradoxically includes vegetables au gratin, and french fries. Sometimes grandma has Christmas ‘specials’ like pigeons or pheasant, and other less common cuts or species. Said meats are put to marinate for at least 8 hours overnight, meaning that on Christmas eve the house is filled by smells that ensnare and torture its inhabitants into madness. The aromas often provoke foaming at the mouth due to the absolute denial of any quality control on the godly proteins prior to the event itself. But there is a method to this collective madness. When grandma cooks, she cooks from a very special place in her heart, a place beyond all debility. Hers is a gift that she bestows to the family, and it cannot be spoiled by affording any privileges to the early arrivals. We eat together or not at all.
Christmas lunch: dessert
Due to the scandalous amount of food that has been already ingurgitated, the daughters are kindly instructed to complete the useless task of preparing desserts. There will be some homemade offerings such as tiramisù or some cakes, though most are content with a wedge of panettone or a pandoro and little to no time is spent on the great debate over which one is ‘better’. The more engaging debate is over which board game to play in the afternoon while mothers joust over who should take a step back and allow the other to do the dishes. Grandpa will either sneak in a well-earned nap or monopolize the television while fathers talk about the most recent developments in their orbits while they stoke the fireplace. There is no point in mentioning that this does not sound very feminist. This is how a traditional household works, and while grandma is still here, tradition is alive and well.
Lunch from the Matriarch’s perspective
If an Italian Christmas lunch were a scene in a Harry Potter movie, this would be the moment where McGonagall unleashes the statues of Hogwarts. The full power of the Matriarch is on display in all of its formidable glory. The table has been set according to her instructions, the food has been served precisely when and how she commanded, those seated feel privileged and loved. All of her efforts will result in a few precious hours of pure gastronomic pleasure. Everyone is satiated, content. No one wants for anything.
Surveying her fiefdom, the matriarch is proud to have been able to convene the family from parts far and wide, happy that the magic of her food has once again cast its spell. For what is on the table is actually the physical manifestation of maternal, gratuitous, overabundant love, not to be wasted and to be enjoyed on overfilled plates for which no guilt should be incurred.
If you want to be a good chap, be kind to grandma, and say the magic words:
“Can I have some more?”
Grandma will translate your words like a seer holding an ancient scroll: “I love you too grandma.” And they will touch her like a soft peck on her cheek. Smiling, she will take your plate and fill it once again. For what is magic, if not love brought to life?
When all is said and done, you will be lulled into a somnambulance that has been crudely characterized by some as a food coma, but you will know better. The slumber that will follow will be reminiscent of the nights when your own mother would cuddle you to sleep as a child. It will the best that you’ve had all year.
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