For Marianne Leone, Thanksgiving goes back to the future
By Marianne Leone GLOBE CORRESPONDENT NOVEMBER 24, 2011
My parents were immigrants from a tiny southern Italian mountain village where no one had ever heard of the American Thanksgiving holiday. Anyone who had could surely relate to the idea of a big family dinner with special food.
They had all kinds of festival dinners with specific foods for that particular celebration: La Vigilia, the feast of the seven fishes, for Christmas Eve; ricotta pie and homemade ravioli for Easter; pizzele and torrone at Christmas. So my parents got it, this idea of a traditional American menu. They just had no idea of what was a traditional American menu for Thanksgiving.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Italian food had no superstar status among foodies, because foodies had not been invented. In that pre-Internet, pre-cellphone, three-networks-only era, what Americans knew of Italian food was pizza, Chef Boyardee canned ravioli, Franco-American canned spaghetti, and aerated tricolor spumoni. My Italian parents knew that they were now living in America and that they should celebrate Thanksgiving like every other American. And they did. They celebrated the holiday in a way that would make any artisanal food-craving locavore genuflect in tribute.
The meal would begin with an antipasto of pungent black olives and delicate fennel dipped in extra virgin olive oil dotted with dried red peppers. Next would appear a sublime tortellini in brodo, the intense yellow broth made from fowl, not chicken, followed by hand-cut pasta in a light marinara sauce. Then a roasted capon, accompanied by broccoli d’rabe glistening with oil and garlic, along with roasted potatoes flecked with herbs. Red wine made by my father accompanied the meal, with figs and nuts as the grand finale, along with strong coffee and homemade anisette.
As the years went by, my parents discovered they had been doing it all wrong. Maybe they saw somewhere the iconic Norman Rockwell painting of a family serving a bird twice the size of the puny un-American capon they roasted, or maybe something on television wised them up. Whatever the source, it finally dawned on them that capon was not the right bird for this celebration – a castrated rooster was not exactly a symbol their adopted country would relish. The main course of a real American Thanksgiving was supposed to be a Butterball turkey the size of a toddler, acquired not from Larry the local butcher, but from the supermarket, wrapped snugly in plastic with an additional plastic embedded thingie that popped up to tell you when the turkey was done.
Roasted potatoes were replaced by lumpy mashed ones, with skimpy amounts of milk that my mother added cautiously to the mix, since she considered milk to be borderline poisonous, and equally stingy amounts of butter (not quite poisonous, but suspect). Already-prepared, already-flavored stuffing came from a cellophane bag, cranberry sauce was pried from a can, the ridges still showing on its quivering, alien-like form, and mushy canned peas doctored with mushrooms and onions replaced the broccoli d’rabe with garlic. There was also canned gravy, since my family didn’t have a clue how to make gravy from the turkey. When we sat down to this meal, we finally had an American Thanksgiving, even if no one actually liked the meal and we all ate mostly the pasta my parents refused to give up instead of the actual turkey and trimmings.
We had a lot to be thankful for and we gave thanks for the bounty that was bestowed upon us in America then in that Camelot era, our aged grandfather the most fervently. An entire meal you could eat without teeth! Viva L’America!
This year my husband and I are hosting Thanksgiving dinner and I sent up a trial balloon to the rest of the family for a retro menu re-creating my parents’ pre-Butterball one. The pasta got no argument, but then it’s never been off-menu. And broccoli d’rabe was an easy concession. But the elders are all gone, save one aunt, and my younger brother and sister have only vague memories of the pre-American Thanksgiving. They and their non-Italian spouses and children demand the mashed potatoes and stuffing and gravy that they have always had on that day. Figs and nuts for dessert seem paltry to them, penitential even. The tortellini in brodo passed with a shrug, but I got outvoted on the bird: It will remain the big boring one. Anyway, I wouldn’t even know where to look for a castrated rooster these days.
Our good friend Dan Habib asked us to be a part of his new documentary on testing and disability. We were more than happy to be involved–testing was an important factor in our battle to get our son Jesse his basic civil rights, as outlined in my memoir, JESSE. Below is a preview of the film, which will have its premiere at Ashland Film Festival on April 12, 2018.
#BookClubDaily: In Marianne Leone‘s poignant memoir MA SPEAKS UP: And a First-Generation Daughter Talks Back, the acclaimed actress and author traces the life of her outspoken, frequently outrageous Italian immigrant mother.
“By turns tender and trenchant . . . a blisteringly honest account of the thorns and brambles that divided an immigrant Italian mama from her talented, truculent actress daughter.”
– Author Geraldine Brooks
Paired with: Ma’s “Meatless’ Lentil Soup (recipe in book).
“On Fridays, Catholics were supposed to abstain from eating meat. Strangely, this rule was observed by Ma, and her signature Friday dish was a delicious meatless lentil and tomato soup with her own hand-cut noodles. I couldn’t figure out why she obeyed this particular church rule, since she never allowed anyone to dictate culinary matters at our house and was the undisputed queen and absolute ruler of her kitchen. Even when my two aunts pitched in during elaborate holiday dinners, they were Ma’s acolytes, scurrying to chop vegetables at her bidding. Kids were banned outright. If Ma wasn’t following God’s command to go to church every Sunday, she would never allow Him to tell her how to run her kitchen. The unusual adherence to the no-meat rule remained a mystery for years.” – Marianne Leone
June 23, 2017
When I was seven, I worried day and night about my Italian mother’s immortal soul. Ma never went to Mass on Sundays, a mortal sin that condemned her to eternal punishment in the flames of hell, forgivable only by absolution from a priest. That’s what Sister Juventius said. And Sister Juventius knew all about sin. And hell. But Ma was a mangiaprete, an anti-cleric, who used Sunday Mass time to make the pasta I craved with a lust that bordered on the profane, making me complicit in her sin.
On Fridays, Catholics were supposed to abstain from eating meat. Strangely, this rule was observed by Ma, and her signature Friday dish was a delicious meatless lentil and tomato soup with her own hand-cut noodles. I couldn’t figure out why she obeyed this particular church rule, since she never allowed anyone to dictate culinary matters at our house and was the undisputed queen and absolute ruler of her kitchen. Even when my two aunts pitched in during elaborate holiday dinners, they were Ma’s acolytes, scurrying to chop vegetables at her bidding. Kids were banned outright. If Ma wasn’t following God’s command to go to church every Sunday, she would never allow Him to tell her how to run her kitchen. The unusual adherence to the no-meat rule remained a mystery for years.
A year and a half after my mother died, my husband and I and a couple of friends went to a tiny restaurant in one of the teeming alleyways of Naples, Italy. Multigenerational Neapolitan families crowded the murky space, babies wailing, cutlery thrown to the table by busy waiters, the ebullient babble of southern dialect rising above the steaming pasta. The waiter slammed acqua gasata on the table and thrust his chin out, waiting impatiently for our order. I got the lentil soup.
Upon my first mouthful of the soup, I burst into tears. It was the lentil soup of my childhood, the soup of all those meatless Fridays, the soup I had tried and failed many times to recreate. My friend asked for a taste. She savored the soup, then sat back and smiled. “You know why you could never figure out the recipe? There’s meat in the soup. Pork, I think.” I tasted it again. She was right.
I suddenly heard my mother’s voice. “Whadda those priests know about making a soup? You ken’ make a good soup without meat! So, I put in, I take out, now it’sa soup you ken eat onna Friday.”
Only she never took it out. There were the hair-like pork strands, visibly floating in the broth, just as they had in Ma’s Friday soup. I just never saw them.
Marianne Leone co-starred in The Sopranos as Christopher Moltisanti’s mother Joanne. She and her husband Chris Cooper established the Jesse Cooper Foundation to support disabled children in memory of their son (P.O. Box 390, Kingston, MA 02364). Her story is excerpted from her memoir Ma Speaks Up: And A First Generation Daughter Talks Back, published by Beacon Press.
2 ½ c. of white flour (or semolina if you can get it)
2 T. olive oil
Flour a wooden board.
Make a mound of the flour in the middle.
Make a cavity in the mound of flour, so it resembles Vesuvio.
Break the eggs into the cavity.
Add the olive oil.
Swirl the eggs, mixing them, then start to crumble the flour walls into the eggs.
Start kneading the dough, adding a little more flour if it’s too sticky.
Smooth the dough into a ball, and place in a bowl covered by a damp dishtowel. Let stand for about an hour.
Now place the dough again on the floured board.
Take your rolling pin (I favor a long, thin dowel), and begin rolling the dough flat, strewing flour as needed.
When the dough is leathery and very thin, roll it into a log like a jellyroll.
Cut the noodles into linguine size lengths, then shake them out and lay them to dry on more dishtowels.
“Gravy” (Tomato Sauce)
2 x 2 in. cube of salt pork
1 lb. pork butt
1 medium onion, diced
2 – 3 cloves of garlic, diced
2 28-oz.cans of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
red wine to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 T. each dried basil and oregano
pinch of dried mint
In a big pot over medium heat, place the salt pork.
When it has rendered its fat, add pork butt, onion, and garlic.
Brown the pork butt for at least 20 minutes, turning occasionally.
Put tomatoes through a food mill over the pan.
Add tomato paste plus one can of water.
Throw in a dollop of red wine. (Then later, after you’ve drunk some of the wine, throw in some more.)
Grind some pepper into the sauce, and add oregano and basil.
Simmer forever (about 2 hours at least), stirring occasionally.
Okay, The Actual Lentil Soup
2 c. lentils
1 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 – 3 cloves of garlic, minced
8 c. water
1 stalk celery, chopped fine
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1/4 c. chopped parsley
2 c. of the red sauce listed above
hand-cut noodles, listed above
grated Romano cheese, to taste
Rinse and drain the lentils, picking out any stones.
In a big pot, heat the olive oil, and add onion and minced garlic.
Sauté until translucent.
Add water, lentils, carrot, celery, and parsley.
Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 hours.
Add the tomato sauce.
Cook noodles separately and do not add until the last minute.
Serve with Romano cheese, crusty bread, and a hearty red.
Mini towers of books surrounding my bed and migrating to every nearby flat surface. Perils of being a….
“The curve of his lips was mesmerizing, and somehow familiar. I invited him to my apartment for dinner. He fixed my rickety table. We spent more and more non-scene study time together. He was diffident and took forever to kiss me.”
(from an essay going into TEEN IDOLS, edited by Elizabeth Searle)
Happy 34th anniversary to the man who took forever to kiss me. I hope we continue kissing forever.
Today JESSE will be published in Italy from Nutrimenti. The joy I feel at this thought is the same that I feel at the memory of Jesse laughing and laughing at the foot of Giordano Bruno in Camp di Fiori. I thought that Bruno was called a heretic. Jesse and I have (had?) spoken of heretics and the meaning of the word as “able to choose. Today, we choose joy. We have always chosen joy.
Oggi JESSE sarà pubblicato in Italia da Nutrimenti. La gioia che sento a questo pensiero è la stessa che sento al ricordo di Jesse che ride e ride ai piedi di Giordano Bruno a Campo de’ Fiori. Bruno era chiamato un eretico. Jesse ed io abbiamo parlato di eretici e dato a questa parola il significato di “poter scegliere” . Oggi, scegliamo la gioia. Abbiamo sempre scelto la gioia.