Christmas day in Grotte, Sicily started like any other Christmas day – with pancakes and red pajamas.
I celebrated Christmas this year with cousins in Grotte, Sicily, the town where my mom was born. It’s also the town she left four years later when her parents decided that a better life awaited them in America.
My mom and I loved to celebrate Christmas, even with all the chaos that comes with it. I wonder what she would have thought of my walking around her town, hitting the Thursday morning outdoor market for last-minute gift ideas, walking by buckets of anchovies, mountains of green and black olives and piles of baccala’, the pungent, dried, salt-cured, Atlantic cod traditionally eaten during the holidays that she said used to stink up the house. She probably would have said, “Keep walking.”
She’d been back here a few times since 1937 and I’ve been here three times. The streets are steep and narrow (they seem like alleys to me) and the men still meet in the central piazza to talk and take a walk. Still, I hadn’t been here for Christmas and so this was going to be a new experience. There were stands and stars of white lights strewn over the main street and everyone was out buying Pandora cakes and loading up on cannoli shells. I know this because I was supposed to buy 20 shells at the store but they were all gone. On Christmas Eve. I guess we were a little late (we got them later at a pastry shop).
Now, back to the baccala’. I saw the cut-up fish soaking in a bucket of water in the kitchen for three days, which is the norm. Usually it’s eaten on Christmas Eve but I’m sure it’s eaten Christmas day too. Yes, it’s known for being a tad stinky. After Thursday night, I can say without any doubt that its reputation is well-earned. My cousin Venera fried it up in the basement of the house, far away from all of us on the first floor and the odor filled the stairwell. I was sitting at the dining room table when she came walking in carrying a bowl filled with the cooked pieces of fish. She was wearing what looked like a shower cap and apron. It was hilarious. And the fish was very good. And very salty. But very good.
Also on the menu were mpignolate, these wonderful confections made of flaky dough, rolled with onions and black olives and baked. Oh my, they were good. Then we had a sampling of Palermo street food, with some arancini (fried rice balls with cheese and ham in the center) and calzoni.
Then I remembered that we still had dessert on the way. But tonight we didn’t eat cannoli. Instead there were strawberries marinated in orange and maraschino juice, purciddati, which are fig-filled Sicilian cookies and a panettone made by a local bakery. We ended the evening playing a fun Bingo-ish game called Tombola and watching the Santa tracker on NORAD for five-year-old Chiara.
On Christmas morning, I found a surprise waiting for me outside my bedroom door – a new pair of red pajamas. The Cuffaro tradition is for the ladies to wear a headband of ornaments, put on great red lipstick to match their red pajamas and take a photo. Also, cousin Mariangela is in charge of making flapjacks from scratch. There’s no syrup or butter on the table, but there are jams and Nutella. Breakfast is relatively simple since lunch is pretty big around here on Christmas day.
We then head to the living room to find loads of wrapped presents under the tree and a letter from Santa. This letter is a year-in-review for the family and, from what I could understand, it’s pretty funny. Apparently Santa has been leaving letters on Christmas day for a while now. I think this is a terrific annual tradition and I hope Santa keeps doing it for many years to come.
By 2 p.m., I was sitting down at a table with 18 other people, extended family of the husband of my cousin (got that?) for a five-course lunch. Maybe it was six. I lost count. The best part of the day was not only the food, among which was bresaola, tortellini in broth, lasagne, cassata Siciliana, cannoli, but the lively non-stop conversation all around the table. Even when the volume went up a few decibels, I knew no one’s ire was up. This is just table conversation in Sicily. Did I understand all of it? Heck no.
But I was able to carry on conversations on my own. Thank you SAENA IULIA language school in Siena for helping me reach this point. I blended in, just like family.
What a wonderful Christmas. The day was terrific. After all of that delicious food and wine and coffee and after-dinner digestives (Averna, Sambuca) we sat around the table and just talked and later I went for a walk with cousin Gabriele when I shot a great sunset photo.
By 9 p.m., back at the homestead, Cousin Venera asked if I were hungry as we were getting ready to eat a light dinner. I was wondering if we’d have some more cannoli. I mean, they were there. I saw the shells. The filling is in the fridge. I passed this time but I don’t really see anything wrong with eating a cannolo for breakfast, do you?