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One Italian food cookbook author wrote that so much sociology could be read from cuisine. If that is true, the Neapolitan side of my family and their Christmas Eve feast is a study in how chaos transforms into divine creations that form connections that bind.
Italian Christmas Eve in my family is a frenetic, chaotic time of exotic smells combined with the cacophony of adult and children's voices.
All of this once was tempered by the slow, deliberate rhythm of my grandmother Philomena, who into her 90s bent over the spent iron stove, pacing the pouring of ingredients into pots, tasting, and serving up a feast of exotic and timeless dishes: baccala salad, fried baccala, stuffed calamari, eel, eggplant parmagiana, stuffed peppers, shrimp and scallops, pasta with calamari, pasta aioli, stuffed artichokes, and -- if there were time -- Christmas Eve Pasta with olives, pine nuts and tomatoes.
On this night, my grandmother served this cucina Italiana that her mother had served, and her mother before her. None of the recipes were written down. But each dish was served as the year before, and folded into each one was my grandmother's unfailing love.
My French friend and fellow food enthusiast, Christine, remarked to me once, "The love energy that we put into food is the most important ingredient of all." I believe that.
My grandmother infused love into each dish on Christmas Eve. Through this offering, we received enough love to carry us through the New Year into whatever life presented for us. It was a love that says, "Whatever happens in your life, sit, take time to eat as your ancestors before you, and feel grounded and whole."
This Christmas Eve ritual lights up my ancient soul with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, connections and memories of a known antiquity. Food writer Marlena De Blasi describes how the Neapolitans liken the tomato "to their own hearts, its seeds to their security and its potency to their own sensuality."
These Christmas Eve dishes form one of the seeds of my own and my family's security. They are a gift of tradition that was served each year by an Italian-American woman whose own ballast always was love of la famiglia, no matter what. Her cooking created a blanket of tastes, textures and smells. By combining ingredients such as garlic, raisins, pine nuts, capers, lemon, olives, and parsley she produced an atmosphere that envelops us in well being.
What rituals in your life shape your security and sensuality? What traditions or activities speak to your soul and connect you with the larger family of humanity? Perhaps this thought is a jump from eating stuffed squid. But these traditions and rituals of food that have survived generations, ocean crossings, losses and regenerations are to be reckoned with and ultimately given the respect they deserve as an important foundation of family and community life.
What do you value and how can this lead you through both the light and dark in your life toward the transcendent?
Some who have eaten this pasta call it "soul food." I serve this pasta dish now on any occasion, year-round. Like my grandmother said, "Eat! No matter what happens, eat and enjoy."
Philomena's Christmas Eve Pasta
Don't allow anchovies to intimidate you. They disintegrate into the oil and all that's left is a delicious, subtle, earthy (and important to the integrity of this pasta!) taste. I have served this to those who say they do not like anchovies and they have loved it.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 can anchovies, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1-pound can whole Italian tomatoes in juice
1-pound can tomato puree
1/2 cup pine nuts, roasted until light brown in a small skillet
1 cup raisins
1 can medium pitted black olives, sliced
1 pound cappellini pasta (angel hair)
Heat olive oil in a large skillet or pot. Add oil from can of anchovies. Chop anchovies into small, 1/4-inch slices. Add slices to pot and turn heat on medium. Cook about 3 minutes. Anchovies should start to melt. Add chopped garlic. Cook three minutes longer, or until garlic bubbles.
Prepare tomatoes by pouring into a bowl and squishing them with your hands, breaking up the clumps into small pieces. Add this sauce and the puree to the pot. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the roasted pine nuts and raisins. You can add pepper here for taste, if you wish. Cook 20 minutes longer.
Add sliced olives. Cook sauce for 5 minutes longer. (Do not overcook sauce with olives added, as they will discolor the sauce.)
Cook pasta in 4 quarts of salted boiling water. Cook following the pasta box directions -- usually 4 to 5 minutes (or until al dente). Drain pasta.
Place 1/3 of sauce into a large, wide pasta serving dish (or you can use individual serving plates if you mix the pasta and sauce in a large pot). Add pasta and slowly turn the pasta with a pasta server fork to integrate sauce into pasta. Keep adding sauce and turning until all pasta is covered with sauce. Cappellini absorbs sauce, so it may take a few minutes to mix sauce and pasta together. You can add Parmegiano cheese or Romano cheese if you prefer.
-- Rosemarie Perla
Rosemarie Perla (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an executive coach and consulting psychologist in Lawrenceville. Her grandmother, Philomena Miele Vicker, died in 2005 at the age of 93. Ms. Perla continues to cook Philomena's recipes with her cousins on Christmas Eve in her aunt's basement in Penn Hills. This essay originally was published at inmamaskitchen.com and a version appeared in Table magazine in 2007.