I'm 100-percent Italian. I'm first-generation American on my mom's side — my mom was literally born on the boat, giving the phrase "straight off the boat" new meaning — and third-generation American on my dad's side. Because of that, my dad's family is very "traditional American," whereas my mom's family is like the Italy Pride Parade, something I wasn't always proud of.
Particularly around this time of year, when everyone is prepping their Thanksgiving menus and choosing how many versions of mashed potatoes to serve, my family is ordering fresh manicotti — a rolled pasta stuffed with fresh cheese — to pick up the night before Turkey Day. Don't get me wrong, manicotti are delicious and we still make turkey (as you can see in the photo above), but for a long time when I was a kid, this pasta course and the other Italian dishes served during my family's Thanksgiving meal made me severely anxious.
In second grade, we discussed the pilgrims and Native Americans and their first Thanksgiving meal. We talked about what families now ate, including classics like stuffing, cornbread, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. We went around the room, and my friends raved about their mom's yummy green bean casserole or dad's famous turkey gravy. I'll never forget when it was my turn and I exclaimed, "My family makes pasta for Thanksgiving." I got blank stares and a stray stifled giggle from across the room. "You don't make green bean casserole?!" — it felt like I'd been shunned from elementary school coolness.
This was the first time I ever truly felt left out of something in grade school. I felt that being Italian was a flaw, rather than something to be celebrated.
Family traditions are sometimes difficult for children to understand — it can be hard for them to see the value in doing something with their family that brings everyone together in a unique way, especially when it's different than what the kids at school do with their families. I spent several years after the infamous Manicotti Overshare of '97 resisting my maternal side's family traditions, even begging my mom to spend holidays with my dad's side of the family in Connecticut so that I could have "a normal Thanksgiving meal" or a "regular Christmas Eve" — meaning a meal without seven fishes present.
Looking back now, I realize how much I probably hurt my mom's feelings, as well as the rest of her family. However badly my mom's feelings were hurt or however many times I complained about the food that was put in front of me, she never let me win. We kept our traditions as a family — clearly nothing was going to change because of a 7-year-old brat who wanted to fit in at school. She made me eat the pasta on Thanksgiving and the seven fishes on Christmas Eve and was not afraid to full-name me at maximum volume in front of everyone if I made a fuss.
Then one Thanksgiving, my grandma was in a rehab center after falling and dislocating her hip — that's when I realized what our traditions actually meant to me. Without my adorable little Sicilian grandmother there to make the manicotti, our Thanksgiving meal was, well, American. It was a great meal, but knowing that we were going on without her and without our traditions she brought over to this country really opened my eyes.
After that Thanksgiving, and as I got older, I started appreciating the little things my family does. Whether a tradition comes from your heritage, comes from your culture, or is just something out of a family member's brain that stuck, it's special because it's yours. Had someone sat me down and explained to me what the meaning of tradition is — how it's like you're in a little club — I think I might have gone back to that moment in second grade, found the little a-hole who giggled at me (I know it was you, Michael), and told him to shut up, because my family's manicotti tradition is just as cool as your mom taking the time to make your family's traditional fresh cranberry sauce.
My family thinks the canned version is better anyway, Michael — it's all relative.