Tevye sings about it in the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof.
And the Benedetti’s live and breathe it every holiday.
Christmas Eve in our family means a traditional meatless dinner of fish and spaghetti. Christmas day you make lasagna and you carefully shape and fry the meatballs for the lasagna. It doesn’t matter that the meatballs are pulverized beyond recognition before you put them into the lasagna.
You mold and cook the meatballs before you cut them up. Period. You don’t mess with tradition.
So, one year when I was just a wee one and watching my Nonnie make meatballs for our Christmas meal, I asked her, “Nonnie, why do you roll up the meat and fry it, and then turn around and smush it all up before you make the lasagna?”
My Nonnie, never one to waste words when she didn’t have to, slowly bent her balding gray head to peer over her Ben Franklin glasses and said, “Lucie, non-ja bother Nonnie right now. I’m a busy makin’ a meat-ta-balls. Go outside and make-a-ta-snowman.”
Years go by and I’m watching my Mom make lasagna one holiday. She makes the meatball mixture, gets out a small cast iron frying pan, puts some olive oil in it, and starts heating the pan to fry the meatballs.
I decide to bring up the meatball question again and ask my Mom, “Why such a small frying pan, Mom, for so many meatballs?”
“Because, Lucie,” she says. “You want the meatballs to fry evenly and you don’t want to waste olive oil.”
By this time, I’m in college and have some education under my belt, so I ask her, “Ma, why waste time, energy and olive oil? Can’t you just make a big meatball patty, fry it up in a Teflon pan, not use any olive oil and have a healthier meatball mixture for the lasagna? It doesn’t make sense to spend all that time making meatballs and then break them apart for the lasagna.”
“Cazzo (Ot-so!), Lucie!” Mom responds. “You drive me nuts. Ya wanna leave me alone and go put up some Christmas decorations?”
Eventually, I move out to CA from my home in upstate NY and start my own Christmas traditions and decide to make lasagna for my friends. I’m prepping the lasagna in advance, so I can just pop it into the oven on the night I serve it, and I catch myself standing over a small frying pan; carefully turning the meatballs in the olive oil. Suddenly, it dawns on me, “Cazzo! I’m doing the same damn thing my mother and Nonnie did for years. What the heck is wrong with me?”
Today I’m old and balding like my mother and Nonnie before me, and I’m making lasagna like tradition dictates, but my meatball mixture is frying up as one monster pancake in a large Teflon pan as I write this. And the last time I tested it, the meatball tortilla tasted just as good as Mom’s and Nonnie’s.
Traditions are important. Carefully woven, they make a family a family, and certainly make for good memories and storytelling. Sometimes, though, traditions need to be tweaked, or we need to start a new one.
This was one of those times.
Hopefully, Nonnie’s looking down from the heavens – over those silly Ben Franklin glasses of hers and grinning from ear to ear – watching her pesky granddaughter still carrying on a Benedetti tradition; a tradition slightly tweaked, but a tradition steeped in love and years of family history.
Have a great Christmas, People, and a blessed, healthy New Year, and I’ll catch ya the next time, looking at life from my shoes.