In anticipation of Thanksgiving, The New York Times printed a state-by-state rundown of favorite dishes that might grace those holiday tables. As a half-Italian person who grew up in New Jersey, I was glad to see the entry for that state included baked manicotti. The writer of that piece states, “For many Italian-American families, in New Jersey and elsewhere, the Thanksgiving smorgasbord doesn’t feel quite right without a little touch of red sauce.”
Thanksgiving, Jeff Gordinier points out, “also represents an American expression of abbondanza, the Italian concept of too-muchness that makes a meal feel epic.”
The manicotti recipe sounds lovely, made as it is with crepes rather than pasta to make it lighter and less filling. I will try it sometime. But not at Thanksgiving. My family’s tradition calls for lasagne, made in as close an approximation as possible to my grandmother’s, and served as a first course prelude to everything else.
If you happened to drop in to my grandparents’ house in the days preceding any major holiday, you’d find Grandpa spreading sheets of paper over the high back wooden chairs that would then be covered with strips of pasta dough that he took from Grandma as she finished making them. The fresh dough would be allowed to dry and then be assembled into layers with cheese (ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan) and homemade tomato sauce. When the day of the dinner arrived, the oversized iron stove fairly glowed, filling the house with an assortment of delectable aromas. Once everyone was seated at the long dining room table, the baked lasagne was brought in and placed before Grandpa who cut the first square and declared it “a perfect brick,” just the right consistency of layered pasta, cheese and sauce.
Grandma’s lasagne was incomparably delicious, and unsuspecting newcomers to the holiday table gladly accepted offers of second helpings. Then, to their dismay, came the rest of the meal: the meat (which type dependent on the holiday), potatoes, vegetables, assorted relishes, bread and finally, a simple lettuce salad dressed with oil and lemon juice. Dessert was also fairly simple because cake would be served later at a follow-up supper.
Ed and I have continued the lasagne tradition at all our holiday dinners. It came in handy when increasingly more diners were vegetarians; you knew they wouldn’t go hungry if they passed on the turkey, roast beef or ham. But I’ve never been able to figure out how Grandma managed to put together the follow-up supper, even though it consisted of little more than sliced meat and cheese, bread and crackers – and cake. One gargantuan meal is the most we can pull off in a day.