Photo by Nicole Michalou

The recipes for family traditions often change with each generation. Traditions, in general, have changed with each generation.  The very elaborate Christmas dinners of my childhood have been replaced with less fussy traditions that allow women to enjoy family rather than be consumed with preparations of the big meal.  Growing up the preparations for the seven-fishes dinner would begin several days prior to sitting down at the table on Christmas Eve.   Today my family enjoys some of the traditional dishes, such as baked shrimp and pasta Milanese, but meats and many other “American” dishes have replaced all the fish.  Today’s dishes reflect how our family has grown and changed.

In my book Generations of Good Food, you will find recipes of many of the traditional Italian dishes that I grew up with.  I also offer recipes that reflect how my family traditions have changed over six generations.  Let’s look at a few.

Growing up, during the summer growing season, we were treated to Grandma Spano’s Eggplant Parmigiana (page 25.)  Her recipes for family traditions are engraved in our hearts and minds. After slicing, salting, and waiting for the eggplant to “bleed” she would make a pot of simple tomato sauce.  Her secret was after the sauce had cooked for about 45 minutes; she would add a bit of vinegar.  She would also brown several cups of breadcrumbs in a frying pan, remove them from the stove, add parsley, finely minced garlic, Romano cheese, salt, and pepper and set aside.  She fried the eggplant in small batches in olive oil.  Once they were all cooked, she would assemble each slice individually.  She would take a slice of eggplant, add a bit of crumbs along the slice, roll it lovingly, and place it in a large roasting pan with a layer of sauce on the bottom.  She would continue until all the eggplant were filled and rolled.  She would top it with the remaining sauce, crumbs, and another generous portion of Romano cheese.  It was baked in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.

Today, eggplant is roasted in the oven for 30 minutes with a small amount of olive oil drizzled on top to promote better health.  The sauce is the same quick, easy recipe as are the breadcrumbs.  The biggest difference today is rather than roll the slices individually we just layer the eggplant, breadcrumbs, sauce, and cheese.  The end result is the same, but fewer hours are spent in the kitchen in preparation.

Growing up for holidays there were always piles of Pizzelles, that delectably sweet Italian wafer cookie The recipe for family traditions of that great cookie is on page 77.  My mother had a pizzelle iron that made one cookie at a time over the gas stove flame.  Keep in mind that a full batch of pizzelles makes 12 dozen cookies and she would make several throughout the holiday seasons between Thanksgiving and Easter.  The recipe is the same.  Today, however, we have electric pizzelle makers that whip out two or four cookies at a time.  I can make half a batch of pizzelles in 90 minutes from the time I pull out the mixer and flour.

The traditional large Sunday family gatherings are a memory in most quadrants of this country. Why?   Families consist of two wage earners and kids who are involved in sports, music, and other outside activities.  The weekend is the only time they can spend time together or take care of shopping and household chores.  Family dinners require an entire afternoon – at a time when time is a precious commodity.  Today families gather during the holidays when time is reserved solely for family and not other pursuits.  The times together are far more enjoyable and catching up on each other’s lives takes on a new meaning with new recipes for family traditions evolving. 

In addition, when children marry the consideration splits between one family or that of the spouse.  When I was young my brothers, who were both older and married.  The decision was for my family to host Christmas Eve and Palm Sunday leaving Christmas Day and Easter Sunday to the in-laws.  That was a good resolution for everyone.  What occurred in my household was that mom, dad and I would often spend holidays with my aunts and uncles.  In the summer there was always a huge family gathering at the farm where I grew up. Everyone brought food and drinks, a big potluck.  The day was spent gathered sitting at tables set up under huge trees eating and visiting.  Today we still gather in that manner at my brother’s home.  The day is spent in and around the pool, or on the patio, everyone contributes to the meal.

Traditions change with the generations.  Recipes have become simpler with the same great taste because we have so many more time saving interventions.  Life is still focused on family.  Women are no longer tied to the kitchen, but rather can be part of the festivities.  We will hope to carry on these traditions of gathering long after we are gone.

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