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Lasagna or pumpkin soup for Thanksgiving?

Every Thanksgiving, it used to be that we had, like a good Italian-American household, first the pasta dish and then the meat dish. Thanksgiving being Thanksgiving, that was time for my mother’s lasagna.

Now, I know that everyone claims that they, or their mother, or their Aunt Annunziata makes the best lasagna, but it is an undisputed truth — no, in fact, it is a universal scientific LAW — that my mother, Christine, makes The Best Lasagna. My wife, it is true, comes close, but she is heavily disadvantanged in that she was born in Northern Italy (Padova), instead of southern Italy (where my family comes from) and uses besciamella and porcini mushrooms instead of tomato sauce, sausage and ricotta. I understand that she is disabled in this regard, and that Northern Italians such as she can’t appreciate the subtle elegance of San Marzano tomatoes with pasta, but I love her and married her for better or for worse — even in spite of such flaws. (I will quietly admit that her lasagna — or “pasticcio”, as these funny Northern Italians call it — is rather tasty.)

So you would think that on Thanksgiving, in light of such culinary talent, that we would have the typical Thanksgiving meal. But NOOOO. In the last 5 to 7 years or so, both my mother and my wife have conspired to replace the lasagna — that most Thanksgiving of all Thanksgiving foods — for something altogether different. Believe it or not, they prefer to substitute lasagna for (dare I say it?) pumpkin soup. One Thanksgiving some time ago, there was simply no lasagna at all.

Many of us protested. What kind of example are we setting for the little ones at the table who are so impressionable? It just wasn’t right.

The counter argument (weak, I know) went something like this: “It’s what the Pilgrims ate.” My response was swift: What did they know anyways? They got kicked out of every country they lived in and instead of going someplace cool like Boston or Provincetown or Block Island, they went to Plymouth, of all places. I mean, other than visiting some famous rock, what is there to do in Plymouth? And it’s not like they were “foodies.” No WONDER they ate pumpkins.

The following years, there was a compromise in our house. The 20 or so people seated around the table could choose: either a plate of lasagna or plate of the pumpkin stuff. Some people, strange as that may seem, chose the soup. I’m not sure if it was out of pity, politeness or genuine preference. If the latter, well, as my Grandpa Pell used to say: for every seat there is an ass-ignment. (I added the “ignment” to my Grandpa’s quote, in order to appease the censors).

Every day, I hear from my patients about their family’s Thanksgiving culinary traditions, and I wonder if I am limiting myself by focusing on the lasagna. My patients, being of a beautiful ethnic diversity, eat all kinds of different things that sound terrific: Collard greens with fatback. Fesenjan. Stuffed grape leaves. Pasteles. Macaroni and cheese. Pupusas. Chitlins (which sound unappetizing given that I don’t like animal organs, but one of my patients — a woman I trust implicitly — assures me that Chitlins are delicious).

Now, when the Pilgrims were sitting down with the gracious Wampanoags who taught them how not to starve that first year, they no doubt felt their foods to be pretty exotic (Europe didn’t even have turkeys or tomatoes or potatoes until brought back from the new world). The coolest part of Thanksgiving is that two groups of people from opposite ends of the ocean sat down together and fused their cultural differences in the making of a meal. That was a pretty auspicious start to a melting-pot nation that I, for one, am grateful for.



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