AURORA – Thanksgiving was always a big deal when I was a kid.
We grew up in central Massachusetts about 50 miles from Plymouth, the homeland of the big meal. My Austrian-born dad and first generation Sicilian-American mom loved Thanksgiving because it was a truly American holiday that celebrated freedom. Later I came to realize that “our Indian friends” had been invaded and would be subject to genocide and the Pilgrims mainly wanted religious freedom for Pilgrims.
My early Thanksgivings with our Italian relatives featured the standard turkey, yams, etc., plus a pasta dish involving marinara and cheese and also kielbasa and sauerkraut for my Polish-American uncles.
Almost every year for several decades I’ve hosted a Thanksgiving feast for family and friends. Next Wednesday, as on every Thanksgiving Eve, I’ll make our family’s traditional turkey stuffing. My sister Lisa will join me, but for the first time in 18 years my son Hans won’t be there to do the heavy lifting because he’s off at college.
My grandmother, Vincenza “Nanna” Mazzola, grew up in Sicily and never saw a turkey until she arrived in Connecticut. She got her stuffing recipe from a French woman who talked about stuffing poultry with a mixture of sausage and potatoes. So Nanna took some of the Italian sausage my grandfather made in his market downstairs and added it to mashed potatoes.
It must have been an immediate hit because she taught my mom, Rose, how to make it and I learned how to make it as I sat in the kitchen peeling potatoes. That’s how this multi-national dish became as vital a part of our family history as the stories about how Mom and Dad met.
There never has been a recipe for Italian sausage and potato stuffing, but here’s how we make it.
We begin with a mix of potatoes, some red-skin boilers, some Idaho bakers and maybe a few Yukon Golds. That way the stufffing has both smooth mashers and chunks. The dining room table where we’ll dine the next day is covered with newspapers before we start peeling. The spuds are tossed in a large soup pot that was Nanna’s, rinsed in cold water, and then boiled until tender but not too mushy.
How many potatoes depends on how much stuffing you want. We always do at least five pounds so that there are lots leftover.
In my one huge cast iron frying pan that gets used once a year, we crumble good sweet and hot Italian sausage dotted with red pepper flakes and fennel seed which gets fried just until the pink is gone.
The spuds are drained and the potato water gets saved to make rich turkey soup. They get added to the pan with the sausage and a bunch of butter, sage and other green herbs, and then the carpal tunnel-inducing stirring/mashing process begins.
At a certain undetermined moment we decide it’s ready to taste which leads to a debate involving Italian hand gesticulations, some quite rude. I say it needs more butter and black pepper. She says it needs more sausage and broth. After tweaking we eventually re-taste. It’s done when our eyelids flutter above satisfied smiles and we are in Mom’s kitchen again.
Thanksgiving morning I’ll fill the bird and tuck it in the oven. The stuffing will emerge from the turkey glistening with turkey essence.
This tradition has survived a half century because this stuff is incredible tasty, addictively so. I’ll freeze numerous packets so that when my son comes home we can have a holiday meal and become one with the stuffing again.
El Rico Dicho was opened recently at 10400 E. 6th Ave. by Erick Rojos, owner of El Camaron Loco. The location is the former home of Chef’s Noodle House and Tao Tao Noodle. The menu includes burritos, gorditas, sopes, menudo and discada.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
“Candy might be sweet, but it’s a traveling carnival blowing through town. Pie is home. People always come home.” – From “Pushing Daisies,” the short-lived, pie-centric TV series.
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