This week I’m pleased to participate in a blog share with Sarah White. I met Sarah this summer when I took her Remember to Write! memoir workshop. We agreed on the topic of Family Holiday Recipe. Sarah came up with the topic after reading a colleague’s blog post.
My post about some family recipe books I received will appear on her blog True Stories Well Told. Enjoy Sarah’s post below. This was a fun topic to write about. If you are moved to write about it on your own blog, let me know in the comments.
My First Bernardi-Zajac Christmas
By Sarah White
Bruno Bernardi always hosted Christmas Eve dinner at his house in Hinsdale.
I couldn’t even tell you what the outside looked like, since we pulled up in the dark, Jimmy and me seated like children in the back of his brother Jan’s Cadillac, hot dishes balanced on our knees. We entered through the garage into a kitchen full of bustling women. Beyond that was a dining room tricked out in Venetian mirrors, the kind with silver and gold tracing across like a sky full of lightning. All the furniture was white and spindly, the effect somehow both upscale and tacky. We left our parkas on the dining room table and added our party’s shopping bags full of presents to the overflowing piles.
“You should have warned me to bring something!” I said to Jimmy.
This was 1982, and my first time visiting his Chicago family for the holidays.
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied.
We headed back through the busy kitchen to descend a white wrought-iron staircase to the basement. Delicious food aromas surrounded us.
At the immediate foot of the staircase the Venetian décor continued. Some women were making small talk while their toddlers played around a silver Christmas tree with a rotating color wheel at its base. We bustled past them, arms full of hot dishes.
Beyond was a Jungle Room straight out of Graceland. Grass-cloth covered the walls. Leopard print upholstered the low sectional sofas and ottomans. A tiki-hut roof covered a full bar along the right wall. Behind the bar was our host, Jan’s father-in-law Bruno Bernardi, mixing drinks.
Along the back wall of the Jungle Room stretched at least twenty feet of dinner table, patched together from folding tables, and behind that was a matching twenty feet of buffet. We jockeyed enough space to set down our casseroles.
Clumps of Zajacs, Surmas, and Bernardis clustered here and there around the large room. Bruno filled drink orders. Wine flowed like water; whiskey flowed like wine. Food smells and ladies’ perfume mingled with conversation and cigarette smoke.
I think I was the first girl Jimmy had ever brought home from college, and everyone wanted to meet me, especially Uncle Wally, the priest, Jim’s favorite relative. While Jimmy caught up with his brothers, Wally cornered me. Balding and stocky, formal in his priestly collar and black suit, he barked odd, penetrating, questions. Clearly he was vetting me as Jimmy’s potential mate.
Jim rescued me, steering us to the bar to try a special appetizer that Rena and Husky always brought. I shook hands with this elderly couple as Jim introduced us: Husky had been Bruno’s business partner in an Italian delicatessen. Lacking family of their own, Husky and Rena joined the Bernardi Christmas gathering every year.
Rena leaned toward me.
“Don’t forget to have kids,” she said. “Without them, you have nothing.”
“Nothing,” Husky echoed.
Failing to think of a response to that, I reached for the appetizer—pizza cut in small squares, topped with a smear of tomato sauce and yellow rings of banana peppers. Too hot for me, I barely controlled the urge to spit it out.
This time rescue came in the form of the call to table.
This basement featured a second full kitchen behind the tiki bar, and from here family completed the last of the food staging. We all—how many of us were there? At least thirty?—filed past the parade of Italian and Polish fare. We filled our plates, judging what to take now and what might be left for a second pass. I grew up in a Hoosier culture cleansed of its ethnic roots. My people ranked abstinence a virtue and gluttony a sin. In all my life, I’d never seen anything even close to this abundance.
Cards dictated the seating, arranged roughly from oldest to youngest. At our place slightly right of center (under thirty), I found myself next to Juan Pablo, the Brazilian boyfriend of one of Jimmy’s cousins. I was grateful for his company, another outsider. But there was little talking now, as knives and forks deployed against the onslaught of food.
Italian antipasto—pints and pints of it. Turkey, ham, a salmon, Bruno’s handmade sausage. Several kinds of stuffing. Cranberry salad, sautéed vegetables, potatoes both mashed and fried. And the desserts! Cookies—amaretti, biscotti—cakes—panetone, apple walnut—but above all, Aunty Mary’s grustali.
Grustali is a pastry made by rolling an eggy dough through a pasta machine until you have thin, silky sheets. Cut these into ribbons. Slit each and slip on end through the slot to form a “knot.” Fry quickly in hot Crisco, then drain on paper towels in a big flat box—the kind a sheet cake might come in, or a nice dress. When ready to serve, dust with confectioner’s sugar.
In the family cookbook, Debbie wrote: Mary and Gloria made hundreds every holiday season. The tell-tale signs of powered sugar were on everyone as we enjoyed these wonderful treats.
After Bruno’s divorce some ten years later, the party moved to other homes. The foods are still the same—and the abundance—but the ambiance of Bruno’s Jungle Room will never be matched. Or the amazement of a newcomer seeing her first truly over-the-top foodie celebration.
Jimmy and I did forget to have children. He will never sit in the patriarch’s chair at a Christmas dinner like Bruno.
Will we come to feel like Rena and Husky, that “we got nothing,” when we fill out the scene at other families’ gatherings?
That is up to us, isn’t it.
About Sarah White
Sarah White made her publishing debut in the 1990s with books for business owners on advertising and marketing, then shifted her focus to helping individuals write their memoirs and family histories. As a freelance writer, she serves individuals, families, businesses, and communities, and teaches reminiscence writing workshops.