It took exactly four hours. As my mother predicted. Four hours of kneading pasta, rolling it, cutting it, filling it and twirling the little buggers around my index finger, before placing them gently on a baking sheet. Four hours of hard labor and mind-numbing boredom, the tv humming in the background to offer some relief, the same exact way my mother does it.
Her tortellini season starts in early December and continues up until just about now: kilos upon kilos of the treasured delicacy that she prepares for both her family’s Christmas lunch and for those selected few who receive them as gifts. My sister and I had been talking for years about the need to learn how to make them the way our mother does so the taste of our childhood would not be lost forever when she leaves the planet. This year, I decided I would take a stab. Not that I ever thought I couldn’t do it, I just knew I couldn’t replicate them exactly because that perfection is reached only after years of practice. Might as well start.
Four hours and very many phone calls later (tell me again the meat ratio for the filling; how many eggs of pasta will that make?; do they lie flat in the freezer before bagging them?; how long do they cook?; you bought the wrong prosciutto, she scolded me at one point, from 6,000 miles away), I took pictures that were dispatched to my sister for our matriarch’s approval. The bottom line is that my first attempt was successful: the filling is not as good as my mother’s (I am handicapped by export grade ingredients) but the end result is miles above anything I could buy commercially and close to what she will be having on Christmas Day. The taste of my childhood and an enduring tradition finding its footing on the other side of the ocean.
As I was kneading, cutting and twirling (that’s the easy part, the one I learnt as a child), I found myself missing the raucous, Italian Christmases with the immense dining table populated by relatives I would see only once a year, and laden with too much food that could not be consumed in one sitting, three or four generations all talking over each other. A lunch stretching until long after the sun had set, trickling into an informal dinner when the table, scattered with Panettone crumbs and cracked walnut shells, was finally abandoned for a walk home, in the fog and the December chill.
I have been trying to create new traditions in my American house: two nights ago I lit the first candle on the menorah, I made challah and potato latkes but I also brought home the Christmas tree and a Pandoro. On Christmas day the table is always set with the same heavy red Russian linen tablecloth, the monogrammed silver and the precious china that comes out on special occasions. There will be a movie in the afternoon and everybody will compliment the food and will leave merry but, while washing the dishes, I will have to stave off the disappointment at my inability to recreate the organized chaos of my Italian Christmases of old. Which is unfair. On me and my guests.
Every year, though, I am getting closer. Adding a dish that cannot be found properly executed in the food mecca that is Los Angeles, is a momentous event, in my world at least. It’s the best gift I could give myself, the one I will remember ten years from now, at a table somewhere: “do you remember the first time I made tortellini?”.
And that is the essence of the season. Whether celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or the Winter Solstice, it’s a time to dust off whatever tradition, a remnant of our childhood or a new one created ad hoc along the way, to remind us that the real gifts are not to be found under a decorated tree, they are not tangible. The gifts are all those moments that will warm our hearts remembering them years from now – not the latest iPhone but the first stab at tortellini, a child’s wonder in front of his first tree, a group of strangers who went on to become friends, a memorable trip that lives on, not in photos or souvenirs, but in our imagination and our changed view of the world.
Pragmatically, this is my justification why I haven’t bought a single gift yet. I will, there will be some pretty packages under the tree. Still, the best gifts never require wrapping paper. Just a willing heart.