My family was one big walking Italian cliché over the holidays. We had 3 pies, 2 trays of cookies, and a bowl of red grapes for dessert ... for 12 people. We discussed making homemade ricotta for ravioli, as we sopped up leftover red sauce with Italian bread. We debated Aunt Marion’s meatball recipe: parsley or no parsley? We drank Chianti.
My mother even saved the red and white string I used to wrap gifts because it reminded her of the stuff they used to package old fashioned baked goods—which she'd walk to fetch for her grandmother—at Harrison Bakery, in Syracuse. (Which, truthfully, I bought because it reminded me of the string used to tie up boxes of cannoli at Modern Pastry in the North End—Boston’s version of Little Italy.) In short, we all but broke out singing "Dominick the Donkey."
But it really hit home just how Italian my family was when I broached the tradition of making lentils on December 31st each year. Italians believe that eating lentils on New Year’s Eve provides luck for the year ahead. Since lentils are shaped like little coins and are often green in color, it’s said that they signify good fortune: a legume-backed insurance policy of sorts. And so growing up, my mother would make us lentil soup at the start of every year.
This year at the Christmas table, my grandmother piped in to say she still made lentil soup, as did my aunt, and my mom’s cousin: a tradition that my great grandmother brought over from Italy, 98 years ago.
I learned that long before I was born, it was also tradition for my grandmother to (try) to avoid the lentil soup if there was garlic in it (she doesn’t like it). My great grandmother would then enact her deny, deny, deny garlic-in-the-soup policy until someone inevitably found a large chunk. (I imagine she must have felt like her hands were tied, being handed a garlic restriction: why bother to cook at all?) She’d shrug, wrinkle her nose, and act confused as to how—precisely—the garlic got there. But she knew exactly how.
And how can you mess with a stubborn tradition like that? Though, in the interest of full disclosure, staying in on New Year’s Eve to make lentil soup—instead of drinking champagne and wearing an obnoxious amount of sequins—sounded downright depressing this year. So for good measure, I made sure to get my lucky lentils in on the eve of New Year’s Eve at Addis Red Sea, an Ethiopian restaurant in Boston’s South End. You just can’t take any chances when it comes to an entire year of prosperity. And the lentils they served were all I had hoped for: spicy and a refreshing change of pace, just what I wish 2011 to be.
But being a bit of a traditionalist—and a bit superstitious—I made sure to whip up a pot of lentil soup this week. Just in case. It couldn’t hurt to have a little added insurance; a little extra lentil currency to ensure good fortune and most definitely, unabashedly, some garlic in the coming year.