January. I always feel vaguely divided about this month, torn between liking the freshness of a new year and feeling somehow let down by the fact that the cozy, festive initial part of winter is already over while the colder, bleaker part of the season will be settling in for the next few months. January means that it’s time to box up the decorations, to start being productive again, to stop buying industrial quantities of panettone and then demolishing it all within a couple of days, and, in general, to stop eating all the time – a feat that feels sort of like plunging headfirst into cold water given that the holidays in Italy are more or less centered around food.
The entire month of December was a slow crescendo of holiday aperitivi, increasingly large dinners, panettone eaten in bed for breakfast and festive desserts baked and then sampled and then sampled again. It was a fairly gradual, subtle food creep, but by the time Christmas itself finally rolled around, food – its procurement, its preparation, and the actual act of eating it – had become the protagonist of the entire day.
The pinnacle of my holiday gluttony was la cena della Vigilia – Christmas Eve dinner – which we spent at Alessandro’s parents’ place. The first thing I noticed after walking into their apartment was the size of the dinner table, which was actually two tables shoved together and draped in matching blood-red tablecloths. It would have comfortably seated twelve, with room to spare – although we were a modest group of seven.
The need for extra space on the table soon became clear as Alessandro’s mother vanished into the kitchen and appeared a few minutes later holding a tray laden with various seafood-stuffed pastries. There was enough food to comfortably feed an entire family, but I got the impression that we were just getting started. After hovering near the foot of the table, wooden spoon in hand and forcefully encouraging everyone to take larger portions, she disappeared into the kitchen again. When she emerged, her arms were full of baskets of assorted fritti. Absurd amounts of fritti, actually. There were fried artichokes. Cheese-stuffed fried zucchini blossoms. Little pieces of radicchio fried into crispy chips. Broccoli, battered and fried. I took some of each. His mother urged me to take more.
This being a typical Italian dinner, the pasta was out next. A mountain of pasta, shimmering in olive oil and studded liberally with clams, mussels, and whole, head-on prawns staring up at me with what looked a lot like a challenge in their beady black eyes. All that other food had just been a preamble, the antipasti, the part that’s supposed to whet your appetite. My appetite was dead. Squashed. Buried under all those fritti. Alessandro, oblivious to this fact, slid a giant tangle of spaghetti in front of me. Ten minutes later, everyone but me had empty plates in front of them while I twirled and re-twirled the same few strands of spaghetti, shooting desperate glances at Alessandro while his dad asked me, concerned, if I hadn’t liked the pasta.
Then came the main course, baccalà, sticking firmly to the classic fish-for-Christmas-Eve tradition. And mere seconds after that was finished (somehow), the salad course, an intensely garlicky bowl of puntarelle, was plunked down on the table. Since there was no way of escaping, I ate, and then I ate more. And then, as I swore I’d never eat anything else ever again, the dessert – the cheesecake that I had baked and brought – was sliced and served with much fanfare. And I couldn’t exactly refuse to eat my own creation.
By the time the bottle of dessert wine made its way to the table, I felt like I had been eating for years, like I had just completed the marathon of Christmas dinners.
And that was just Christmas Eve. None of the other holiday dinners quite lived up to the stomach-expanding excesses of this one, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t pack a collective punch; on New Year’s Day, I woke up with a hangover, not from the prosecco but from the panettone.
So here we are in January, on the other side of the holiday season. Technically, there’s still Epifania – this Friday – left to go before the holiday season is officially over here. But I think I’m going to sit that one out: The holiday traditionally involves stockings stuffed with candy, which is the last thing I need right now. Our final panettone has just one slice remaining. There is salad and vegetable soup on the dinner menu for the foreseeable future. I have doubled my exercise regimen, which seems like a fair payment for all that holiday sugar, and I may never look at fried food the same way again. But all that aside, I came out of the holiday season feeling contented (if not about the state of the world at large, then at least about my own personal life), and, more importantly, eager to tackle the upcoming year. I’m ready for you, 2017.