An Italian Story: The day in December that I make tortellini is a highlight and a relief. A highlight, because warm memories of four generations I’ve shared the tradition with come tumbling into my head with every gentle push of the rolling pin; a relief, because no matter what holiday calamity that may occur, we will have tortellini for Christmas Eve supper.
Last summer, my niece Ansley forwarded a link to an NPR show discussing tortellini—and the legend that the dumpling was inspired by Venus’ navel. Google “tortellini NPR” and you can read or listen to it too.
As romantic as Venus is, I’m just not getting the navel image. To me, a tortellini looks like a miniature turkey—you could place it on a platter the size of a half-dollar and re-create Thanksgiving in a dollhouse. A belly button? I don’t think so.
When I was old enough to stand, I watched my Italian grandmother Nene roll out the egg pasta by hand. The filling starts with a whole chicken in pot water with herbs, celery, garlic, etc. The cooked meat is ground and mixed with eggs, chopped parsley, grated Parmesan cheese, and a dusting of freshly ground nutmeg.
As a youngster, my first job was making balls of the filling and placing them on the squares of pasta Nene cut with a fluted pastry wheel. The palms of your hands can get sticky when you do this and if you’re 5, you may need to lick them. Ah, Nene was a woman of patience!
Then she would fold, pinch, and twist each tortellino like a master. Both my parents took over for Nene when she visited the great pasta-maker in the sky, and I passed on the loving tradition to my children.
This year, I tried to make it festive with a Trans-Siberian Orchestra CD playing it the background. But it was a solo project, with my mother observing but not comprehending.
What are you doing?
They’re chicken dumplings we put in broth for Christmas Eve dinner.
It hurt having to explain. And, to be frank, made me angrier than I should be while making tortellini. Where are Nene’s patience genes?
I should have expected it. Just days before I found a bath towel hanging on the oven door. I was horrified. I snatched the towel and took it into the guest bathroom where it belongs. It’s not that I’m a stickler for propriety, but my mother was. She was such a gracious hostess and woman-about-the-kitchen. It is the nuances of the disease that stab my heart.
I placed the tortellini on a wax-paper-lined cookie sheet to slide into freezer. That way the dumplings freeze individually, so when you bag them, they stay separate.
Are you getting ready to bake them?
No, we boil the frozen tortellini in broth on Christmas Eve.
Out slipped the tears. I wiped my cheeks with the back of my wrist. I took a deep breath and heard Nene calling from a hazy past: “Tears sweeten the broth.”
A Polish Story: The beauty of living in State College is that eventually, everyone seems to come to town. In the last several weeks, I’ve seen three of my former swim coaches—two of whom I haven’t seen for decades.
My mom and I met Coach Sue for coffee the other day before she headed back to New York. We were catching up on careers and kids. Sue was a PE instructor at West Point for 30+ years. I told her that my mom taught art at State College High School for just a few years but touched so many lives. When we go out to her favorite breakfast place—The Waffle Shop—we always seem to run into a former student with a story to tell. One woman said she was still mad at my mom for making the class memorize the spelling of her last name—Wrobleski—when just a few months into the school year she married and her name switched to Fedon.
Sue lit up and said, “Are you any relation to Victor Wrobleski?”
Our eyes widened. That was her father’s name, and her brother’s—Victor Valentine Wrobleski.
Her nephew—VV Wrobleski.
Sue remembered him—a swimmer, blond, powerfully built—and the name Wrobleski. So, I emailed cousin VV and linked the two of them.
“Oh, the world is too small!! It’s taken about 35 years for this to come full circle!
“Victor, I was the Women’s Swim coach and I taught in the Department of Physical Education (DPE – the cadets still call it “The Department with a Heart”) when you were on the swim team. I taught Swimming, Gymnastics, Aerobics, Ice Skating (all the “Leotard Sports” as I call them)…I was just one of the new instructors, probably just one level above a plebe! The Women swimmers were all Walk-Ons back then, so we tried our best to help them improve.
“I remember that you worked really hard, and I also remember being sad that you left. (Victor failed English and transferred to West Virginia University.) But at the time I knew that leaving West Point was probably as hard as entering West Point. It’s funny what things you remember. I probably couldn’t tell you the names of any of the men on the swim team back then without looking up their names, but for some reason I remember yours. Maybe because it’s not “Smith”?
“So great to close the loop!”
May your holidays be filled with memorable stories. Laurie Lynch