Last year I wrote about the Vaudo clan’s annual pre-Lenten Carnevale meal – a daylong event attended by over 60 people spanning five generations. This year I had the honor of participating in the meal at the invitation of Tommy and Rita Damigella. Held at their lovely home in Topsfield, Massachusetts, the gathering was an experience of a lifetime that brought back memories of my own past family meals and thoughts about the future of Italian and Catholic traditions.
As you may recall, the Vaudo meal tradition was brought over from Gaeta, Italy, by Salvatore and Anna Vaudo and has been held since the 1930s, growing as the family grew. The sumptuous meal centers on homemade ravioli, sausage, meatballs (hundreds of them!), salad, and broccoli rabe, topped off by a magnificent dessert.
The meal was elegant and exquisite, yet simple and relaxed. And the eating of it was as much a performance as a culinary act, because there is just something about the energy and vitality of an Italian meal that words can only approximate. It is loud but not deafening, clamorous but never rowdy. Happiness and joy pervade, and conversation and consumption occur simultaneously, one the inseparable and life-long friend of the other. Deep emotions are felt and expressed, but always and inevitably tempered by the Italian food, whose simplicity and perfection are world renowned. This meal was all of these things.
What makes this occasion magical is the celebration of a long and still evolving Italian family tradition. The meal begins with Tommy’s introductory welcome to the family and friends in attendance, reminding them about family bonds as well as the need to preserve the bond to Italian identity and culture. The main meal follows.
Then, between the meal and dessert, other events occur. There is the long-standing reciting of family history by Rita’s mother Jo in the form of song whose choral refrain — which I reproduced last year — is sung by all; and there is the telling of Grandpa Jack’s famous donkey joke. Another addition is the tradition of ‘passing the wreath’ – a gaudy Christmas wreath given as a gift to a family member in the past, and now passed along to one segment of the family to hold for the coming year. The wreath passing ritual has itself evolved into its own dramatic event: a reading of the wreath’s history, the rules for its transmission, and a witty – and not always factual account – of the wreath’s past year. So just like the family history, the story of the wreath – like all good traditions – grows and changes from year to year. Some years, such as this one, other events may be noted or marked between the courses. This year it was to honor the anniversary of a marriage, accompanied by a cake, toasts, and stories.
From reading above, you can sense the warmth and closeness of this five-generation-long family. I quickly felt an integral part of it, both because they made me feel so at home, so much a part of them, but also because it was so familiar to me, having grown up in a large Italian family. My family dinners were a bit smaller (about 25 of us), but they were every bit as Italian, every bit as full of love. I’m proud to say, also, that I was somewhat of a guest of honor because of my previous story. Tommy made bound copies, which he asked me to sign; and I even made it into the family song this year – truly an honor for me.
What struck me most about the event was how it showed the persistence of Italian identity and customs, and also of family unity and mutual support as well. There were many children there of all ages, and most of the adult participants had been attending all of their lives. Some of the adults recalled their evolving awareness of the significance of this meal in and for their lives: as children it was a fun family get-together; as adults, it is a deeply meaningful celebration of family and identity.
The Vaudo clan’s Carnevale meal should remind us all of the importance of family and tradition, but also of the growth and change that is part of both. It can also remind us that it does take significant effort to keep the family together and to remind the generations of their interconnections. But as the Vaudos show us – it can be done. And its result is priceless.