Of ravioli and rice pies

In the kids’ calendar of holidays, subtitled “What’s in it for Me?”, Easter and Christmas ran neck-and-neck. Christmas brought piles of presents, while Easter delivered mounds of candy in a colorful, handled basket, courtesy of the Easter Bunny.

Somehow this rabbit was also associated with eggs, even though we knew this was an anatomical impossibility in real life. Stevie Gendron up the block had bunnies and all they produced were little pellets that looked enough like raisins to dupe the occasional kid into eating one.

But when it came to the family’s holiday meal, there was no contest. Easter won hands-down. Christmas was all about turkey, whereas Easter meant Grandma’s homemade ravioli.

My grandmother and aunt would begin laboring the day before at their floury assembly line. The big kitchen table was cleared for rolling dough, while twine was strung all around for draping the resulting bands of pasta. It looked like a noodle laundry.

After the pasta had dried enough to be handled, Grandma and Auntie would cut it into little squares and spoon on a filling— ricotta and parmesan cheeses, with egg, parsley, salt and pepper. Then they added a topping square and crimped all the edges so that the diminutive doughy pillow would hold together when boiled.

Add Grandma’s sauce and some meatballs on the side—delicious! This was a far, far tastier meal than the ham or (gasp) lamb that my non-Italian friends got for Easter dinner.

For dessert we had my grandmother’s rice pies, an Italian Easter tradition. Essentially, she poured a thick, custardy rice pudding studded with raisins and citron into a pie crust, added a latticework top and baked it. Grandma always made her rice pies in oblong Pyrex baking dishes, not pie pans. But she called them pies nonetheless.

Unlike my aunt, my mother had little interest in Grandma’s traditional cuisine. Mom didn’t much like to cook. Moreover, she had mysterious digestive issues that turned out to be food allergies. Ironically, she was allergic to the nightshade family, which includes the staples of the Italian-American table: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers.

One Easter when I was about 10, a friend of my mother’s who did a show on the local radio station recruited her to talk about Italian Easter food. Given her culinary background, or lack thereof, Mom might not have been the wisest choice for this gig.

I was in school and didn’t hear the broadcast, but it became family lore afterward. Mom mentioned the rice pies and her friend the commentator asked for the recipe. Mom began describing the general way her mother assembled the pies… upon which, the switchboard lit up. Women all over town, it seems, were asking her to slow down. They wanted to write down the ingredients list so they could make rice pies for Easter too.

Mom winged it as best she could, but the proportions of sugar, eggs and milk she gave were guesstimates at best. Mom was mortified, and we all hoped no one’s Easter meal was ruined on her account.

Surely they would have other sweets around in case the pies failed? Anyway, who really needs dessert? As Peg Bracken said in the desserts chapter of her “I Hate to Cook Book,” which was published right around this time, people are too fat anyway.

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