By the time we Brunis reach the climax of our Thanksgiving celebration, any other family would be done, wiped out, its bloated and inert members sprawled across couches and chairs and even the floor—not just uninterested in more food but flat-out incapable of ingesting it.
Not us. Oh no. By 6 P.M., we’re on our second wind. Never mind that our sumptuous repast, consumed from 1 P.M. until about 3:30 P.M., encompassed nearly a dozen canapés and appetizers, some as rich as quiche Lorraine; a dozen side dishes, most of them starch bombs; a turkey very nearly prehistoric in heft, as though it had been crossbred with a pterodactyl; and at least three kinds of pie, with just as many kinds of ice cream, so that everyone can mix and match to his or her heart’s desire. We have put all of that behind us, because we have crucial pleasures ahead. We have, to be precise, sandwiches.
That doesn’t sound so momentous? Then you’re not lavishing the sort of care on Thanksgiving leftovers that we are. Someone from the family goes out that very morning to a proper Italian bakery for proper Italian sandwich rolls, freshly made so that they’re cotton-soft on the inside and crisp to the point of crackling on the outside, with a faintly yeasty perfume still clinging to them. These rolls aren’t so much beds as thrones for the tiers of white and dark meat—it’s best to use some of both—that they will support, along with the slices of tomato and maybe romaine lettuce and surely condiments, from an array covering most of Aunt Carolyn’s vast kitchen island: mayonnaise and Miracle Whip, two kinds of mustard, pan gravy, canned cranberry jelly, fresh cranberry sauce, and even, incredibly, stuffing. People somehow find room for it, in their rolls and their bellies.
I keep my own sandwich simple, just turkey (with some skin), tomato, mayo (wicked, but utterly essential), and salt. It’s a broad, blunt, wondrous creation. But I’m moved less by its majesty than by its -context—by my sense of the ritual surrounding it as something that sets my family apart and, really, defines us.
When it comes to special-occasion food, we believe in bounty and do it to excess, because that’s what my paternal grandparents did and that’s how we honor them. They emigrated from Italy in the 1920s with little but hope, and for them a banquet of ludicrous proportions was a statement that they had made it in this new land and could be generous, lavish, even foolish with what they had.
All these years later, the Brunis still believe in the power of food to nourish more than flesh and bone. When we’re at the table, we’re removed from all the business and all the distractions that keep people from true conversation, real connection. So we find ways to stay and return there. The longer we eat, the better we love.
Sure, we could have our sandwiches the next day, each of us taking home a fraction of the leftovers, but believe me, no one else would unfurl a condiment spread like Aunt Carolyn. The next day, there won’t be some warm turkey from the extra breast that she cooks just for sandwich time. And the next day we won’t be together. There’s no way the sandwiches could taste as good.
Frank Bruni is the author of the memoir Born Round ($17, amazon.com). Formerly the restaurant critic for the New York Times, he now writes for The New York Times Magazine. He lives in New York.