The Evolution of a Christmas Antipasto
Are there any foods as rich with nostalgia as those eaten on or around Christmas? Marcel Proust’s epic novel of personal remembrance, In Search of Lost Time, grew to over 3,000 pages following one character’s memory-unlocking bite of a madeleine tea cake; if he’d tasted a bit of honeyed ham instead, I have to think the books would have been three times as long.
For me and my wife this year, the foods of the holiday have taken on the additional flavors of hope and anticipation. That’s because for the first time ever, we will be hosting Christmas in our new house. It feels as though this is the moment for us to decisively take up the baton of our families’ holiday eating traditions, which we adapt and alter to fit our own lives without always realizing how much we’ve changed them.
For example: I still call the meal-before-the-meal antipasto, but I didn’t realize how different it was from the old-school Italian-American deal until recently. “You know, this is a lot of work, isn’t it?” my dad remarked last year, watching me arrange the antipasto at his house. He looked at two platters of perfectly arranged cold cuts, one plate of cheese, and bowls of every pickled and marinated thing I’d been able to get at Whole Foods and Wegmans. “We used to throw it all in a bowl and then have dinner.”
It’s true: My antipastos are more like charcuterie boards—an old idea I’d updated to modern trends. When my dad observed this, he brought to mind an “antipasto salad” I’d ordered at an Italian restaurant once; it arrived looking like the contents of an Italian sub tossed on a platter. I thought this was some kind of inventive twist along the lines of a “deconstructed sub.” I had no idea it was actually an old Italian-American staple prepared in the classic fashion.
I wasn’t fully aware of how much I’d changed the concept of antipasto, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have good reasons for doing so. For example, while I despise the unbecomingly bovine term “grazing board,” part of the point of an antipasto tray is that all the stuff can sit there and still be good a few hours later. There’s nothing quite like a few stray slices of salami and cheese at 9 p.m. on a holiday evening. Even as an adult—even as the host—that feeling that the rules have been loosened, and you can have as much dessert as you want and then follow it up with a second dinner, is wonderful.
Under my tenure, our holiday antipastos have evolved into full-on cold-cut meals, with the big dinner following at 5 or 6 p.m. instead of the traditional 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and this variation offers even more food for thought.
Two o’clock in the afternoon is certainly an odd time for a meal. My parents have always instinctively grokked why the holiday dinner was meant to be served at this awkward time; growing up, I more or less had no idea, and I still don’t get it. Each year, other confused people ask about it on Twitter. Maybe it’s like jazz: If you have to ask, you’ll never know. It’s fascinating how certain bits of culture are transmitted clearly, some are scrambled, and some are lost.
So why is the meal served at an odd time? My father says eating at an abnormal hour underscores that this is a special day. As a novice holiday meal host, I must also concede that it gives you some very welcome extra time to get ready for that second dinner; my parents always hosted, so perhaps that was one of their reasons, too. The unusual schedule benefits guests, as well, by allowing them time to head home the same evening without getting back at midnight or later. And the last part of the answer, beyond any reason of utility, is that it’s a tradition—simply what you do by virtue of being a member of your family or community.
Some of this accounting for holiday meal practices reflects my own preferences in food and logistics. Some of it is an attempt to reconstruct the holidays of my childhood from the vantage of my adulthood, through imperfect memories. (It certainly felt like there was a smorgasbord of dry-cured and marinated things very much distinct from the big dinner itself; my antipasto reconstructs a true vibe even if my dad would flag the result for fact-checkers.) And some of it is simply the result of looking at the old ways, not quite grasping them, and accepting that it’s okay to change things up a little. In fact, that’s precisely what a living tradition entails.
Not everything survives the process of handing down from generation to generation. One aspect of those old Italian-American holidays in particular was lost in our family. In my parents’ childhoods, the main dinner featured lasagna, but by my childhood the meal had been Americanized, with only the antipasto remaining distinctly Italian. And even then, antipasto itself has become part of a much larger American cultural inheritance: where it was once considered an “ethnic” food, it has become broadly popular—if you’ll forgive my pun—across the board.
Christmas songs give hints of how our celebrations have changed in the passage from generation to generation, too. As our standard of living has increased, for example, so has the extent to which our Christmases surpass our ordinary days.
Bing Crosby wished for “presents on the tree,” a reference to an old custom of hanging little gifts that doubled as decorations. Today we’d call them stocking stuffers—appetizers, antipasto—but for many people they were once the main event.
Our appetites have also grown. One classic Christmas song suggests turkey for the big dinner, and more than one mentions pumpkin pie.There certainly must have been holidays hams, prime ribs, and legs of lamb in the 1950s, but the only dinners recorded in the popular playlist are rehashes of Thanksgiving fare. (Frank Sinatra, to his great credit, suggests an unusual bird, pheasant, in one of his lesser-known Christmas songs.) And while appetizers, hors d’oeuvres, and variations on charcuterie boards didn’t spring unannounced into American culture in the 2010s, the antipasto spreads that were practically synonymous with holidays in my family must have been rather foreign to the non-Italian Americans.
Today, when I imagine a turkey for Christmas dinner, I think, “We just had that!” Of course, we actually had it one month ago, more than long enough for it to feel new again. But Americans are now affluent enough in the main to switch it up, and to feel entitled to something fancier.
Going beyond turkey for Christmas is not a single, contextless choice. The decision represents an entire collective thought process and approach to celebrations enabled by rising material fortunes. That’s why I cringe when I hear that a late-arriving Honey Baked Ham “ruined” someone’s Christmas. More ambitious enjoyments give rise to higher and higher standards of enjoyment—even to the point of snuffing out simple pleasures, which can’t bear the weight of our trumped-up expectations. Can’t anybody just be grateful for a simple meal with family anymore?
But I can’t lecture anyone. I’m buying my prime rib this week. If it doesn’t turn out, I hope my irritation will be tempered by my reliable antipasto, if not my spirit of gratitude.
A guest writer for my newsletter once captured an observation that is relevant to the passing down of holiday food traditions. The immediate context was a reflection on driving station wagons, which aren’t often made anymore. “The interesting thing about driving a car from 30 years ago built to plans from 50 years ago,” he wrote, “is that you’re inhabiting the very different assumptions made by a culture very similar to yours.”
So it is with the subtly different Christmases of my parents’ era, or those described in the classic secular Christmas songs, which we reject, reconstruct, or riff on in the present. While the difference in cultural assumptions is what stands out at first glance, the deeper source of interest for me is in the last part of the sentence: “made by a culture very similar to yours.” Because for all the accretions of historical cultural change and the material conditions that give rise to it, there is still a sense of continuity and recognition—a sense that our forebears had concerns and interests in their holiday traditions that are fundamentally consonant with our own.
Adaptation is a sign of life, after all. Modulating received practices to suit your own time, as I did unconsciously by spreading out my antipasto, transforms a fixed image of the past into a motion picture in which you and your loved ones can all play different roles. And that is a great gift for all of us. Merry Christmas.