There was no mistaking the look of terror on my boyfriend's face.
It was understandable.
He was meeting my entire family for the first time.
It was Christmas Eve.
And he had just spied the flag that flew in front of my father's house that says, "Don't tread on me."
My boyfriend, on the other hand, was in a band, and had appropriate band hair.
He worked at the ACLU.
He was wearing Chuck Taylors.
And he considered himself a Buddhist.
Naturally, I was a little concerned at how this introduction was going to go, being that it was 1995 and the terms "peacenik" and "pinko" were still in wide use by a variety of Republican fathers. But it wasn't my father's handshake that had caused the fright he was experiencing; it wasn't my grandfather's slap on the back or the response to his "Sirhan Sirhan" joke.
It was something far more fundamental than that.
He was staring at the table that had been dressed for dinner.
"Are you all right?" I whispered in his ear. "What did my father say to you? Does he want to see your tax returns? Did he tell you he would never bail you out of jail like my ex-boyfriend? Did he warn you that he was going to put a private investigator on your tail?"
He had not heard a word I said. Instead, he nodded toward the table and said, "What is that?"
"What is what?" I said, not seeing anything amiss.
"That," he said, nodding toward the table again. "All of that. Is that all ... meat?"
I looked at the table and shrugged. "What do you mean?" I asked.
"There's a lot plates of red things over there," he said suspiciously.
"You are not a vegetarian," I said firmly. "I've seen you eat a chicken wing. I can overlook the fact that you make minimum wage, but I would never overlook that."
"But what is it?" he said again.
"It's an antipasta," I replied.
"An 'enny-what'?" he said, now thoroughly confused.
"Anti-PASTA," I said slowly. "It's what some Italians eat on Christmas Eve."
"It's a lotta meat," he commented.
"It's not just meat," I said, taking him by the hand and walking around the table. "That prosciutto. That's sopressata. That's capacolla. That's bresaola."
"I know that one," he said, pointing at platter with pink meat. "That's baloney."
"No," I corrected him. "That's mortadella."
"That's baloney," he repeated.
"Whatever makes you feel comfortable, but you're not going to want to say that out loud," I counseled him. "You might get forked. And no one will help you. Ever. You will sit here, attached to this table with cutlery sticking out of your hand until you starve to death."
I led him around to the other side. "These are cheeses. Mozzarella, riccota salada, provolone, and that's brie."
"I know what that is," my boyfriend said excitedly.
"Don't make a big deal out of it," I warned him. "It's here on a trial basis. If my father finds out it's French, the brie is going to hit the fan. He still harbors some unresolved feelings about the war."
"Vietnam?" my boyfriend asked.
"World War Two. Nazi collaboration," I mouthed.
"But Italy was —"
"Forked on both hands," I said quickly. "You'll never get away."
"What are the green balls?" he asked. "And the purple ones?"
"Olives," I replied, a little shocked.
"They come in other colors besides black?" he asked.
"Some are two colors," I informed him. "Green and red, together."
He looked at me doubtfully, opened his mouth, stared at me for a minute and questioned, "How?"
"Fairies," I told him.
"...So, basically, you're eating sandwiches, but without the bread," he said. "Why?"
I took a deep breath. "Because our people take pride in salted cured meats, in the richness of the cheese, and the olives that grow on our country side," I said. "It's taken a long time for an Italian deli to open to even get any of this stuff in Phoenix. For our first Christmas Eve here in 1972, we did roll up baloney and Kraft American slices. Those were dark times. Nana still wakes up screaming in the night, with terrors that the cheese slice wrapping is still stuck to the roof of her mouth and she can't breathe."
"So an antipasta is just a sandwich without the holder," my boyfriend said, trying to understand. "I didn't know that was allowed. It's not allowed at my mom's."
"If it will make you feel better about what you are about to encounter, then yes," I said. "It's the inner sandwich."
"This is much different from my family's Christmas," he said, finally taking a seat as my family gathered around the table and started passing platters of pink, red, purple, and green.
"Well, your people are from Kentucky and Arkansas, they're hillbillies," I replied. "I'm not surprised that you thought olives grew in cans on trees."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
"Well, we never had a problem getting Dinty Moore Stew and canned corn here, either," he said, taking a heap of red meat off of a passing platter. "Looks like you'll have your first hillbilly Christmas tomorrow when you meet my family."
I wondered how much a plastic fork would hurt going into my hand, and then I forced a smile.
Housebroken, Laurie Notaro's latest collection of essays, contains lots of family recipes. Buy it at Changing Hands Bookstore.