Nana and Mama gathered the ingredients for making our special Italian pastry called pita piata. Daddy wiped off the table so we could roll out the dough. My little brother Paul squealed with glee, escaping Papa’s strong, hairy arms as he chased him around the room. While they played, my older cousin Carl and I brought bowls of chopped walnuts and raisins to the table. I sneaked a golden raisin. Mmmm, my favorite.
Nana and Mama measured the ingredients into our giant bowl. Daddy and Papa took turns mixing the dough. They really had to use their muscles to make it smooth. I peered over the edge, watching the flour and sugar become wet and sticky from the water we added.
People say many hands make light work, but I believe even heavy work is better when we can do it in community.
Mama always proportioned the dough to make sure it was even. She cut the dough in half, then the halves in half until we had sixteen perfect disks of dough. Daddy grabbed Nana’s heavy, wooden pin and rolled out the dough. He loved the challenge of making it paper thin.
“Your daddy is the best roller around,” Papa said, elbowing me, “even if he’s not Italian.”
That was a big compliment.
“You ready, my little capatosta?” Papa asked, pinching my arm. Papa always called me “capatosta” or “hard head” in Italian. He called me that because I’m stubborn, but I know he’s just as stubborn as I am.
I shook cinnamon on top of the dough while Papa spread the sugar around. We were Christmas angels throwing stardust over the night sky on Christmas Eve. Papa’s eyes twinkled.
Nana poured the oil on top and mixed it in perfectly with her long, thin fingers. Then it was time for my favorite part — the raisins and nuts.
Paul dashed into the room. “Can I help? Can I help?”
Papa helped Paul mix the oil with the cinnamon sugar on the dough. Paul giggled and licked his fingers. Mama gave him that look and sent him to the bathroom to wash his hands. I sprinkled the raisins and nuts over the dough, pretending they were music notes dancing the Tarantella through the air.
Then we started rolling the dough from opposite ends. Papa began to roll his end. I followed. We met in the middle, creating a double pastry roll.
“And now we join the circle,” I said.
“Yes,” Papa replied with a wide grin.
This is a circle we have continued to join year after year, generation after generation in our family. A circle that represents a kind of unending love, enduring faith, and precious memories.
Today my brother Paul and I lead our families along with my parents in the making of the pita piata. We gather with our spouses and our six kids who are in their teen years or will be soon. Sometimes my sister’s family from Washington joins us with her adult kids. We gather at the table each Christmas to bake and remember my Papa John and Nana Sara, my Uncle Russ, and my first husband Ericlee who are all in Heaven now.
Our Pita Piata Making Day has been a holiday tradition in our family for generations. Maybe a tradition more important than decorating the tree or filling stockings. Through the years, I’ve come to believe food is the best way to remember our loved ones who have soared to heaven. Why?
Food sparks memory. The smells, textures, and tastes can take us back to scenes from our childhood or special trips or a time when our loved ones were seated at our tables. God created us with thousands of taste buds that help us differentiate between the five main flavors: salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami (or savory).
The holidays can often carry a swirl of flavors and emotions. The days can be full of grief and joy, happiness and heartache — often all at the same time, especially when we are missing our people. And yet, Christmas is a time to remember Immanuel, God with us, God coming near in the midst of our longing.
One of the healing practices we have in our family is remembering our people through food. My kids remember their dad whenever my daughter bakes his favorite snickerdoodle cookies. I remember my Grandma Sara when we roll ravioli on Christmas Day for our feast. Maybe you serve up your aunt’s cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning or that bacon-wrapped turkey in honor of your brother on Christmas Eve. Let me encourage you to take time not just to savor the food, but also to tell the stories of the people who live on through the memories of these special dishes. May these stories multiply faith through the generations.
Food provides nourishment. God created food for both delight and to build strength in our physical bodies. As humans, we are dependent on food. It’s a necessity like breathing. We remember the Israelites who were emancipated from slavery, but then wandered in the desert for forty years. God provided manna for them — a sweet bread from heaven — and quail for protein. This food was a reminder of their dependence on the Father.
Food fosters remembrance. Jesus modeled this for us over and over again in His ministry. He invited His disciples to the table and used food to feed and teach them. He multiplied a boy’s lunch to feed five thousand and later declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35 NIV).
Jesus broke bread and poured wine on the night of His betrayal to help prepare His closest friends for his death. After His resurrection, He hosted a fish fry on the shore to replenish His disciples’ bodies and feed their souls for the future.
It’s that time of year again. The aroma of the pita piata pastry wafts through the house. We pull baking trays from the oven and slice up another round of pita piata. We sink our teeth into that first bite of cinnamon-sugar-heavenly goodness, and we remember.
Friend, is there a food or dish that reminds you of your loved ones? Share in the comments about one of your family food traditions and how it honors their legacy.
Dorina helps women discover God’s glory in unexpected places. Subscribe to Dorina’s Glorygram here for recipes, reflections, and details about her new book, Breathing Through Grief.