In late November, a sign of the approaching holidays is the appearance of bright red panettone boxes in shops. These days, this holiday delight seems to be for sale everywhere except gas stations and hardware stores. This wasn’t always the case, however. For years, one of my favorite personal holiday traditions was buying panettones for family members and friends as an extra Christmas gift. I went to some effort to find this annual specialty to top off my piles of wrapped presents. These ornately packaged large Italian cakes (panettone means “big bread” in Italian) make a showy presentation. Inside is the glorious high-domed cake which perfumes the air with butter, vanilla, and citrus. A slice of this tender yeast bread reveals its hidden jewels of moist golden raisins and sweet bits of candied orange peel. Rich but light, sweet but not cloying, panettone is an ideal small Christmas luxury.
I was profoundly happy every year, taking or mailing my annual panettone to the special people in my life, secure in the knowledge that I added an extra treat to their holiday. And then, one by one, they began to confess: They did not love panettone. Indeed, not a single person on my gift list liked it. I didn’t have the heart to ask what they had been doing with these beautiful confections for so many years. I suspect that squirrels, possums, raccoons, and crows in Georgia and Virginia had filled their bellies every year with glorious Italian cake.
My feelings weren’t hurt. Nor was I terribly troubled about the money I had wasted. Mostly I was astounded that people I thought I knew could taste that bite of Heaven and not love it. It wasn’t as if I had given them some leaden fruitcake with little bits of peculiar green stuff that tastes like floor cleanser.
In my heart, though, I had to admit that part of my fondness for panettone was connected to more than my palate; a lot of my affection had to do with a special Christmas memory of the first time I tasted it.
I was twelve years old, and my father’s job had taken us from small-town life in the South to Tripoli, Libya, where a sophisticated international community lived in stark contrast with local people and ancient ways of life. We rented a villa and, from its roof, could watch an unfamiliar world unfolding around us. Culture shock hit me hard, but after a few months, sights and sounds so alien at first became familiar. Date palms with their heavy clusters of dark, sticky fruit towered over all. Camels and herds of goats or sheep passed our house as commonly as cars. We grew accustomed to seeing solely male faces in the streets; only girl toddlers or very old women went barefaced publicly. We endured ghiblis, hot sandstorms from the Libyan desert that, despite all precautions, blasted grit into our clothes, our sheets, our hair and mouths. In a small cemetery across the street, we saw the shrouded dead laid in their graves without a coffin. Calls to prayer blasted from a nearby loudspeaker five times daily, and a quiet fell as men stopped their work, spread their prayer rugs, and performed their religious duty. We tasted camel meat and ate couscous; drank Libyan tea, intensely sweet and strong, from tiny glass cups; snacked on pomegranate seeds and blood oranges. And, despite not speaking a common language, we became friends with a nearby Italian family and their house guest Mrs. Malfa, a sweet elderly lady who had come from Italy with the lengthy and sorrowful task of locating the remains of her brother who had died in Libya during the war.
We had arrived in Tripoli in late summer, but now Christmas was near, and we were feeling very far from home. Learning about the holiday traditions of our international friends was interesting enough–and enlightening to discover among our fellow Americans that Santa apparently put sparklers and firecrackers in stockings only in Mississippi–but the closer Christmas got, the greater my homesickness grew. I longed for my beloved grandmother in Mississippi knowing that she would be making her applesauce cake and a big bowl of ambrosia. I had loved to help her with peeling oranges and grating fresh coconut–and of course shelling pecans. Almonds were plentiful in Tripoli, but we longed for the crunch of Southern pecans. We longed for the taste of home.
About a week before Christmas, in an especially low mood, I walked to our Italian friends’ villa to see if anyone was at home. Mrs. Malfa, the house guest, responded to my knock; she was home alone. This gentle gray-haired woman had always been very kind to me, but that day she turned away from the door and seemed embarrassed. Confused and uncertain, I was about to leave when she turned back and gestured for me to come in. Only then did I realize that she had been crying.
I followed her to the kitchen where she had been making coffee and reading mail. An opened package sat on a small table, and she gestured toward it and began telling me something, her eyes filling with tears again. I listened to the torrent of Italian words, uncomprehending and distressed that she was upset and that I had no idea what to do. As if she read my mind, she dabbed her eyes and then touched my arm while tapping the package. “Mia sorella,” she said two or three times. “Mia sorella in Treviso.” Through gestures and simple words, I got it: Her sister in Italy had sent her this package. It contained reminders of Mrs. Malfa’s holidays at home, and she had been weeping for those she loved who were far away. Like me, she was deeply homesick. Or at least this is what I thought I understood her to mean.
She motioned for me to sit as she opened the package of sweet Christmas bread from her sister and cut two slices for us. I had never seen a cake like it before – it wasn’t at all like my grandmother’s applesauce or fresh coconut cake – but it was tall and golden and lovely. Before we ate, she hurried to her bedroom and quickly returned with a package bearing a little tag with my name written on it.
“Buon natale,” she smiled and waved her hands at me, encouraging me to open the gift. Inside the tissue paper was a cream linen handkerchief with a delicate crocheted edge in a deep shade of rose; in one corner she had created an exquisite butterfly. I was thrilled. I was twelve years old, and no one had ever given me anything so elegant. Many years later, I still have and cherish it.
She poured herself coffee, and together in that small kitchen we ate our panettone – so familiar to her, so new and pleasant to me. In that shared moment, Christmas was redeemed for me and I hope, in some way, for her too. And that day panettone became for me one important part of the many scents, sights, sounds, and flavors of Christmas.
Grazie, Signora Malfa–grazie.