How to make meatballs round is a deep, philosophical question? Wegmans does it but make them at home and isn’t one side always a little flat? Turn them often of course, but still one side of that humble sphere loses air.
You might wonder what this has to do with Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, Epiphany, or any other dark-season festival. I am not Italian and my own family Christmas celebrations have never included meatballs, so what gives?
Perhaps the answer is is like the musical “Cats.” I have long speculated that Cats had its origin at a late night party after too much drinking, with Andrew Lloyd Weber bragging he could write a successful musical about anything. Someone then challenged him to use T. S. Eliot’s peculiar poetry collection, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Then again, it may be that the meatball is actually a penetrating question with serious social implications.
If your not a nonna, or didn’t grow up cooking with one, to make the perfect meatball is every bit as difficult as making a round, thin corn tortilla from scratch when you didn’t learn it at your mother’s or abuelita’s side. Some things that look so easy take generations to make and the knowledge of generations to keep alive.
Like cooking, like life.
Wisdom is a kind of knowing passed down through tradition rather that the content-instruction we get at school or from watching the Great British Baking Show. If we miss the infusion of wisdom as we grow, it is possible to garner it in later life but with more strain and less grace – like learning another language in adulthood.
An unrecognized yet beautiful and blessed dimension of the winter holidays mentioned above, is that they are generational bioms in which both tradition and wisdom are shared and passed on. The passage takes place without notice, often wordless even. The things we always do, repeated year after year in family rituals, each with an ethnic tinge, are also vessels of the whys and where-they-came-froms that reveal deeper wisdom underneath layers of tradition.
When we mate and become entangled with another family, we discover there are different traditions and, if we are trusted and fortunate, we get a glimpse of the wisdom within those differing rituals and customs. Then we understand – wisdom – that there is more than one way to do things, and as many reasons for doing them as there are customs. In other words, we grow.
What do we lose when we commercialize these holidays to the point they become rote consumer events? The unique traditions and ways of doing things become endangered, flattened into a glossy uniform image without a soul. Instead of making cookies, we buy them. Instead of making presents with the particularities of the person in mind, we order them. Instead of cooking with children or grandchildren at our side, we order out or find it pre-made. Instead of making our decorations together, we buy them.
What gets left behind in this one-size-fits-all commercializing of traditions is the flow of wisdom moving as if by osmosis from one generation to the next. And that is what meatballs have to do with it.