Editor’s Note: We are super-excited to introduce guest columnist Allison Robicelli, cupcake queen and owner of Bay Ridge-based Robicelli’s Cupcakes. Allison is a born-n-bred Brooklynite, workaholic entrepreneur, mother of two, and a badass writer with bare-knuckled, straight-from-the-heart, Brooklyn style. Every other week, she’ll be sharing stories about the joys and horrors of growing up in South Brooklyn, running a small business, raising kids and whatever the hell else she wants to talk about.
This week, with spring poised to shove winter off the Brooklyn Bridge, let’s celebrate the tilt towards the sun with one last look back at that time when we still thought cold was cute – the Holidays. Join Allison on a roller coaster ride through a Bay Ridge Italian Christmas, where a Sicilian-style vendetta is redeemed by a fortune cookie.
Best Christmas Ever: A Yuletide Vendetta Redeemed…by a Fortune Cookie
By Allison Robicelli
I am sadly getting to the point in my life where I am dreading Christmas. CHRISTMAS. The time of year I spent 11 months a year waiting for in fevered anticipation throughout my entire childhood. I wasn’t even excited about the presents – I was excited about putting up the tree, the decorations, playing my vintage Nat King Cole LPs, seeking the perfect gifts for the people I love, and being consumed by all those holiday clichés that get you high like a drug.
But in recent years I’ve begun to despise that rat bastard jerk face of a season with every fiber of my being.
No one hates this fact more than me. In fact, I’ll forget it entirely by November, when I’ll be that idiot jumping up and down excitedly like, well, a kid before Christmas, putting up my tree the moment I get home from Thanksgiving dinner and watching nothing but Rankin & Bass specials in any spare moment I can squeeze out of the entire month of December. And I’m going to piss the crap out of my husband doing it, who knows better than to try to interfere by this point.
For chefs, the holidays have another name: “The Busy Season.” Meaning that even though last year I had visions of having the most magical December ever, where I’d take my kids ice skating, make homemade hot cocoa and sing carols with them all day long, the reality of it was that from the moment I put up that tree on Thanksgiving night, I was working at least 14 hours each and every day until Christmas Eve. And since that pretty much describes every holiday season I’ve had for the past decade or so, I don’t really get why I’m surprised by the fact that by the time December 25th finally arrives, I normally have a massive nervous breakdown (only one if I’m lucky).
Last Christmas was no different. I won’t complain about the amount of work, because as a small business owner it’s a blessing to be that busy, and as a certified workaholic I totally live for that sort of insanity. The problem is that when I was a child my only job was to sit back and enjoy Christmas, and I feel like that’s what I’m still supposed to do. But now as a 30-year-old wife, mother of two, and a small business owner I’m also supposed to:
When Christmas morning finally arrives, Matt and I pull our exhausted, battered selves out of bed at 8am to make the magic happen for our boys. After all the presents are opened, and every square inch of my apartment is covered in wrapping paper, Duplo blocks and assorted tools from Handy Manny’s Big Construction Job play set (awesome for stepping on barefoot in the dark at 4am!), we schlep ourselves upstairs to my aunt’s apartment for Christmas breakfast, where everyone is asking me questions about my personal life that are a little, well, too personal.
In fact, they’re invasive, rude and insulting. And I have been working my ass off non-stop for 30 straight days with little to no sleep, pulling myself in far too many directions and burning myself out like I do every year, so I have NO tolerance for any of this, and am far too tired to put any effort into the “grin-and-bear-it” approach. The smart move would be to just keep stuffing my mouth with bagels before I can open it, but of course I don’t. This is where I warn all of you: DO NOT SCREW WITH A CHEF DURING THE HOLIDAYS. EVER. There’s an excellent possibility you will get stabbed.
That’s when I find out that my father has blabbed a very private piece of information to my aunt, and now EVERYONE in my family knows about it. In normal families, you suck it up, bury your hurt and embarrassment, and just go along with the day while brewing a painful mixture of rage and resentment against your loved ones.
But we’re not a normal family. We’re Sicilian.
Of all my people’s traditions, I’d say I’m most fond of the vendetta. As it always does, that day it began with an unbridled explosion of pure fury, wherein I aggressively pace back and forth, make exaggerated hand gestures, and string adjectives and expletives together in a way that elevates the simple art of cursing to a terrifying art form. Then comes the part where I actually call my father, scream at him for five minutes, and then sign off with the official slogan of vendettas all across Brooklyn: “You are DEAD to me! You hear me?!?!? DEAD!!!!”
As awful as this all sounds, my dad and I go through this at least once a year. I adore him more than life itself, so as much as I love him, I can hate him just as violently. And it always ends the same way – we stop speaking for a few weeks, and then we just start talking like nothing happened. This time, we were fine two weeks later. I think we broke the ice again with a casual discussion about my new video camera, with absolutely no mention of all the ugliness, and then immediately went right back into our normal father/daughter dynamic. But I digress – back to Christmas day.
I’ve spent every Christmas of my life at my parents’ house – now, because of the Christmas vendetta, for the first time I’m not going. And I have absolutely no idea what to do with myself. So Matt and I talk about what we want to do most, and we promptly decide to take naps. We wake up three hours later, find the “Christmas Story” marathon on TV, and proceed to just lie in bed doing absolutely nothing.
About an hour and a half later I realize the flaw in my vendetta-driven plan – We need to eat. I head to the kitchen to see what we have in the fridge, but since we’ve been working so much we haven’t been food shopping since mid-November and there’s only some leftover pizza the kids had a few nights before, a bottle of malt vinegar and 5 half-eaten jars of pickles. Not gonna cut it on Christmas. We try calling restaurants to no avail – everyone is closed. And that’s when divine intervention strikes: the classic Chinese restaurant scene from “Christmas Story” materializes on the TV. I know a restaurant that looks EXACTLY like that, and one quick phone call confirms that, yes, they are open for Christmas dinner.
Silver Star on 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst is one of my favorite relics of old Brooklyn, and I am trying to spend as much time there as I can before it inevitably disappears. This old school Cantonese restaurant opened in 1944, back in the time when Asia wasn’t a place where liberal arts students went to spend a summer backpacking – it was “The Orient” – a land far far away, filled with mysterious people, customs and a certain sexy exoticism. I didn’t frequent Silver Star all that much when I was younger because there were a dozen restaurants of its ilk in walking distance from my house. Now, I think there are a maybe a handful of them left in all of New York City.
When our family of four walked in, we were warmly greeted by the owner, who has obviously been in this country far longer than I have been alive but still speaks as if he arrived yesterday. We passed through a grand circular archway adorned with golden dragons into the dining room festooned with pictures of the Great Wall. The restaurant was full of tables celebrating the storied New York tradition of “Jewish Christmas.” The average age of the patrons appeared to be 85.
We were promptly given a pot of tea in an old, battered stainless steel teapot, and a bowl of crispy chow mein noodles with duck sauce and hot mustard for dipping. I perused the menu as if I didn’t know what to get, but predictably ordered the pupu platter, because you can’t go to a restaurant like this and NOT order a pupu platter. In keeping with the “Christmas Story” theme, I also sprang for the Long Island duck.
The moment our towering pupu platter started to make its way across the dining room, I instantly became as excited as my children were at that moment. There is absolutely no way not to be over-the-moon elated about a dish whose main selling point is that IT IS ON FIRE. The fire actually has absolutely no place in the dish since everything comes out perfectly cooked, yet of course I had to put every bite directly into the flames before eating it since everything on a pupu platter tastes best freshly burned.
My duck was perfect, even though it was brought out sans-head and already carved. The kids were having a blast picking at their meal and having a real life tea party, even if they had to fill their teacups with far too much sugar than I normally allow in order to drink it (but hey, it was Christmas, right?)
And then the best part of the meal: dessert. What I love so much about dessert in these places isn’t the food, but the routine, presentation, ceremony and tradition of it all. First, we were given bowls of canned pineapple with those tiny little umbrellas in them, proving the fact that every dish can be instantly elevated to destination dining status by adding a little umbrella. I stifled my initial urge to put my tiny blue paper parasol in my hair like I always did when I was a child, but then I turned and looked at my boys who were holding them over their heads, pretending it was raining in the restaurant. Certainly, I needed to stay dry, too.
Next, we were served our choice of the finest ice cream from Breyer’s Neapolitan collection, topped with the most important element of the entire meal: fortune cookies that were not served in plastic. Real old school Chinese restaurants buy cookies that aren’t individually wrapped, but come in a bulk box meant for sit-down dining rather than the informal take-out cuisine that American Chinese has become. Not only do I prefer the philosophy behind bulk cookie ordering practices, but I also find that the fortunes enclosed are nearly always true, when not wrapped in plastic. Mine was “You should be able to undertake and accomplish anything.”
That meal reminded me of so many I had eaten in the past, yet here I was sharing a forgotten tradition with three guys who weren’t even a part of my life 20 years ago. This tradition that had been buried with so many of my loved ones who have passed on, buried with the shuttering of Richard Yee’s, Lamps of China and so many other classic Cantonese restaurants, but it had been born again on the day I needed it the most, with the three people I love the most. In bringing back such powerful memories, that meal made me forget all the stress, all the sadness, all the anger that had dominated the day, and in 90 minutes turned it into the best Christmas I have ever had in my entire life.
The four of us held hands as we walked outside into the cold December night, clutching our doggie bag and fortunes for the coming year as we piled into the car & headed home. The next day, while eating my breakfast of cold duck and lo mein, I decided to paste all our fortunes to an old piece of origami paper. I framed it and hung it up right at the foot of the bed, so it’s one of the first things I see every morning when I wake up. I led with Matt’s:
“Your home is a pleasant place from which you draw happiness. ”
Silver Star Restaurant
6221 18th Avenue
For more of Alison’s musings, or to find out what flavors she and Matt are concocting each week AND where exactly you can get your hands on them, check out the Robicelli’s blog at Robicellis.tumblr.com.