I grew up in a once-thriving, now dead rust belt town in Western Pennsylvania called New Castle. Dubbed “Tin City,” New Castle boomed for the first half of the 20th century, then slowly caved under the weight of its own expectations. It became overrun with drugs and crippled by a lack of opportunity. New Castle is decidedly not the place to realize your dreams, unless your dream is to own an Italian restaurant that sells cocaine after dark.
That said, there’s a lot to like about home. New Castle is an immigrant city of Syrians, Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, and more who came here to get mill jobs. That influx of immigrants undoubtedly formed how we ate. Kibbeh and dolmas are common bar food. Grape leaves grow on the outskirts of an abandoned amusement park downtown. Fresh pasta and sauce dominate the Sunday culture. Grilled lamb on the rod, marinated in plastic bags stuffed with garlic, lemon, olive oil, and oregano, are eaten on July 4. Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean flavors permeate the local cooking -- people today still use Amish produce to cook Syrian food.
My dad’s side of the family is Italian and Greek, and they were never crazy about Thanksgiving fare. This is what they called medigan food. Medigan, for those uninitiated with The Sopranos, is slang for suburban Anglo-American culture. Medigan is waking up early to go deer hunting. It’s country music and NASCAR. It’s Prego and Olive Garden, sure, but it’s also green bean casserole -- bland. My grandfather and uncle despised the typical whitebread Thanksgiving foods, especially the turkey. They wanted familiarity. They wanted red sauce.
One year my mother made manicotti to accommodate my grandfather and uncle’s tastes, and it stuck. It’s a wonderful holiday addition. It consists of layers of rolled up pasta sheets stuffed with meat and cheese, topped with red sauce and mozzarella, baked in a casserole dish. That’s potluck food if I’ve ever heard it. In our family, manicotti became synonymous with Thanksgiving. With November came the smell of roast turkey, but it also meant the slow-cooked aromas of oregano and brightly acidic tomatoes. Manicotti bullied the other smells at dinner. From then on, the dirty dishes on Thanksgiving were always stained a little red. Manicotti had a good run.