As the city slid into its darkest days over the last few weeks, I got a craving for something I haven't had since the holidays of my childhood: biscotti. Buttery, thin and warmed with anise, they always appeared around this time of year, carrying a flavor brought from Italy, the mysterious country my Nonna left behind when she came to America, the bride of a G.I. after the war.
These biscotti were a New Year's party food, and my grandparents were New Year's party people. They arrived in Alaska just before statehood and for three decades hosted an epic annual bash in Nunaka Valley, in their wood-paneled basement with the orange shag carpet and the built-in bar.
Everybody used to turn out in those days: the neighbors, politicians (the year Sen. Mike Gravel showed up, there was a line of people who wanted to yell at him), wayward Italians, professors who worked with my grandmother at the university, insurance adjusters who worked with my grandfather. There was clam dip and Everclear in the punch (people got so drunk, at least according to family lore, they ended up sleeping over, passed out on the dance floor). There was mistletoe and jazz records and a net full of balloons stapled on the ceiling that came down on the crowd at midnight. And up in the kitchen, next to the plug-in percolator, there was always a plate of thin, golden biscotti.
Or at least that's how it's been told to me. I was very young when they had their last party, but I still like New Year's best. It has symbolism I can get behind. Out with the old, in with the new. The light is coming back, the darkness subsiding. You lay old problems to rest. A new year stretches out before you unmarred, full of plot lines yet to unfold.
Looking back, I wonder if that's why my grandmother liked it, too. She left Italy after seeing her schoolmates and neighbors die in bombings that tore up Florence. She burned the journals she wrote in those years, about the loss of her first boyfriend, a soldier killed in the Alps, about the nights spent smoking and knitting behind the black-out curtain, listening to German soldiers in the street. It was a pivot point. A grand new year. Darkness receded, adventure began. She crossed the ocean with her new husband, a woman wiped clean, leaving even her language behind.
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