Every winter holiday season, my family invites both sides of our extended family to our house for a day. Typically lasting a full 12 hours, the event is filled with chaos: younger cousins overturning furniture, aunts and uncles debating politics, the collective of family dogs cavorting and circulating among our feet, and most importantly, my grandfather and father, the maîtres d’ du jour, scolding anyone who dares to enter the kitchen. Albanian on my father’s side and Irish on my mother’s, our kitchen is filled with smells of either cow’s liver and kidney or cabbage and corned beef.

Last year, my family and I had finished eating our meals and moved on to dessert. Even for dessert, it wasn’t abnormal for my grandfather to present some surprise, exotic Western European dish like halva, a sort of compressed conglomerate of sugar, flour, water, and nuts. So when my aunt presented an apple pie with a glistening crust, I was relieved that I could enjoy a traditional American dessert with predictable palate-pleasing rewards. I preemptively commandeered nearly a quarter of that pie. After almost three hours of convivial catching-up, I was ready to satisfy my sugar tooth and take a nice long nap. I immediately dug in, chewing only enough to avoid choking.

After two bites I noticed there was a slight tingling at the back of my throat, as if I had just had a hot pepper. I ignored the feeling, considering that the evidence delivered by my taste buds could not be logically reconciled with American apple pie. Could our senses betray us? Can condition be contrary to fact? One bite later my mouth felt as though it were on fire. Logic aside, this apple pie was no ordinary pie. Among the other odd dishes arrayed that day, I assumed it was some special, spicy European dish that my unsophisticated appetite had a hard time handling. Yet logic niggled again, confronting me with something overtly odd: my aunt from my mother’s side had made this, and she never was one to make an exotic dish like my grandfather would.

What to do? Family decorum at such gatherings dictated that great care must be taken not to embarrass, offend, or otherwise violate the family dynamic of kumbaya. I could not, however, choke another bite down. Could I slip it to the dogs circling for a dropped scrap? Pepper would not please them. Do I put my fork down, drawing attention to the huge portion remaining on my plate? How I regretted my aggressive helping! I edged the plate toward my mother — hoping she might better enjoy it, and confident she would find a tactful, social resolution. Her eyes met mine in candid confirmation that she felt the same way. We both were aware that something was wrong. I surveyed the table to see who else had the pie. My eyes locked onto my uncle as he lifted his fork to his mouth and clamped down around it. He inhaled, chewed contemplatively, as if savoring gourmet chocolate. “Well, now this is an innovative combination of sugar and spice!”

Tension diffused into laughter. Relieved, I reclined into my chair, grateful it had not been I who had to reveal to my aunt that she had sabotaged her pie in some way, and thankful I had not been party to any form of discord that might have disrupted the day’s spirit of amity and unity. In the end, my aunt found her pie to be repulsive and she assumed that she had misplaced the cinnamon for cayenne or perhaps chili pepper.

With the upcoming holiday season, I know that my family’s tradition will carry on, and my house will be filled with my relatives. I had long considered that the unconventional dishes we share make us an untraditional family. But I realize that our “tradition” does not inhere in what we serve, the gifts we exchange, the prayers we say, or the songs we sing. Our tradition resides in the bond of courtesy and concern we feel for one another. These are as comforting as apple pie. Perhaps my aunt might recreate her cayenne pepper pie to establish a new family tradition.


Tyler Zengo is a senior at Wilton High School. He shares this column with five classmates.