Ciao Down for Christmas
Southeast Texas is no Sicily–but a bite of the spicy dish arancini recalls family, friends, and being a kid in Beaumont.
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Christmas in Beaumont, my hometown, is a damp, chilly, overcast affair. I have fond memories or it, not for the weather so much as for all the mushy stuff that goes with the holiday. Things like generosity, charity, togetherness–and Concetta Tortorice’s rice balls. For fifty years or more the Tortorices, part owners of the Texas Coffee Company (which makes Seaport, the Cajun eau-de-vie), have favored friends and relations with holiday gifts of homemade Italian sausage and a couple dozen rice balls, or arancini. Sold as street food in Sicily (like pretzels or hot dogs here), arancini are “little oranges,” an apt description for the small, perfectly round spheres of bread-crumb-coated rice surrounding a spicy mixture of meat, tomato sauce, and cheese.
Rice balls require effort and culinary skill to make, so their annual appearance is eagerly anticipated. They are reminders of the Italy that a previous generation left behind when it came to settle the Gulf Coast.
“I learned from my mother, who was born in Palermo,” Concetta says. “As far back as I can remember, we girls would help her roll rice balls–for special occasions mainly, because they’re a lot of work. It’s best to have someone rolling, someone in the eggs, someone in the bread crumbs.”
On Christmas Eve, midnight mass is popular in Beaumont. And Concetta has always made sure that we received enough rice balls (ready for frying) for a 2 a.m. supper. Arancini are hearty, unaffected food you can eat while standing around the kitchen, pausing only to race your siblings to the latest batch as it comes from the stove.
No prima donna, Concetta shares her recipe freely. “Everybody,” she says, “adds a different twist.” And even though the tricky technique of manufacturing arancini can be mastered with practice (and a willingness to cover the kitchen floor with cooked rice and bread crumbs on the first few attempts), my Christmas would be incomplete without the rice balls that come from Concetta Tortorice’s kitchen. They are her Merry Christmas, her Buon Natale.