Highly polished 15-foot-long tables are most often found in swanky boardrooms where top executives sit in upholstered chairs, their gazes fixed on the CEO who's running the meeting.
In some ways, the scene is not all that different on Thanksgiving Day for the 59 family members who gather at the Hunt Valley residence of Mary Mangione, matriarch of five daughters and five sons, including Pete Mangione, Turf Valley Resort's longtime general manager.
Pocket doors glide open to reveal Mary's domain, a 15-by-25-foot dining room in which she joyfully presides over a gleaming expanse of mahogany that seats 14 quite comfortably.
When "turkey day" rolls around each year, extra chairs are extracted from behind a nearly imperceptible closet door that is wallpapered and paneled to match the rest of the room. This allows all 10 children and their spouses to be together at one table to give thanks.
"This certainly isn't the biggest house on the street," Mary says, pointing out that her living room is disproportionately smaller as a trade-off and is used as an office and library. "But I had the dining room, secret closet and kitchen specially made to my design," says the 80-year-old widow of Nicholas Mangione, the prominent Baltimore builder-developer who established Turf Valley in 1978 on the grounds of a thoroughbred horse farm in Ellicott City.
The rest of the Mangione clan is hardly overlooked at holiday meals. Mary's 37 grandchildren and one great-grandchild occupy the kitchen's two dining areas, which are situated catty-corner from each other and just off the dining room, keeping the entire group within earshot.
Unusual, perhaps, but her plan is lovingly crafted to ensure that a close-knit family stays close, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Pete Mangione says that when he was growing up, his family had a table big enough for 12 and they ate together every night without fail.
"That was a joint effort between my mom and my dad," he recalls, "and as far as I'm concerned, it was the best 25 minutes of the day."
The art of pasta
With nearly 60 people coming to Thanksgiving dinner these days, Pete says his mother has gotten meal preparation down to a science.
Three days before the holiday, the dozen or so family members who have replied to Mary's e-mails converge on her kitchen to make pasta, using the same recipe her mother used. It takes about three dozen eggs and 7 pounds of flour to make the 10 pounds of pasta required to feed such a large brood.
The flour is poured directly on the table -- never into a bowl -- and shaped by each "chef" into a volcano-like mound with a well in its center. Eggs are cracked into the wells, and that's when natural talent and deft wrists kick in.
Mary imitates for a visitor the circular clockwise motion that combines stirring, beating and folding to create the dough, a movement she's made countless times since she learned to make pasta many decades ago from both her mother and mother-in-law.
"The trick is to keep the walls of flour from falling and letting an egg get loose, because then you've got to try and save it," she explains. All grandchildren learning this blending skill start off with one egg and work their way up, as much to reduce frustration as to prevent waste and mess.
Mary Ellen, who's 15, can manage five eggs simultaneously, which has earned her the admiration, and probable envy, of siblings, cousins and even a few aunts.
"There might be one or two of my daughters who can do six, and I probably could, but Mary Ellen's really quite good," Mary says.
Her grandmotherly pride is showing again, though this time it might also be prompted by the recollection that she wasn't as prepared to take care of a household when she married in 1950 as her own mother would have liked.
"My mother was born in Sicily, and she used to worry that I'd get married and not know how to do anything," she said, laughing at the memory. Mary, who has only a younger brother, is a first-generation American. Her Sicilian father came to America alone in 1924, obeying strict immigration rules that prevented her mother from joining him for five long years.
When her mother and mother-in-law made pasta back in the day, they rolled and cut it for many years, but machines save a lot of time, Mary explains. "I tried an electric one once and it just wouldn't do, so we went back to cranking the machine."