Every year, Erma Tidwell spends the day after Thanksgiving getting ready for Christmas.

But the 76-year-old Hammonton woman's Black Friday tradition has nothing to do with shopping.

Instead, Tidwell, her children and grandchildren gather to prepare hundreds of tortellini the family will eat when they gather on Christmas Eve to celebrate.

"It's an event," Tidwell said of the November sessions in the kitchen. "They bring their wine, they bring snacks, my daughters-in-law go out shopping. We've had the grandsons helping, my brothers have helped, my nieces and nephews - it's a tortellini party. I look forward to it."

Tortellini has been a Christmas tradition in Tidwell's family for as long as she can remember.

The recipe comes from Erminia Fortis, Tidwell's paternal grandmother who brought the recipe with her when she emigrated from a small town in northern Italy, in 1920.

Life wasn't easy for the new immigrants. The stock market crash of 1929 forced Tidwell's father, Angelo, to leave school and get a job when he was just 14.

"He was mostly self-taught," Tidwell said. "He worked in manufacturing and the clothing business."

Tidwell's father married Anna Juliano, a Hammonton girl whose family had emigrated from Gessa, Italy.

The young couple settled in with Tidwell's maternal grandparents and began a family of their own.

"We lived in a big home with my grandmother and grandfather. When I was about 10, my dad bought a house and we moved into it," Tidwell said.

Growing up in an Italian family with a mother and grandmother sharing the kitchen, Tidwell has fond memories of the meals of her childhood.

"There was always a lot of cooking going on in the house when I was growing up," she said. "And always wine on the table."

Tortellini was the Christmas meal, but back then, in order to serve it on Christmas Day, Tidwell's mother and grandmother would spend Christmas morning in the kitchen.

"My mother and grandmother would do this together. They would make enough for Christmas Day - there were no freezers back then," Tidwell remembers.

When Tidwell married, she and her husband, George, at first lived with her parents, who owned a duplex. For the past 40 years, she's lived in a home her brother, Nicholas, who worked in construction, built for her.

Tidwell had three boys, all of whom she taught how to cook. She's now a grandmother of three. With freezers and refrigerators to hold their work, Tidwell and her mother began making the tortellini ahead of time and storing it for the big Christmas feast.

Stuffed with a mixture of beef, pork, veal and imported mortadella, the tortellini are served in chicken broth and are very filling. Still, Tidwell likes to make sure there are at least 30 tortellini for each person gathered around her table on Christmas Eve. With some celebrations including as many as 14 people, that means for a busy time in the kitchen on Black Friday and some special preparation even earlier. She orders the ground meat ahead of time from the local Italian market to assure that she has enough on hand when it's time to make the tortellini.

"I used to have a big entree on top of that, but my sons said it was too much food," she said. "Now we have the tortellini and a salad and shrimp and smelt as well as stuff for appetizers."

The seafood is served as a nod to the Italian custom of serving a feast of seven fishes during the holiday.

After the meal, it's time for the grandchildren to open their "mom-mom presents."

For Tidwell, it's a tradition that brings together the future of her family with its past - and it's something to treasure.

"I look forward to it every Christmas Eve. We have the kids here, they have dinner and open their presents and I serve the same recipe that my mother used to make."

Contact Steven V. Cronin:

609-272-7242

Tortellini

Pasta ingredients:

•5 cups of flour

•2 eggs

•1 1/4 cups cold water

Directions:

Mix and form into a ball of dough. Let sit for 30 minutes.

Makes: About 100 tortellini

Filling ingredients:

•1 pound each of finely ground beef, pork, veal and imported Mortadella

•2 eggs

•1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

•1 teaspoon nutmeg

Directions:

Mix well and keep refrigerated till ready to fill the pasta. Roll pasta on floured board until as thin as possible. Cut into 2-inch squares. Place a small mound of meat on the pasta. Fold over in a triangle. Wrap around one finger and meet edge. Freeze on cookie sheet and then bag for later use. When ready to serve, tortellini are then boiled in chicken soup stock. Serve with grated cheese.

Makes: About three batches