CHRISTMAS EVE FEAST – DECEMBER 2020
The picture above is from Elodia Rigante’s cookbook entitled, Italian Immigrant Cooking. When I was a kid that’s what our dining room table looked like on Christmas Eve. In the photo, I counted thirteen different kinds of fish. It is often called “The Feast of the Thirteen Fishes.” Some Italian folks have nine, seven, or five fishes. Interestingly, they are all odd numbers; I don’t know why. The actual amount is determined by the size of the family, their appetites, and how much cooking the cook or cooks wanted to do. The preparation often started days in advance. I’m sure there are still Italian-Americans that continue the thirteen fish tradition.
The last time I experienced a big Christmas Eve dinner like this was sometime in the 1980s or early 90s. It was at my parents' house on Staten Island. Anita and I were living in Los Angeles and made the trip back East for the holidays. My mother invited relatives from her side of the family and my father’s side of the family. My grandmother who was my mother’s mother was the oldest, then my parents and an aunt and two uncles represented the next generation, there was me and Anita, my brother, my cousins representing our generation, my daughter and her husband representing their generation and my cousin’s little girl. There were five generations from both sides of the family.
And in the tradition of big holiday dinners, two of my uncles from opposite sides of the family got into an argument at the table over veal. Yes, one thought it was terrible to slaughter calves and to eat their meat, the other didn’t care one way or the other. The argument upset my mother who was a very sensitive person.
Despite the argument, dinner was delicious and went on sans any additional arguments. Another cousin and his wife showed up after dinner and surprised us. Sad to say, it was the last time the family got together to celebrate the holidays. Shortly after that, my grandmother, uncles, and aunts began to pass away. My parents did too in the late 90s. There were many of those dinners when I was growing up and I miss them.
Anita and I have tried to keep up the Christmas Eve fish dinner tradition over the years. Her father, Cosmo Cannarili, gave me his fish salad recipe before he passed on. Our dinners have been pared down considerably. We start with Cosmo’s fish salad as an appetizer. I prepare it several days in advance. Some of the ingredients are shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, scungilli (conch fish), and sometimes scallops. The dressing consists of olive oil, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, capers, and Dijon mustard. There is usually enough leftover to last us until New Years'. We eat it with zeppoles (a fried ball of dough) stuffed with a small piece of anchovy and deep-fried.
We follow that with pasta in a Puttanesca sauce. That’s made with anchovies, capers, olives (I like to use the green ones) in a tomato sauce. Then, we take a break for a few hours and open some Christmas presents. When we return to the table, we eat scungillis with a spicy marinara sauce over Pepper Frisele Biscuits from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. I get the scungillis and biscuits from an Italian Market in Long Island that ships. I just received this year’s order the other day. Half the Friseles were broken; that’s the first time that happened. I called them and they are sending a new package.
We don’t eat as much as we used to so this year we may only eat fish salad, zeppoles, and pasta with Puttanesca. We may have the scungilli and biscuits on Christmas Day and maybe followed by some fried shrimp.
Some of the things my mother would make are shown in the picture. She liked to make Bacala (dried salted codfish). You had to soak and rinse it for several days before you could use it. Sometimes she put it in a salad with olives and capers. She also made Bacala soup with potatoes and onions. Sometimes she would make an escarole soup with an anchovy base with capers and black California olives. There were also an array of fried fishes—smelts, shrimp, calamari, scallops, and eels. Stuffed calamari was another favorite dish around the table.
Most Italian’s have different variations of the dinner. I know folks who have pizza, sausage, fried broccoli, and other breaded and fried vegetables. I would love to hear from you about how you and your family celebrate the holiday.
Wishing you all a MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY HANUKKAH, HAPPY NEW YEAR, and a better 2021.