A reminder: This is Day Five of The Seven Days of Pricklesmas Contest. Details here!
We’ve always spent most of our holiday with the Italian side of my family (I’m half Italian on my mother’s side, and a mix of French-Canadian, Irish, and a smidge of Blackfoot Indian on my father’s). One of our many traditions is a Christmas Eve dinner called The Feast of the Seven Fishes. If you consider yourself a real Italian, you’d better like seafood.
We used to enjoy this meal with my grandfather’s side of the family, with his sisters and sister-in-law (my Aunt Eleanor, Aunt Sandy, and Aunt Fanny) and my grandmother preparing the meal together. Because, really, it takes a village of skilled Italian women to cook that much fish. They made a dish of spaghetti flavored with olive oil, garlic, walnuts, breadcrumbs, and anchovies. This was followed by breaded, fried shrimp, calamari in red sauce, and scungilli (snail) and baccala (dried cod) salads, and at least two other fishy dishes to equal the requisite seven. On the side, we had a special fried dough my relatives pronounced “guh-DOOST”; I have never learned its origins or how it’s officially spelled, but it is delicious (especially on Christmas morning, dipped in hot chocolate and smeared with sugar). I should mention that our Feast of the Seven Fishes was always, always served to us in the basement, where long tables were set up for family-style dining, and there was usually a second kitchen. (You can correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be an Italian thing. At least one of my great aunts owned her own sizable house, but only truly inhabited the basement; her upstairs kitchen was so pristine, she kept a doily in the sink.)
When it came to Christmas Day itself, my parents and my sister and I and my aunt, uncles, and cousins would all descend upon my grandparents’ house, where we’d open our gifts and listen to Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby and drink and EAT. After a marathon cooking session to prepare the Feast the night before, my grandmother would put on her apron and prepare a whole other meal for us on Christmas Day: chicken cacciatore and stuffed artichokes and spaghetti and meatballs and roasted potatoes, among many other things. While it was amazing and heroic of her, it eventually seemed to take too much effort. But what could we substitute that didn’t need any preparation, that could sit on the dining room table all day and feed us all comfortably?
Enter The Big Sandwich. I don’t know who came up with the idea (or how my grandmother came to agree to it), but we started ordering a six-foot sub from somewhere, half-Italian (salami, capicola, mortadella, provolone) and half-American (some combination of ham, turkey, roast beef, and a generic yellow cheese), which suited us just fine. My grandmother would put out some leftover seafood from the night before, too, in case anyone was still willing.
As we don’t have a big Christmas Day celebration anymore, we no longer have need for The Big Sandwich, but we still do the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, with my sister cooking the meal. And like a true Italian, she makes the same amount of food for the four of us that used to be served to five times as many people.
What kinds of holiday foods do you enjoy? Anything out of the ordinary?
I am stuck on that image of the doily in the kitchen sink. It’s worse than a song stuck in my head. I am imagining that it was hand-crocheted, and some odd color, like the crocheted dolls that covered the spare toilet paper rolls. It totally beats my grandmother’s practice of keeping the foil and plastic wrap in the dishwasher.
It wasn’t even a real doily, Terry. It was plastic!
Hahaha, love it.
My mother’s aunt at 89 lives in the 4 family house she was born in and all the major cooking is still done in the basement. Her kitchen stove is half covered in tin foil as there has never been any need to use those two burners and the only purpose the oven has ever served in my memory is for storing frying pans. They did all that fish stuff when we were little for Christmas eve.
The one thing associated to all holidays though was Crutsala (no idea how it’s spelled) that one of my mother’s aunts always made and brought to the house in one of those plastic basins people get from a hospital. That apparently was her only method to transport these deep fried cookies which we loved but also wondered as she got older if they were just in her apartment stacked in these hospital basins.
Thanks for the memories 🙂
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