Thursday, December 22, 2011
Christmas Eve in My Home Town
For me, Christmas Eve has forever been rooted in the Italian’s “Feast of the Seven Fishes” dinner—assorted fish dishes served alongside spaghetti with garlic and olive oil (aglio e olio)—although I don’t think we've ever quite made it to the seven-fish mark. When my paternal grandmother was the culinary impresario of this evening, the fish were, without exception, baccalà (salted cod fish), calamari (squid), eels, and shrimp. She came from a mountain town called Castelmezzano in Southern Italy, where fish of any kind were rare birds indeed. Because it was salted to death, baccalà was the only fish product this impoverished sliver of geography—sans electricity and refrigeration—knew, with the one exception being fresh-water minnows of some kind that ran in the mountain streams after heavy rains and melting winter snows.
Ironically, my grandmother didn’t much like fish. Outside of Christmas Eve dinner, the only fish I ever remember her cooking were fried scallops, and not very often at that. Because they maintained somewhat more appeal to me than did eels and squid, I had long wished these rarely prepared scallops of hers would be added to the holiday menu. But, in the big picture, the specific fishes really didn’t matter. The one-night-a-year tradition trumped all else—even taste. My grandmother's spaghetti alone was always ace and enough for me. So what if the eels and squid were a far cry from roast beef at the Ritz.
I suppose what has long been unique about these Christmas Eve feeds of ours is that they consisted of fishy things few among us would—or even could for that matter—order in a restaurant. My fishmonger friend, and a longtime neighbor of mine, stocks and sells eels only at this time of year. Why is that? Foodies, I guess, just aren’t clamoring for eel appetizers, but then that’s okay. I have sampled eels through the years and they've typically been quasi-edible, creamy, and surprisingly bland. However, they've always been extremely fishy to touch. Still, I’ve watched relations of mine attack the scant meat on these slithering and bony creatures of the sea like they would spareribs.
Flash forward to the new millennium and fish cakes, fillet of sole, and—at long last—scallops, too, have been added to our Christmas Eve tradition. Without question, these are more palatable and benign fish dishes with appeal to a wider audience. Somehow, though, the Christmas Eves of yesteryear—with my grandmother doing the cooking—tasted a whole lot better to me.