Of fish and Christmas, traditions and change

Do something once, it becomes a precedent.  Do it twice and it’s a tradition, especially at Christmas time.  

Lifelongnewyorker knew that the move to Alabama meant that many holiday traditions would change next year, but it turns out the big changes are happening now.  Truth be told, traditions have been shifting — at least in this family — for years. 

My mother’s parents came to America in 1913 from a seacoast town in southern Italy.  Like many Italians, their big holiday was Christmas Eve, with a meal of fish and the exchange of very small gifts.

I grew up in my grandfather’s house, and all I really remember of the holidays was the crowds.  My aunts and uncles and their kids visited at the holidays to see my grandfather.  My mother cooked.  Memories of Christmas in Red Hook are simple:

  • Crowds of loud relatives in our dining room who would switch to Italian when they got to the good parts of stories;
  • My uncle’s appearance at the door one evening on his way home from work, with a Christmas tree that he would set up and string the lights on because my postal worker father disappeared after Thanksgiving and this was not something my mother did;
  • My older sisters criticizing my tinsel-hanging skills; 
  • The cheery seasonal stencils my mother put on the windows with Glass Wax (whoever thought of this had the perfect consumer in my mother who thought that combining decoration with cleaning was simply brilliant);
  • The hanging in an upstairs window of a string of extremely small lights (now the main kind available) that for some reason we called the “Italian Christmas lights”;
  • Under my mother’s guidance, presenting my grandfather with wrapped boxes of Gem single-edge razor blades or a cake of Old Spice shaving soap, which she assured us were perfect gifts;
  • The exchange of family gifts just before going to bed on Christmas Eve; 
  • At a certain age, being given the proceeds from the $25 Christmas Club my mother had set up for me to buy presents for the rest of the family;
  • The arrangement of the nativity scene on the hi-fi cabinet, with camels arriving from across the room via the mantel;  
  • Waking up on Christmas morning to find the toys that Santa had left;
  • More crowds of loud relatives in our dining room who would switch to Italian when they got to the good parts of stories;
     

What I don’t remember is the fish dinner on Christmas Eve, although I’m sure it happened.  Once we moved to Staten Island and my excitement over toys waned, I became more enthusiastic about the food.  Our traditional Christmas Eve feast featured octopus (pulpo), baccala cakes, squid and, the centerpiece, spaghetti with crab sauce, followed by the crabs themselves.  Funochio (fennel), chestnuts, fresh fruit, dates, nuts and, finally, pastry, finished the meal.  My father, having reappeared on Christmas Eve after working 30 days straight, passed on the crabs, claiming they “illustrated the law of diminishing returns.”  The rest of us dug in. 

In Staten Island, we continued to have a crowd as several sets of cousins, aunts and uncles would join us each year.  More than anyone else, and probably because she cooked for my grandfather, my mother had preserved the fish tradition long after some of her siblings abandoned it.  But even she introduced occasional innovation.  

One of the first innovations was the crab sauce itself which replaced a simple white anchovy sauce made with garlic, olive oil and parsley.  But this happened during my grandmother’s time.  Soon after she took a full time job, mom’s meal included lobster tails, a short-lived tradition that didn’t survive once my parents began paying college tuition.  Later, with the arrival of grandchildren who wouldn’t eat what was on the menu, mom added breaded filet of flounder, much to the disgust of those of us who were not offered this alternative when we were small.  “How will they learn to appreciate the good stuff?” we wondered.  When Mr. NYer joined the family, his homemade garlic bread, with lots of butter and fresh garlic, became part of the deal.  Later, I added clams and mussels with wine sauce.   And somewhere along the line chilled shrimp appeared and the octopus took its leave.    

Whatever else came and went around the edges, the centerpiece of the meal remained the crabs.  Two separate worries began as Christmas approached:  first, how much fish should we buy?  and second, would we be able to get crabs?

No matter how many years my mother cooked that meal, she was always convinced she didn’t make enough.  Part of our ritual was the annual review of the fish order, in which we did an immediate post-mortem, adjusted the quantities for next year and saved our notes.  The more pressing issue, though, was whether we’d be able to find fresh, live crabs.  

Crabs, it turns out, are really summer food.  In winter, they dig into the mud of the Chesapeake Bay and don’t find their way to market as easily.  You could take the precaution of ordering them in advance, but if they weren’t available, they weren’t available.  In that case, you needed to go with Plan B, which was stuffed squid.  It’s okay, but not if you’ve been dreaming of crabs. 

Worrying about the crabs became an essential part of the tradition. Actually getting the meal on the table for the 14 to 20 people joining us combined art, science and drop-dead timing.  Step One:  Buy the dried baccala a week ahead and take it home to soak.  Hope not to oversoak it (too bland) or undersoak it (too salty).  Step Two: Go to the most reliable fish market and, using that list from last year, order the fish at least a week in advance.  Step Three: Pick up the fish order and hope that they had crabs.  Step Four: Return home and clean the crabs without losing a finger or drawing blood.  Defensive wounds from snapping claws can ruin the meal, not because blood contaminates the crabs, but because the cuts sting like the dickens when you try to eat the crabs.  I became the crab-cleaning expert once I figured out how to apply garden tools to the task.  Step Five: Start the crab sauce in a large pot.  Step Six: Put the nearest male to work shredding the baccala.  Step Seven: Mix up the batter and begin frying the baccala cakes in the ancestral 12-inch cast iron frying pan.  Continue for six hours.  Exclaim to every guest as they arrive that you spent six hours frying the baccala.  Step Eight: Cook the squid and the octopus and make salads.  Step Nine: Have Mr. NYer make the garlic bread.  Step Ten:  Boil the shrimp and refrigerate them.  Step Eleven: Start to make the cocktail sauce and discover you don’t have horseradish.  Send a spare male out to the store.  Step Twelve: Send the newly arrived grandchildren off to a bedroom to practice their Christmas pageant.  Step Thirteen: Have an unoccupied male slit the chestnuts.  Step Fourteen: Scrub the clams and mussels.  Step Fifteen:  Juggle the pots on the stove to make room for the GIANT spaghetti pot.  Continue with steps sixteen through twenty-four until dinner is ready, kids are hyper, and most of the baccala has been filched by grazers. 

As traditions go, this one held steady for nearly twenty years at my mother’s house, until she was nearly 80 and decided enough was enough.  Lifelongnewyorker was ready to take it on, since she knew the recipes and had been the chief crab-killer and cook for more than two decades, but her sisters (you remember, the ones who criticized her tinsel skills) wanted to learn how to cook the meal themselves, which was, of course, the beginning of the end. Thus began the Rotation, when each year a different sister would host the meal, first under mom’s tutelage and later on her own.  But only after first checking with Lifelongnewyorker about a recipe, or asking her to buy the crabs which were, apparently, unobtainable in New Jersey.

This year is Lifelongnewyorkers turn in the rotation, but it’s already changed.  Five of the six grandchildren are married and there are babies.  They live in Boston, Virginia, Maryland and Minnesota, and they want to host Christmas.  There will be only five guests at the fish fest this year.  A satellite feast will be held in Maryland.  At least Maryland niece should be able to get crabs.  

To top it off, the reliable fish market that we’ve depended on for years went out of business this summer.  We found another place to buy the fish but they won’t take orders.  I still haven’t figured out how to cook the meal for only five people, and I suspect I won’t.  Tonight I begin soaking the baccala.  On Wednesday, we’ll go to the market and hope they have crabs. 

Oh.  One last thought.  In recent years, I’ve heard it called the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  This is new to me.  We never counted the fishes, or called it anything besides Christmas Eve.  The best meal in the year.

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5 Responses

  1. On the West Coast, we had Christmas Eve crabs, too, because winter is Dungeness season. Often served with cioppino and, always, with sourdough.

    I do have to admit that I fell for the Maryland blue crab while living in D.C. — more work than the Dungeness, but sweeter…

  2. I like crabs — Dungeness or blue — better than lobster.

  3. Thank you for putting the Feast of the Seven Fishes into perspective. I have been getting fishy requests from a brother-in-law whose mother was Italian. This year I learned that they always had turkey in his household, maybe because his father was French and they lived in Pittsburgh.

  4. It’s so funny how traditions are made! We did very modified “Feast of the Fishes” in my family, despite the fact that I’m the only one in my generation that eats fish at all! Never had the crab, but linguini with clam sauce, fried filet, stuffed clams, lobster tails, mussels, etc. This year I’m in the same boat as you on adjusting the menu for diminished numbers since we’re doing pre- and post- holiday celebrations with our respective families but Christmas Eve itself on our own. Either I’m making a quarter pound of linguini, one lobster and two pieces of fish or we’re inviting strangers over for dinner!

  5. I’ve just learned that my brother-in-law will join us, except that he “doesn’t eat that stuff.” I want to go out and recruit people from the highways and byways.

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