Imagine stepping out of the blustery, snowy, icy, dark December cold and into a warm, brightly lit, steam-windowed, pots-bubbling-over kitchen where the white-haired, aproned chefs cease their chopping, broiling, and stirring just for a moment to enfold you into their tender, welcoming arms, and then order you and your entire family to sit down and eat while they proudly serve up course after course of the most aromatic, succulent, and mouth-watering dishes ever to come out of an 8×8 room. Aah, the delectable wonder of Christmas Eve.
When I was growing up, my family embraced the Christmas Eve tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Known by Italians as La Vigilia di Natale, Roman Catholics observe the holy day, the vigil of the birth of the baby Jesus, by abstaining from meat, and my grandparents would simmer, sauté, and stew as many types of fish as they could muster into a dinner that began right after four-o’clock mass and lasted until our full bellies kept us from hoisting another platter around the table.
One did not begin eating until Grandpa took his seat at the head of the table; Nana dabbed the perspiration from her nose and combed her lustrous, white hair in the mirror; and our family bowed heads for a prayer. While Nana would recite the Profession of Faith in her native tongue, my dad would smack my brothers’ hands that surreptitiously sought nibbles of every dish before she finished. Grandpa would then pour his homemade red wine into tumblers that our noses could barely fit into, and Nana would top off the glasses with ginger ale for the children, (Yes, I’m convinced my grandmother invented the “spritz.”) Finally, plates were passed and chaos reigned. “Mangia, baby, and shut up,” my grandpa would lovingly tell his young grandchildren with a smile on his face, and we would feast.
While the tradition calls for seven fish, my nana firmly believed that there was never enough food on the table and always added a few more dishes to the menu. Our seven fish, fresh from the market, typically included: 1) calamari (squid) and 2) octopus, whose tentacles and suckers were breaded and fried to perfection; 3) eel stew, cooked in a tomato broth that still couldn’t hide that one was actually eating a thick, black eel; 4) baccalà, a dry, salted cod that Grandpa would soak for an entire day before baking, stewing, or sautéing (just watch out for the bones!); 5) fresh sardines; 6) fresh mackerel (with its eyes staring up at you right from the oven;) and 7) fresh, cooked cold shrimp. The savory extras thrown in for good measure might be pasta with anchovies; or else cauliflower and bread salad with canned sardines, olive oil, and vinegar; a plate of fried artichokes; and a fresh, thick bulb of fenocchio (anise) with a dish of olive oil and salt and pepper for dipping.
Where’s the dessert? My mom always hosts the Christmas Day feast, and she brings out the scrumptious desserts, like Panforte, Panettone, Torrone, and cookies like rum balls, cucidati and pizzelles right after that. But in honor of the solemnity of the vigil of Christmas Eve, we’d put off the decadent treats until Christmas Day, in favor of assorted nuts and oranges. (Besides, after eating all of those courses, who has room for more?) But when you’re Italian, one does as the Italians do, and we washed down our vigil feast with a little digestivo. Nana and Grandpa could finally sit back and revel in the happy, fulfilled looks on their children’s sated faces, and sip a bit of Strega liqueur or some coffee with a bit of anisette. Nana would remove her apron, smile, and let out a contented sigh while she sipped her steaming espresso to the sound of cracking walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds. Grandpa would unseal and pass a mason jar of homemade peaches that he’d packed in thick syrup the past summer. My dad would impress the little ones by squeezing orange zest into the candle flame, and shock them with a little squirt of it in the eye to keep them on their toes before Santa arrived.
Looking back, I’m not sure if I appreciate more the dining room table set with glimmering china and glassware, steaming plates of abundant food, and ravenous eyes twinkling amid the high, tapered candles at the beginning of the meal; the laughter and the sharing of exotic delicacies with family that seems to outgrow the table every year; or else the drowsy, drunk-with-food-and-wine faces, slumped on elbows atop the delicate, Burano lace tablecloth strewn with nut shells and orange peels. I’m sure it’s the perfect combination of all of it.
As you celebrate your holiday traditions this year, take a moment to cherish the delicious traditions of the past and savor them like comfort food. Buon Natale, tutti!