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The Meals Who Make Us What We Are

Seven Fishes! (photo courtesy Austin Kleon)

Seven Fishes! (photo courtesy Austin Kleon)

One of the things that came out of my article on “The Eternal Italian Debate: Gravy vs. Sauce” was that Italian Americans don’t agree on everything. Some people wrote to me that they never called “it” gravy, that it was not gravy, but that it was sauce. Some said the opposite. I had concluded my article by saying that “What is sauce for the goose is gravy for the gander.” I call it gravy and I still do.

But this article is not about gravy. It is a little bit about the foods that went with the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas among Italian Americans. I have already discussed the dishes that I ate on these holidays, such as homemade raviolis at Thanksgiving, along with escarole soup, stuffed mushrooms, eggplant, etc. Some people wrote to me saying that they had lasagna instead. Or stuffed shells.

However, everyone had some sort of Italian dish – usually a few dishes – that preceded the “American” portion of the meal. The presence of these Italian dishes – especially in their abundance – marked the meal as am Italian American Thanksgiving meal. Mixing the American meal with Italian dishes was our way of embracing a core American custom and integrating it into our Italian culture. It was very specific to us; non-Italian Americans did not do this. Some had the ‘standard’ meal alone; others wove with their own particular ethnic dishes, such as Jewish, Irish, Mexican, etc.

Christmas Eve was a little different because it is also a religious holiday, so the tradition of eating fish on the night before Christmas is shared by many if not all Catholics. It is not incumbent for Catholics to eat fish on Christmas Eve, but many did as part of the custom to refrain from meat on the Eve of holidays. However, only the Southern Italians developed this into a ritualized meal called La Vigilia – the Vigil – also known as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” The near universal fish was probably salted-cod or Baccalà. The other types of fish varied. My family always had calamari in the gravy, and from what I remember, smelts and quahogs, as well as a seafood salad that had tuna and other fish in it. Christmas day was similar to Thanksgiving in that in addition to the American custom of a ham, roast or turkey – along with the sides – we had anti-pasti, macaroni or spaghetti, and gravy meats as well. In both cases, we were making these holidays into Italian American holidays as well Christian, Catholic, and American holidays.

Today you can find websites that advertise “global side dishes” to go with the American Thanksgiving meal – dishes that are not from their practiced ethnicity or heritage of the people eating them. I don’t know how many people are doing this, nor how many non-Italian Americans are adding Italian dishes to their traditional thanksgiving meal. There is probably less of this for Christmas as it is still a religious holiday, though I would be surprised if the custom of eating fish on Christmas Eve was spreading to non-Catholics.

I’m getting to my point, the real topic of this article. I was recently interviewed and asked about Italian American identity. It was to be broadcast in Italy where they may still not know much about the Italians who came to America last century. I pointed out that while many Italian Americans had lost the Italian language, particularly those whose grandparents and parents had come over before the war, they had many other things that made them/us Italian Americans. Food was one of them.

Many Italians today may not recognize Italian American food as the Italian food that they know and are proud of, but that does not take away from what it meant to us and how it made us into who we were, both physical in that it nourished our bodies, but also symbolically in that it marked our ethnic identity. The holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas were especially relevant to the understanding of ourselves as Italian Americans celebrating these two important holidays. We ate the foods that we were, and we were the foods that we ate.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.