Christmas Memories from an Italian Kitchen

Courtesy of Susan Mercandetti

By Susan Mercandetti Posted December 21, 2015

Growing up Italian in a Boston suburb, Christmas Eve was all about the Feast of the Seven Fishes. 

The leftover turkey stock is still in the fridge, but I am already obsessing about the seven fish that I am genetically compelled to make for Christmas Eve dinner. Growing up Italian in my suburban Boston neighborhood, Thanksgiving was just another excuse to eat. For my immigrant parents, capon was served as a mere recognition of their adopted home—I say capon, not turkey, as my parents thought it too dry—but ravioli was the main event, a tradition that made me, a first generation American, crazy. The only gravy we saw was red, and it was for the pasta. End of story. Thanksgiving was, in my mother’s view, an American excuse to get relatives together; but in our house, we already did that every Sunday, like it—and them—or not. After Thanksgiving, while other families anticipated the impending holiday sales, the conversation in my house focused squarely on which North End fish market has the best lobsters…the meal for which we all lived.

To my mother, Christmas Eve dinner was the most important night of her year—a holy day that culminated in midnight mass, yes, but also the occasion on which we got to eat the meal for which we all genuflected. Phone conversations among the relatives started before the first frost.  ‘Hey, did you hear what they’re getting for cod today?’ ‘Hey, Johnny’s has some nice little clams.’ There were slight variations in the menu over the years, but only by a degree.  Generally, as a matter of peace preservation, you didn’t screw with tradition.

There was, naturally, the baccala, or dried salt cod frittatas, which had to be reconstituted in water over a few days prior to cooking. A gooey batter was incorporated that would be stretched with two forks into a donut-like shape in a bath of sizzling oil. Then there was the shrimp stuffed with parsley, garlic and some breadcrumbs, which were splayed like dead soldiers on long cookie sheets.  My job was to watch them through the glass oven door as they baked, making sure to tell her when they just started to turn pink. (Trust me when I say I never took my eyes off that oven.) The showstopper and my personal favorite was always the baked lobster stuffed with Ritz crackers, melted butter, and more shrimp—which my mother would present at the table to great applause.
The grand finale was the zuppa di pesce, with lobster claws (because that is the secret that makes the sauce so over the moon) and whichever white fish and little neck clams won the beauty contest at the seaport. If my mom found a few nice looking mussels, they went in, too.

Some years there were snails in a red tomato sauce (which used to freak me out; they would try to climb out of the hot pot) and baked, stuffed quahogs, if a good price could be negotiated.  Or, if my mother had an extra hour on her hands, she’d add a good calamari tiella to the table because, as she would say, you can never go wrong with a good tiella. You could bet the farm that on Christmas Eve you would be eating seven fish—sometimes more but never, ever less. I do believe my mom thought her father, known to us as Nonni Luigi, would come back from the dead if she deviated from this dictum. I now pretty much know for certain that he would have. 

My mom and dad are gone to the great calamari buffet in the sky, but being a dutiful as well as superstitious daughter, I have carried on the Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition in our house. I have always fallen very short. My daughter, in a rather condescending tone, once remarked that I cheated because I put all seven fish in the zuppa di pesce, just to save time.  

Though my husband and children are Jewish, we celebrate a range of holidays in our home, especially the ones involving massive quantities of food. At Passover Seder each year, I make tsimmis and kugel for a large crowd. Even my mother once helped, though I had to make her swear on a stack of bibles she would not add breadcrumbs to the matzo balls. 

These days, Christmas Eve is a bittersweet night for my family: Twenty-six years ago this year, my dad had a massive heart attack on the night. It’s bitter because we thought he had died right there with the lobster bib around his neck, sweet because he survived. As the story goes in our house, Susan brings her Jewish boyfriend home for the holidays and her father has a heart attack.  My brother and various family members successfully performed CPR on him and the calamari was transported from our table and distributed among the doctors at the hospital, just to ensure he got special treatment.  

So when the December chill sets in each year, I dig out my little box labeled “Mimi’s Recipes” to rediscover what, for me, are treasures greater than jewels. And though I will never make the “gravy” as good as she, and I might skip the deep-fried anything, in my own way and with love, I will attempt a Christmas Eve dinner of which she would hopefully be proud.

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