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.
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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.