I don't remember what we had for dinner the first Christmas Eve that Dan and I were married. But there is a photograph of me on the second one, a wine glass of skim milk in front of me (I was pregnant) along with a lamb chop on a gold-rimmed plate. A lamb chop is, of course, meat, and Southern Italians (I am the granddaughter of four) do not eat meat on Christmas Eve, they eat fish.
What must I have been thinking back in 1986—that I was a married woman, free and independent, unbound by tradition? I can't recall. But I do know that I took an unenthusiastic bite of the chop, turned to my (non-Italian, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) husband and said, "Never again. I can't eat meat on Christmas Eve." And although over the years our Christmas Eve dinners have turned into large and joyful celebrations involving family, friends and neighbors, we never have.
Abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve is not, as one might imagine, part of Roman Catholic dogma, but rather an Italian tradition, particularly a Southern Italian and Sicilian one, brought across the ocean by the great wave of immigrants at the turn of the last century. But leave it to the Italians to turn what was intended to be a day of pre-holiday abstinence and sacrifice into a feast, to follow the letter of the law and cheerfully ignore its spirit. La Vigilia—the vigil—is celebrated by many as The Feast of the Seven Fishes, for the seven sacraments of the church. Well, at least seven. I've read that some people do nine: the Holy Trinity multiplied by three. Or 11 for the 12 apostles minus Judas. Or 13 for the 12 apostles plus Jesus. I've seen references to as many as 15 and 21.
But even seven is a tall order, one that I've managed to avoid myself. Several years ago, I consulted with my college pal Phil Calderone and asked if he actually went for the full monty and made seven different fish. Phil e-mailed me back promptly. No, not necessarily, he said. "But I always make an odd number; an even number would be unlucky!"
I think that was the year one of our guests unwittingly brought something with fish in it without telling us in advance, thereby creating an—oh no!—atmosphere of bad luck for all assembled. Dan (who by this point in the marriage had pretty much become an honorary Italian) quickly grabbed a can of Chicken of the Sea from the pantry and made a tuna fish sandwich, making the count odd again. Each guest took a ceremonial bite of the lucky sandwich. Not especially traditional, but it did the job.
I love hearing family and friends describe Christmas Eve meals of the past. "We went all out," says my sister's mother-in-law, Eleanor Cioffi, herself the daughter of immigrants. "We always started with antipasto," she recalls, "and then the fish." The first fish dish "was always vermicelli with anchovy sauce and capers" and then shrimp cocktail (undoubtedly a nod to their adopted country). There was always baccalà—dried salt cod—made into a salad with pickled peppers, olives, oil and vinegar. The baccalà was "hard as a rock when you got it, you had to soak it for a week, change the water daily." (I remember my own maternal grandmother soaking this fish in the bathroom off her kitchen in a pail set in her pink bathtub.)
Smelts: "We'd get the nice small ones and fry them whole." Calamari: "First nobody knew about it. It's popular now." Snails: "I never could eat them." Mussels in wine. Scungilli—conch—made into a salad like the baccalà with stuffed artichokes on the side. Then spumoni and cakes from the bakery for dessert, with cordials and coffee and wine throughout the meal. I count up the number of fish. Eight. "I thought there should only be seven," I venture, also thinking of the bad-luck implications of an even number. She waves her hand dismissively. "At least seven." Then she adds, "You can't imagine the food that was out there, but we had a lot of people."
"What about eel?" asks my friend Gary Gala, whose father was born in Basilicata, wedged in between Calabria, where my father's parents come from, and Campania, my mother's. What about it? I am, after all, a thoroughly American girl in most ways, don't even care for espresso, really, just give me a nice cup of caffè americano any day. Elodia Rigante, whose parents hailed from Apulia (Italy's heel), has her mother's recipe for fried eel, served with tomato sauce over pasta, in the Christmas Eve Feast section of her cookbook Italian Immigrant Cooking. "Everyone in my family advised me not to include this recipe in my cookbook, but how could I not?" she writes, warning that if you're a first-timer to eel preparation to purchase it "already skinned." My Uncle Pat (short for Pasquale) is squarely on Rigante's side. "Eel!" he exults. "Delicious!" When I demur, he presses on: "Have you ever had eel? Tastes like chicken. Fried. Very sweet. It's wonderful!"
"Absolutely no meat on Christmas Eve," insists my father. And although he came from a large immigrant family that included five sisters, "my mother did most of the cooking." (His brother, Charlie, puts it this way: "Italian mothers didn't like anybody to interfere with their cooking!") The first course was usually linguine with white clam sauce, over which was sprinkled a special mixture served only on Christmas Eve, of breadcrumbs and grated walnuts fried in olive oil called la mollica, the Italian word for crumb. (Grated walnuts? I ask my own mother, reluctant to skin my knuckles on this otherwise delicious tradition. She gives me an out: "Well, your Aunt Connie used to chop them fine.") The meal also included baccalà, shrimp, at least one other kind of white fish and maybe mussels. "I don't think she made seven," my father says simply of his mother, left a widow with 10 children in 1936.
I ask my father, the original Ben Franklin early-to-bed-early-to-rise man, if they used to go to midnight mass after the meal, and he said that he preferred to attend church on Christmas morning and then later in the day go on "visitations," sometimes with his brother, Lou, to friends and family. "We'd go to Zia Teresa's," he recalls, "and she'd be making fried sweets like crispelles, right there in a big pot of hot oil."
My mother is eager to talk not only of the meal—"definitely baccalà," calamari, smelts ("my mother would fry them for breakfast, too"), followed by panetone and struffoli (a honey-covered fried pastry)—but of what they did afterward. "We would walk to midnight mass—not everybody had cars in those days—at Mount Carmel, the 'Italian' church, and then after you would go out. The streets were lined with people!"
"Sometimes we would go to Uncle Sal's, and everybody was up. What was it, 1:30 or 2 in the morning? People were walking in and out like a parade, nibbling on cookies. The women were in the kitchen rolling little tiny meatballs for the Christmas lasagna." My mother's sister, Maria, who married Uncle Sal in 1951, says of her husband's family: "They left nothing undone. They didn't spend money on clothes. They spent it on food."
In fact, like many young Italian-American brides of that era, Aunt Maria learned to cook the Christmas Eve meal at the side of her mother-in-law. Lena Pelliccio was the matriarch of a brood of eight, and according to my aunt, long after everyone was married and had children of their own, come Dec. 24, "You had to be at that table!" She reels off a sampling of the dishes Lena would prepare: Scungilli, calamari salad, whiting, baccalà (of course) and eel, adding that "I always fry shrimp, because my family likes it. At the end of the meal, fruit and cheese. Cookies. Those fried bows. Struffoli. And always, anisette and black coffee."
My aunt reflects a moment. "I like traditions," she says, telling me she still makes the meal. So does her daughter, my cousin Lorna. And my sister Eleanor and her husband, Andrew Cioffi, did a bona fide Feast of Seven Fishes only a few years ago.
It's now 20 years since I foolishly made those Christmas Eve lamb chops. Although I've never made eel, or scungilli, or soaked my own baccalà, the fish dishes served over the years at our table have included relatively traditional choices such as shrimp scampi and stuffed clams oreganato. They also have included such non-traditional ones as a fish stew from one of the Moosewood cookbooks with cornbread on the side, or the super-rich seafood lasagna from the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, which contains clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and crabs (how could my grandmothers argue with that?). When Christmas Eve overlaps with Hanukkah we always make sure one of our Jewish friends brings a menorah, which is lit alongside our Advent wreath. (Once the prayer over the menorah was recited while the Hallelujah Chorus was being played in the background, one of my all-time favorite Christmas moments.)
As I write this, plans for this year's Christmas Eve are already under way. Guests have been invited, by e-mail. The menu isn't set yet, but maybe I'll try Eleanor Cioffi's anchovy pasta and sprinkle la mollica on top of it. Or Carlo Middione's Christmas Eve Pizza, Campanian Style, from The Food of Southern Italy. (It's topped with pine nuts, raisins, capers, chicory and anchovies.) Better yet, maybe I'll get my children to make the pizza. After all, what would make their mother happier than knowing they will keep alive the spirit of the Southern-Italian-American Christmas Eve, 21st-century style.