THE FEAST of The 7 FISH ITALIAN CHRISTMAS EVE DINNER

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The FEAST of THE 7 FISH  is AVAILABLE on AMAZON.com

Christmas Eve Fish Dinner is, without question, the most important, the most festive, the most familial, the warmest and most memorable family gathering. For me, Christmas Eve Dinner surpasses every other holiday, As important and delightful as Thanksgiving of Easter or even Fourth of July might be, nothing approaches the ineffable depth and richness of Christmas Eve Fish Dinner offered a table unlike that of any other holiday.

But before I go further, let’s consider the name of this dinner. Among some Italians that I have questioned it is called “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” for other families, including my own, it was simply Christmas Eve Fish Dinner. There was no specific number of fish involved. Carol Field’ Celebrating Italy, a most thorough study of Italian holidays, notes that Christmas Eve dinner calls for fish but makes no mention of the number of fish dishes. Moving my investigation of the Christmas Eve dinner to Google Italy, I found that it is generally called “Il Cenone della Vigilia” (The great dinner of the Eve.) No Italian site I found made mention of the number of fish. I have the sense that the notion of seven fish may be Italian American and even here only among certain families.

The next question I considered was the type of fish. Almost every reference I found and all the people I interviewed had numerous variations. Among most Italians sites two fish appeared most often, baccalà and eel. Among traditional Italian Americans the two most common dishes were baccalà (usually in a cold salad recipe) and fried smelts. In many younger and less traditionally bound Italian Americans all the old time fish were gone. The new fish platters now included shrimp and fried fish and even fish sticks. Italian Americans are not alone in modernization. It seems that even in Italy the younger generations recoil at the notion of such fish as eel.

While what this dinner is rightly called and which fish are those to be presented seems to vary from region to region and family to family a few things about Christmas Eve fish dinner, go unquestioned. Christmas Eve fish dinner was the one dinner no one missed. Christmas Eve fish dinner was at the home of the patriarch or matriarch. Every child and grandchild was present. The power of the Italian American Christmas Eve dinner overwhelmed all other cultural influences. While the fish dinner may have been rooted in Italy it spread its branches to include and embrace not only those non-Italians who had married into the family but all those of other ethnic backgrounds who were friends beyond the family. Everyone with any association to the family was invited to the Christmas Eve fish dinner.

While all other holiday dinners gathered the family while there was still light in the sky, Christmas Eve Fish Dinner began sometime after sunset. It was and is, the only festive dinner in the Italian American tradition that is shared in darkness. All other holidays in the Italian American tradition are celebrated at the table sometime shortly after noon. Christmas Eve Fish Dinner always began sometime after six in the evening.

Christmas Eve Fish Dinner differs from all other dinners by its lack of structure. Other dinners, whether Sunday Gravy or Easter Sunday follow a certain formality. For other dinners there is always a soup course, an antipasto, the pasta, the main course and then the dessert. The Christmas Eve Fish Dinner was quite different. The Christmas Eve Fish Dinner had courses, but the courses were not single dishes. For the Christmas Eve fish dinner each course was composed of several offerings. And the whole dinner was preceded by a cold table of finger foods that allowed mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews to chatter for an hour or so before dinner began. The finger foods were set on small tables in the living room. The platters included olives, slices of celery and broccoli, and a dish of crackers. There were also plates of cooked shrimp with sides of shrimp cocktail sauce. The olives were from cans and the children liked to slide the pit wholes over their fingers as they chomped on the olives. I would guess that the shrimp and the horseradish based cocktail sauce was an influence from the fashionable restaurants of the time.

After at least an hour of nibbling on the side platters the dinner bell called us to the tables. Yes, tables. In our family there were three. In our center hall style house, the dining room table was turned towards the center hall. A second and third table were butted up to the main table. The three tables continued through the center hall into the living room. Seating was determined by age. The oldest sat in the dining room section; the younger the child the closer to the living room.

There was no soup on Christmas Eve. When we sat at the table we first saw a small bowl of whiting salad with lemon and a serving of “scungilli,” conch. When I was small there was a cold baccalà salad with tomato. These cold fish salads were followed by the pasta. Of course, we never heard or used the word “pasta.” For us the “pasta” dish was one of three possibilities. It changed from year to year. It could be either “Clams and Spaghetti,” “Mussels and Spaghetti,” or “Squid and Spaghetti.” The spaghetti were always the very thin “angel hair” (“capellini.”)

The next course is always a serving of several varieties of fried fish. My Irish background mother prepared several fish offerings in different ways. There are three central dishes. First, she made a tray of plain American fish sticks for the children and for those at the table of a less than Italian heritage. Then, as a middle ground, my mother makes the most exquisite crab cakes that would appeal to Italian traditionalists as much as to the non- Italian in-laws. For the old timers there is always the most wonderful finger food, fried smelts with lemon. There are also fried scallops, fried shrimp, fried calamari and fried oysters.

Following the fried dishes, the table is covered with several trays of broiled scallop, shrimp and clams. Then comes the main fish platter. This platter has no Italian precedent that I know of. My mother introduced this dish about thirty years ago: stuffed orange roughy papillote. The orange roughy papillote is made by splitting the fish into two pieces and filling with a layer of spinach with tomato, garlic and olive oil. The fish is wrapped in parchment and baked.

After a rest and an interlude of conversation the Christmas Eve Fish dinner is crowned by the dish everyone waits for, my mother’s tray of Christmas cookies. We began at five in the evening. After the cookies it is after 11. The culmination of the Christmas Eve Fish Dinner is Midnight Mass. Following Christmas Midnight Mass the family came home to a wonderful breakfast of eggs and bacon and, in Philadelphia, of scrapple. The special delight of the breakfast was the Christmas Bread, a wonderful brioche-like pastry shaped in a ring and decorated with multi-colored sprinkles. But Christmas bread is another page.

 

by TONY D MORINELLI

SUNDAY SAUCE

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One of the great traditions of the Italian American enclave in the U.S. is the ritual of Sunday afternoon when the entire family gets together for Mama’s or Nona’s famed “Sunday Sauce.” What is it? Well there are a number of variations on the theme. Most Sunday Sauce’s are made with Italian Sausage, Braciola, and Meatballs. Some people make theirs with pork ribs, beef neck, and possibly chicken thighs and backs. These meats are slowly simmered for several hours with tomato, minced onions, garlic, celery, and carrots. I generally like to make my Sunday Sauce with sausage, meatballs, and pork ribs. Other times I’ll make it with Sausage, Ribs, and Braciola. An old tradition in some families is that mother or grandma would start the sauce early on a Sunday morning, get it simmering away for a couple hours on top of the stove, then put it in the oven for a couple hours while everyone goes to church, the sauce slowly simmers and when you get back home, the sauce is ready.

The Sunday Sauce that my mother would make was with sausage, meatballs and beef braciola. My memories are vivid watching my mother stuffing the braciola with garlic, parsley, Pecorino, and pignoli nuts, then sewing up the bundles with a needle and thread so they would hold together while simmering in the gravy (many families all over the New York and around the country simply call Sunday Sauce “Gravy”). Another fond memory was helping my mother roll and shape the meatballs.

As for me, my Sunday Sauce will vary depending on my mood. One thing I love to do when making the sauce is the addition of pork spare ribs, which not to many people use, I love it.

Whenever people eat my sauce, they go nuts for the ribs and some are surprised cause they might never have had them in a sauce before. They didn’t know that you could use pork spareribs. The ribs are traditional with some but not everybody. It is quite a shame for those who don’t add the ribs because they give the sauce some wonderful flavor and they are incredibly delicious to eat after braising in the sauce for a couple of hours. Whenever I make the sauce and I’m dishing it out to friends and family, I always make sure that I have my fare share of the ribs. Pork ribs cooked in this manner, simmering in the sauce are oh so succulent and tasty. They are far beyond compare. “They are Out-of-this-World!!!” The friends, one-by-one, go nuts for them. “Yes they are most than tasty!”

And what to serve with the Sunday Sauce you ask? It should be a short macaroni; rigatoni, ziti, or gnocchi are best.

The rituals of cooking, serving, and eating Sunday Sauce is a time honored one. It is a beautiful thing. If you mention the term Sunday Sauce to any number of millions of Italian-Americans, the wheels start turning in their heads. Thoughts of how tasty it is, all the different components; the meatballs, sausages, braciola, (maybe ribs, beef or pork neck), the pasta, and the gravy itself.

They think about sitting at the table with friends and or family, people they love. They think about the antipasti that will start the meal and about some good Italian Wine, maybe a nice Chianti. They think about the warmth in the air, loved ones, Dino, Sinatra, and of course, the

Sunday Sauce itself. “It’s a beautiful thing!!!” If you’ve never done it, “Try it!” If you haven’t cooked one for some time, plan a get-together soon. “Sunday Sauce, it brings people together,” in a most delightful way.

 

This is an Excerpt from Daniel Bellino-Zwicke’s “La TAVOLA”  Italian-American New Yorker’s Adventures of The Table, which is available in paperback and Kindle on AMAZON.com …

La Tavola is filled with wonderful Stories of Italian-American New Yorkers, many from Greenwich Village and their adventures of the Table and Kitchen, Food, Wine, Family, and Friends. This Book is “A Must Have” for anyone interested in Italian Food, New York Food, and the Italian American Lifestyle …

 

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READ ABOUT GREENWICH VILLAGE ITALIAN “NEW YORK ITALIAN” In “La TAVOLA”

READ of ITALIAN-AMERICAN GREENWICH VILLAGE in Daniel Bellino-Zwicke’s Book “La TAVOLA” Italian-American New Yorkers Adventures of The Table … The Food, The People, The Restaurants, Caffes, Pork Stores, Specialty Shops, Italian Butchers Pizzerias, and More … Stories of; SUNDAY SAUCE, MEATBALLS, CANNOLIS, SAUSAGES, PIZZA, and MEATBALL PARMS .. This Book Is “A MUST READ” For All Italian-Americans, those who Love The Food, Restaurants, Caffes, The People. It’s New York Italian, “And It’s DELIGHTFUL” !!!