The moment the pumpkins were tossed I began my yearly obsession with the seven fish that I will make for Christmas Eve dinner. Growing up in our suburban Boston home, Thanksgiving was just an American excuse to get relatives together while, in our house, we did that every Sunday, like it -- and them -- or not. It was, in my mother's view, the warm up act for the most important meal of the year. Holiday sales were a hot topic by the first frost but focused squarely on which North End fish market would produce the best lobsters and the cheapest salt cod.
Holiday rituals can bring out the crazy in us all. We can run but we can't hide from the traditions of our parents and grandparents, especially those who brought the richness of their homelands with them to America. So, if you are like me, you make a lame attempt to emulate them just in case someone up there is watching.
Christmas Eve may be a holy day culminating in midnight mass, but in our house it was the meal in front of which we all genuflected. There were slight variations in the menu over the years, but only by a degree. Seven fish. Maybe more. Never, ever less. Generally, as a matter of peace preservation, you didn't screw with tradition. Nor did you argue with my mother who ruled her kitchen like a field marshal.
There was, naturally, the baccala, or, dried salt cod, which had to be reconstituted in water over a few days prior to cooking. A gooey batter was added before they were dropped into a pot of scalding oil and then manipulated with two forks into a donut shape until they turned a golden brown. These little baccala frittata gems were at the ready for whoever walked in the door first; tough luck if you were late.
Neighbors could smell the baby calamari rings and smelts frying from down the street. Even with decades of instruction under my belt, I never learned to properly clean these slippery creatures. My mother would sigh deeply as if this skill were tantamount to scoring a husband.
Then there was the shrimp stuffed with parsley, garlic and some breadcrumbs, splayed like dead soldiers on long cookie sheets. My job was to watch them as they baked, making sure to tell her right when they started to turn pink so they would not get too dry. Trust me when I say I never took my eyes off that oven.
The lobsters got special attention. They spent their last hours frolicking in the basement "ice box" until my father was summoned for his one holiday task -- plunging a long, sharp knife into their backs and cutting out the sacks of whatever part you were never supposed to eat. It was an ugly and messy job and one that earned him great respect and praise in the kitchen. They were then split open and filled with more shrimp, pulverized Ritz crackers, melted butter, parsley and, of course, more garlic, and baked till they turned just the right shade of dark red. They were the showstoppers and always won my mom the most applause when they were presented at the table.
The grand finale was the soupa di pesce, with lobster claws (because that is the secret that makes the sauce so over the moon) and whichever firm, white fish and little neck clams passed the beauty contest at the seaport. If she 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 as a kid as they would literally try to climb their way out of the hot pot) and baked, stuffed quahogs, if they were the right size and a good price could be had. Scungilli made a brief appearance but there were few takers so got axed from the lineup.
If my mom had an extra hour on her hands, she would make an emergency calamari tiella in case more people dropped by at any point. Her magic hands would knead the dough till "it feels like a baby's choolo," she would say. Tiella, a weekly staple for us, is pizza with a top and a bottom and filled with state-sanctioned assortments of calamari, spinach, or zucchini. My ex sister-in-law once free-lanced with alien ingredients and let's just say it didn't not go over well. Experimentation was not appreciated.
I would be remiss if I didn't say that this menu was the subject of great debate and heated arguments among the extended family because, naturally, they all had their own recipes and, naturally, theirs was the best.
My mom and dad are gone but, being a dutiful daughter as well as a superstitious one, I have tried to carry on these culinary traditions in our house but have routinely fallen short. My daughter, in a rather condescending tone, once remarked that I somehow cheated because I put all seven fish in the soupe di pece, just to save time.
As families fuse with other cultures, more traditions are born. Though my husband and children are Jewish, all holidays are celebrated in our home, especially the ones involving massive quantities of food. Passover Seder competes with Easter each spring as I have made tsimmis and kugel for as many as forty people. Even my mother helped, though I had to make her swear on a stack of holy bibles she would not add breadcrumbs to the matzo balls.
I am also reminded of the particular significance of Christmas Eve, a bittersweet night when, twenty-five years ago this year during dinner, my dad had a massive heart. Bitter because we thought he died right there with the lobster bib around his neck but sweet because he survived to see his daughter marry and grandkids produced. As the story goes in our house, Susan brings her Jewish boyfriend home for Christmas and her father has a heart attack. My brother successfully performed CPR on him and, as the ambulance carted my dad to the hospital, someone grabbed the calamari tiella and took it to the hospital so the doctors would know just who they were dealing with.
So, when the December chill sets in, I dig out my little box labeled "Mimi's Recipes" with her scratchy handwriting to find what, for me, is a treasure greater than jewels. And, though I will never make any part of the meal as good as she did, 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.