The Italian-American Christmas, a time for family feast
This year, Christmas Eve will be different than in years past. Normally, the holiday is spent with family from near and far. The table is packed and the kitchen looks like a fish-mongerer’s cart.
Should a family of four really eat seven fishes? What if it is just two people, then what?
Growing up, the Feast of the Seven Fishes was traditionally held at my parents’ home. Different relatives would gather. It was also the one meal that started later. I think we used to meet at my parents’ house at 7 p.m.
Christmas music would begin playing (a little too loudly) around 6:30 p.m.
My mom would prepare the dinner and the appetizers. My dad would help clean the shrimp. I would help make one of the seafood appetizers. It is probably the only recipe I have memorized.
Each year the fish offerings would change with only two mandatory items: a clam appetizer and my cousin’s squid in red sauce. My mother would usually pick from these favorites: crab cakes, grilled salmon, shrimp scampi, lobster tails, lobster cakes, shrimp cocktail, cod, clams casino, crab imperial, scungilli salad or smelts.
I remember a year or two where she was at six, so she would call a relative in a panic. The family member would bring over a seafood dish or one year, goldfish crackers. I have had some friends who have had candy Swedish fish as one of the seven fishes. We would dine around 8 p.m. enjoying the bounty of the sea and for a vegetable, peas. I have no idea why peas were always served. But a big platter of peas was always on the table near the grated cheese.
Then dinner would be over and after clearing the table, removing the stinky fishy garbage to the trashcan furthest from the house, we would set out dessert. This is the one holiday where desserts did not out number guests. It was generally Christmas cookies made by us, even dad helped make the peanut butter balls.
One of the recipes used was my great-grandmother’s. No one has changed it in the more than 100 years our family has been using it.
To be honest, my cookies were never put out. They were not as artistically decorated as those by the rest of my family.
Then on Christmas Day, we would pack in the car and head to the city to my aunt and uncle’s house packed with kids and dogs.
We never had ham on Christmas Day as a kid. I didn’t know it was a thing until college. We always had lamb. As a kid it made sense. Jesus was the lamb of God after all. How does ham fit in to Christmas?
My aunt for an appetizer made baked clams. Nothing fancy but they were the best clams of my life. As a kid, I would eat four or five.
My older brother and my younger cousin would eat them like they were the last clams on Earth. There were maybe 12 of us at dinner, and my aunt made five trays. Three trays for the 10 of us and a tray each for my brother and cousin.
Dessert was Italian pastries from a well-known bakery and more of my family’s cookies. Sesame-based candy Halvah was always on the table. My aunt purchased it at a nearby store for my dad and uncle, but we all loved it.
This year will be different, less people, less fish and probably some ugly cookies (my artistry has not improved with age). Maybe if I buy some Halvah it will feel more normal.
Do you have a story about growing up Italian, either in Hammonton or anywhere else? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.