Maybe it's my stage in life, maybe it's having lost my grandfather last month. For whatever reason I'm really feeling Italian lately - and not in a nasty, stereotypical "Jersey Shore" kinda way.
Hearing no other ideas from the household peanut gallery it was time for a somewhat-traditional Italian Christmas Eve. My 80-something grandmother (she was married to her two-years-younger second husband for years before he found out her age, so I'm not telling) seemed to be a good source of info, so I gave her a call from the car.
[Side story - both of my grandparents could not - simply could not - understand this "being allergic to shellfish" business. As if I made it up. As if God would exempt me for the sake of heritage. As if it were some trendy malady and I'd hopped on the bandwagon. Remember the scene in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" when everyone freaked out about the boyfriend being vegetarian, and the aunt said "It's OK! I'll make lamb." That, but "shrimp."]
Me: I'm picking up fish for dinner tonight. What side dishes are traditional?
Grandmother: It's the Feast of the Seven Fishes. That's a lot of food, Steph. Who had room for side dishes?
Me: Fair enough. So what did y'all used to have?
Grandmother: Smelts. Shrimp, of course. Usually some tuna. Baccala*, which your aunt adored. My father loved spaghetti with anchovies, or sardines - you're probably not going to make that one, I guess. And he always had to have scungilli (eel). You could do something easy, like flounder. And of course we had all the other stuff that goes with it.
Me, fingers crossed: Other stuff?
Grandmother: You know, the vegetables.
Me, finally getting somewhere: Really? What did you have?
Grandmother, thinking.... : The usual stuff. Potatoes, I guess. Nothing fancy.
The DeKalb Farmer's Market is an amazing, thriving, international foodie paradise with a lot of things I've never heard of and can't pronounce and would love to try. And on Christmas Eve, if you were in the fish section then chances were good your last name ends with a vowel. An immediate community bonded; there was recipe talk, antipasto ideas, complaints about Aunt Rose, Aunt Mary, Uncle Sal, etc.
I will, at some point, post the recipe I made up for dinner tonight. I'm going to enter it in a contest, and to be eligible it has to be unpublished (yes, even on my own blog).
And the answer to the questions.... why fish, and why seven? It appears no one knows for certain. There is a theory that the idea comes from the Seven Hills of Rome - um, there's fish in them thar hills?? I don't get it. There is another that it's rooted in the traditions of Catholicism, which I don't understand well enough to detail.
This much I do know. Whether your December tradition is calamari or grilled pork or take-out, tradition matters. My grandmother's memories of her own childhood holidays, then sharing them with her children and grandchildren, are giving her comfort now. My grandfather's two biggest concerns with me were that I would forget I was Italian and/or turn Republican. And he may have considered those the same thing, Rudy Giuliani nonwithstanding.
The fish was on the table. And it was, if I say so myself, pretty darn good. And steamed veggies on the side - nothing fancy.
*Baccala is salted cod. Starting at least four days prior to serving it has to be soaked - with the water changed every six hours - to get the salt out. One of my friends once said it was something you would take to war as a physical weapon, a threat, and - if absolutely necessary - food.