Friends, family and salted cod: Inside an Italian Christmas.

It’s forty-five and sunny today. Aside from the Vince Guaraldi playing in Café Terra where I am writing this and the holiday decorations brightening up the DTR, there are few natural signs of the season. No snow, no blustery winds, I haven’t even broken out my pea coat yet.

Still, the holidays are here, and with them come the few short weeks out of the year where I find myself caught up in the hokey sentimentality and traditions that I would otherwise eschew with “too-cool” detachment.

Don’t get me wrong; I manage to keep some ironic edge – I’ve attended my share of Festivus and ugly sweater parties, and every year I threaten to wear a dickey a la Rusty Griswold from Christmas Vacation – but there is something about this time of year that makes it hard to avoid all those glad tidings and good cheer. (Maybe it’s all the wassail.)

Either way, the holidays have always been a time where I, like many so many others, eagerly embrace family traditions. For my big Italian family, those traditions have, not surprisingly, been built upon food. For those of you in Rutland who haven’t dined out recently – like in, say, the last seventy-five years or so – my family owns The Palms Restaurant. For going on five generations, cooking has been what we do and how we make a living.

But more than this, food and cooking is part of our heritage – an essential aspect of how we define ourselves as a family. I was helping my mother make lasagna and marinara sauce at The Palms before I could reach the tall wooden tables in the kitchen. I remember standing on a milk crate, laying out the noodles and cracking eggs while she explained the process.

My grandmother, Dorothy, showed me how to make meatballs when I was five. Whenever I make them now, the feeling of the soggy bread and cold ground beef reminds me of being by her side, helping her roll them while she taught me how to count and swear in Italian.

Christmas Eve, then, is the culmination, the high holiday on our cultural calendar. In my family, Christmas Day is mainly spent getting up late, opening presents and eating leftovers. It’s always been anticlimactic. Even as a child, the twenty-fifth always felt less important that the night before, which I remember as our very own Dean Martin Christmas Special – complete with ubiquitous cocktails, musical numbers and surprise guests (even several appearances by Santa).

The traditional Italian menu for Christmas Eve, or La Vigilia, consists of seafood. Lots of it. While my family executes it slightly differently – Eggplant Parmigiana has always been our main course – seafood remains a major part of the meal. The Feast of the Seven Fishes, as it is called, is a southern Italian tradition, which many families carried over with them to America. (With all the salt cod being boiled off, you can imagine what The Gut – Rutland’s historic Italian neighborhood – must have smelled like back then.)

Squid, octopus, clams, mussels and, of course, the cod or baccala – these are some of the exotic foods I encountered around the holidays growing up. As a result, my palate was very advanced for its age. By high school, I was slurping down raw oysters with gusto, and debating what makes for a good baccala salad. (I like lemon zest; though, my father disagrees.)

Though, of all the seafood dishes, the baccala – a cold salad of salt cod, hot and sweet peppers, and black olives – is the constant in my family, and as such, the recipe has become sacrosanct. The above lemon zest discussion culminated in two competing baccalas a couple years ago. While no clear winner was determined, I maintain that mine was an elegant improvement to the dish.

The main course, however, is the Spaghetti Olio – a dish so incredibly rich that its aroma will likely give you the gout. It is also one of the most delicious pasta dishes I have ever tasted. Tossed in angel hair, the Olio is an olive oil-based sauce simmered with garlic, onions, figs, black olives, and walnuts, and topped with grated pecorino Romano. The dish is so highly regarded by my family that is has its own course. (It also technically counts as one of the seven fishes, but if I told you how, I might be disowned.)

Depending on how adventurous you are the foods I just described either have you begging for an invitation or thanking god that your in-laws always bake a ham. For the latter’s sake, I’ll spare the details of the sufrite – a spicy, tomato-based dish consisting of chicken hearts and livers.

Indeed, there is a certain bit of indoctrination that must take place. Around the holidays, my mother often recalls her first Christmas with the Sabatasos. Still in high school and coming from a Scottish family with a little bit of French in the mix, she showed up expecting spaghetti and meatballs. Instead, she got boiled eel, and anchovies in just about everything. Fortunately, she was up for the challenge. (There’s a valuable lesson here for anyone looking to penetrate an Italian family.)

The other Christmas Eve tradition takes place before the meal even begins. Early that afternoon, my father, and, on occasion myself, load the car with jars of baccala and sufrite (the Olio doesn’t leave the kitchen), and head out to make our deliveries to the other Families. Each stop is met with a warm greeting, an exchange of food and a stiff drink. (It’s like the Visit of the Magi with a three-drink minimum.)

Some of my favorite Christmas memories have been on these trips – sitting with the Trombettas, eating cod fritters and drinking scotch; or discussing variations on the baccala recipe with our cousins, the Gallipos, (they cook the fillet whole, and heap the olives and peppers on top) – it’s this exchange that ties us together in our Italian heritage.

We share stories of past Christmas exploits; repeating some of them so many times that I often forget that I wasn’t even there. We talk about food (of course), comparing our menus for that night, trying to outdo one another either with the number of fishes or pounds of pasta cooked.

You may have noticed that Italians don’t just tell you the name of a dish, they tell you a story: listing the ingredients, explaining the preparation, building to what that first bite is going to taste like. If cooking is telling a story with food, the Italians are Garrison Keillor stuffed in a cannelloni shell and covered in marinara.

Sadly, in recent years, these afternoon excursions have gotten shorter. We no longer get Aunt Mary’s anginettes or my other Aunt Mary’s whiskey cake. Which is what makes it so imperative that these traditions get passed on, that they stay alive in the younger generations.

Walking into the kitchen of The Palms these days, I find my young niece and nephew alongside their grandmother rolling meatballs, or covered in flour as they help make the eggplant with their mom. Over the past few Christmas Eves, I’ve watched as they’ve cautiously sampled the baccala and the sufrite (they’ve always been fiends for the Olio).

I smile knowing that these traditions will live on in my family. Hopefully, they will one day look back on their memories in the kitchen and this time of year with all its strange foods, and like me, be filled the same schmaltzy holiday cheer that makes this season so special.

Buon Natale.

1 comment
  1. Testarossa said:

    Your article brought back many memories. I came across it while looking for a sufrite recipe. My mom’s recipe is pretty simple, and I’d like to jazz it up a bit. So many of the things you wrote about we took for granted, and didn’t realize till later that they were specific to Southern Italian traditions and cuisine. PS I probably know that secret ingredient in “Olio” :-) My husband was from the Philippines and was pleasantly surprised that I liked anchovies!

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