The holiday season is a time when memories ripen before us like plump fruit; ready to be picked; cherished, and savored. I also believe our senses become a primary vehicle for those memories—the tastes, sounds, textures, and sights of our environment and people around us help solidify all the magical moments we treasure.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition in my family that has always made me smile and long for a simpler, quieter time.
Coming from a big Italian household, when I close my eyes and remember Christmas, I can still picture the food spread out on the massive table for Christmas Eve. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a traditional Italian custom where a seafood feast is served. Though I was young, I’ll never forget the multiple courses my grandmother cooked, and the excitement of me and my cousins anticipating every last one.
Homemade ravioli would begin the evening, smothered in a sauce that had been simmering for hours on the stove in the giant steel pot. The tangy scents of garlic, basil, and tomatoes filled the air. The pasta was always cooked al dente—on the firm side, and inside the ricotta cheese melted in your mouth, fragrant with herbs.
Yes. This was our appetizer.
The seafood came next. Fresh crab claws stacked on top of one another and dripping with lemon and butter. Flaky fillets of baccalà (salt cod), halibut, and sole served with roasted fennel and olives. Mussels and clams steamed until their shells crack open invitingly, the tender treasures inside still tangy with the scent of the ocean. Chilled Gulf shrimp laid out on platters with lemon and cocktail sauce. Loaves of crusty bread littered the table. Jugs of Chianti accompanied each course, milk for the children.
My family is loud and the table was overrun by laughter, hand gestures, and trying to talk over one another in order to propel their opinion. Of course, all of this for me was a simple preparation for the finale.
The fluffy cakes of panettone and pandoro were a staple, along with traditional holiday delights such as torrone, hazelnut chocolates, panforte, and endless butter cookies. Cannoli’s and eclairs stuffed with cream; walnuts and chestnuts still in their hard shells, the chewy nuts a reward for brandishing the nutcracker like a weapon. This was all washed down by a bitter, clear alcohol called grappa, and the sweet bite of sambuca poured into tiny cups of steaming espresso.
My family would whip out the deck of cards and play poker and pinochle, while the men smoked thick cigars and the women rushed about cleaning up while the children played, crawling under the table for hide and go seek games, warm and cozy in our pajamas.
I’ve made my own beloved traditions with my children, but we don’t honor the Feast of the Seven Fishes. We go out to an Italian restaurant and spend three hours on meals cooked by the experts, with no cleanup. But my memories of past Christmases, with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, is a staple that has made me who I am today.
While writing Our Italian Summer, food plays a prominent character, along with family. I’ve tried to weave in the same magic I remember from my holidays, where a table with people and good food and good conversation will always be the most fun, and most cherished of all memories.