It’s no secret that good food is key to nearly every Italian or Italian-American tradition, but Christmas Eve is in a league of its own. Known as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” the multicourse meal boasts a minimum of seven seafood dishes as well as plenty of pasta, fruit and sweets.
Also referred to as “La Vigilia,” Italian for “The Vigil,” the meal is traditionally enjoyed alongside loved ones in the hours prior to midnight mass. But it’s also a tradition steeped in mystery and regional variation, with foods, recipes and rituals differing from home to home.
“A lot of people say the seven fishes stand for the seven sacraments, and that’s what I’ve always known” said Dolores Scalise, one of Schenectady’s resident “everything-Italian” experts. Besides being widely-loved for her cooking and baking skills, Scalise is an active volunteer at the American Italian Heritage Museum in Albany.
She grew up in Herkimer, the third of four children and the first to be born in the U.S., with her father immigrating from Calabria in the 1920s and her mother in the 1930s. Her parents owned a restaurant named Tony’s, and her mother, Giuseppina, would prepare a fishy feast every year on the 24th of December.
“There’s no meat on Christmas Eve, that was always taboo,” Scalise said, referring to a Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat that hearkens back to meatless Fridays and meatless holy days. “Most Italian immigrant families that kept this up did it because they wanted to celebrate the way they did in Italy.” That was the case for Scalise’s parents, but it’s something she took to heart as well.
“I tried to keep up the tradition,” she said, in honor of her mother and her heritage. “Like everyone else, I modernized a little bit. We still had the seven fishes, but I was doing it my way every single Christmas Eve, making dinner for 30, sometimes 32 people.” The evening was always about family, friends and the birth of Jesus, and that’s the reason she still does it today.
“We’d have smelt, baccala — baccala is really a big thing for us,” she said, the latter being better known as cod. Scalise recalls that as a kid she loved the holiday and the tradition, but wasn’t as much a fan of the entrees. She grew into it, she said.
Baccala stew was one of the dishes her mother would make year-in and year-out, but it’s not a dish for the faint of heart. “She would soak the fish in cold water for five days beforehand and the whole garage would smell of fish,” she said.
The reason for that is that baccala is a dried fish preserved with salt. “You had to soak it to get rid of all that salt,” she said. Her mother made her stew with canned tomatoes, potatoes, onions, fennel and olives, but Scalise was careful to mention that this is just one recipe. “Everybody has their own thing that they do on that night and their own way of making things, but we all eat drink and be merry.”
Since there were seven seafood dishes on the table, at a minimum, Scalise said her mother would serve fried pieces of baccala and fried smelts. She would also cook angel hair pasta with garlic, oil and anchovies: “The anchovies would disintegrate, but leave that great flavor.”
Giuseppina would also make snails, something Scalise wouldn’t touch as a kid. During her own celebrations years later, she dropped the snails and instead opted to prepare shrimp two ways—fried and as a cocktail. “You could say I updated the menu a bit.” Fried calamari were also a mainstay, especially with a side of red sauce, as was fried haddock.
Another thing her mother always made was crispelle, she said, which is a fried dough round with anchovies in the middle. Giuseppina’s secret was the addition of mashed potatoes to her dough.
“When you sit down at the table, you’re getting ready for the Christ Child to come,” Scalise said. “This is our way of honoring that, celebrating with a big dinner and then midnight mass.”
Scalise said her parents would spend days preparing both the food and their home, and that as merry as it was, it was also hectic. Even during the meal, company would come and go, moving from house to house visiting godmothers and cousins, she said.
“You would eat right up until mass but even then, it never really ended as things would continue after with a shot of anisette or a little something else,” Scalise said. Roasted chestnuts and torrone, which is a nut-laden nougat candy, as well as tangerines, figs and prickly pears also decorated the table, in case you wanted something sweet or a bit lighter.
“It was very important that you had all of this — each one of these things,” she said. “Christmas Eve wasn’t complete without them.”
As far as her favorite traditional dish, Scalise can’t honestly say. “Did I ever eat? I was always cooking and feeding, so no, I never did!” But she did love the excitement, the company and the reason behind it all.
This is the recipe Dolores’ mother, Giuseppina used, and the one that Dolores still makes today.
3 lbs. dried baccala (codfish)
5-6 medium potatoes, cut in thirds
1 cup diced celery stalks
2 medium carrots, cut in pieces
1 can (29 oz.) whole ripe tomatoes, crushed
1 medium onion
Salt & pepper to taste
1 cup diced Italian finocchio (fennel)
1 cup red wine
Soak baccala in cold water for three or four days, changing the water daily. Baccala is salted and dried, so this helps soften the fish gets rid of some of the salt added to preserve it. On the third or fourth day, drain the baccala and pat it dry with paper towels. Cut into small pieces. Dip each piece of baccala in flour and fry in hot oil on both sides, setting aside for now.
Cover the bottom of a large saucepan with olive oil. Place onion, celery, carrots, and finocchio and olives if preferred, and cook until tender. Add potatoes, tomatoes, wine and a little water if needed, cooking on medium heat for 15 or 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Gently add the baccala in with the rest of the ingredients. Cook together for 10 minutes or so. If you have leftovers, serve over pasta.