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It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas?
The 2020 holiday season is going to be quieter than any other. The joy and drudgery of non-stop cooking, decorating and cleaning for the endless flow of relatives and friends will be scaled down in our house to a modest party of three. As much as the food production frenzy and antics of our extended family put our well-being to the test, hosting Christmas feels like the crowning achievement of any year, whether it’s been naughty or nice. In Italy, the measures to be taken for the end-of-year festivities are still in flux, but we’ve decided to stay put and wait to see family when less risk is involved. So our crowd will be small, and we wonder how can we pare back our twelvetide extravaganza and keep that feeling of magic which makes this time of year so special for children.
A Roast Beef Family
The Christmas table growing up was moveable. Sometimes at our grandparents’, more rarely at an aunt’s or an uncle’s, and most frequently at our home. It was always a buffet, which gave children the freedom to eat few vegetables or none and saved the adults from the embarrassment of asking for seconds. Without being firmly planted at the table, the ceremony of gift unwrapping dictated the pace of the day.
We were a roast beef family, although I remember an overbearingly sweet country ham here and there. Enough turkey was had at Thanksgiving to tide us over for another year. There were usually some root vegetables or brussels sprouts, a Christmas salad and spinach timbales. For starch we could count on Yorkshire puddings or mashed potatoes. Salmon crostini shaped like Christmas trees with chopped onion, dill and capers as decoration.
My mother was always creative with dessert. Our favorite was her buche de noel, a chocolate log with chocolate mousse filling and frosting, marzipan mushrooms sold in her store and powdered sugar for snow. I have no memories of making Christmas cookies, but making the gingerbread house was always a grand affair. All the candy canes on the Christmas tree would be collected, ground up and transformed into peppermint ice cream on New Year’s Eve with a White Mountain ice cream maker, which to us children looked like an ancient contraption, maybe even pre-Civil War.
The Feast of Seven Fishes
When you leave home and start sharing winter holidays with friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, other people’s families or alone, you discover that Christmas traditions seem both ubiquitous in the 160 countries that celebrate it and yet vastly eclectic. After college, I moved briefly to Philadelphia. While working as a waitress in Philadelphia at Anastasi Seafood Market, I found myself shelling buckets of shrimp to fill endless orders for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The Christmas Eve meal in our household had no particular culinary detail. It was more just moving through the motions to get to the 25th. For the Italian-American community, December 24, la Vigilia, was of far greater importance as attested to by its elaborate menu of baccalà, clams casino, shrimp cocktail and other sea fare. Seven dishes of different fish and seafood to be consumed before the midnight mass.
When I moved to Italy a year later and was eventually invited for holiday meals, I naively inquired about what I should bring for the seven course spread. “We eat fish on Christmas Eve, but there’s no set number”. The Italian-American creation is loosely connected to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat before Christmas, and still today in Italy la Vigilia is a fish or cheese-based occasion (although the feast of seven fishes could probably apply to my sister-in-law’s abundant dinner). Meat makes a mighty return to the Italian Christmas table with many local traditions calling for filled pasta such as tortellini or cappelletti served in capon broth and bollito misto or cotechino as a second course. In Ascoli at my husband’s family home, a chicken galantine served with aspic was de rigeur. The desserts for this time of year are dominated by the yeast-baked cakes of the North like panettone and pandoro, but my favorite is offella, Pierluigi Perbellini’s 1900 reinvention of Nadalin.
Tradition And Reinvention
If you’re surrounded by layers of history, visible signs of the end and beginnings of eras, of the endless cycles of creation, destruction and re-creation, whether human or geological, it’s hard not to ponder the origin of everything. Even Christmas, which seems wrapped up in so much lore. Like when was Christmas first celebrated (apparently the 4th century) or who invented Santa Claus or what does a log-shaped cake have to do with December 25?
You might say that answering those questions robs these rituals of their power. Instead, I’d say the magic of traditions lies in their invention and the human creativity reshaping them across history. So here I am thirty years later reinventing the holiday season with our own rites that bring together culture, geography, family background and who we want to be. That’s why in the days to come I’ll be preparing the Christmas capon broth for tortellini along with ordering a tenderloin, finding a recipe for corvina and gathering the right tuna and green olives from Ascoli to make sugo di magro for Christmas Eve. Just like my mother embraced her mother-in-law’s fruitcake and made it part of our celebration or my sister who moved to England and now adds Christmas pudding to her family’s feast.
So here’s to your midwinter festivities, whether revelry or peace-making, and your inventive ways of celebrating in this utterly unique year. A testament to human creativity, love for tradition and most of all for its invention. There’s no telling now whether Fauci on a Couchy will become a new mysterious Christmas spirit watching over the hygienic care of well-behaved children in centuries to come. But humor, merry and magic may be our best way to leave behind the coldest, darkest days of 2020 and into the light of 2021.
Juggling nuance between Italian and English, Tatiana lights up her five-burner kitchen top with nostalgia for American food, Bologna-inspired fare and cross-cultural inventions. She and her husband endlessly debate on cooking with or without a recipe. Their son just hopes that dinner will either be plain or have chocolate in it.