The Debone the Baccala Day festivities: The Feast of Seven Fishes
Fish mongers all over New Jersey are raking it in today as Italian American families prepare for the long awaited “Feast of the 7 Fishes."
I’ve always looked forward to it, but for different reasons than the food.
Today it’s all about the food, but back in the day it was more about the imminent arrival of Santa Claus – and one particular year I’ll never forget.
The Year of the Skinny Santa, which for me is like a reading of “The 12 Days of Christmas!”
So, seeing is how the feast is such a production – perhaps it would be best to piece together just where it comes from.
According to this:
since Christmas Eve was (and I believe still is) a day of abstaining from meat, Southern Italians took to preparing a variety of fish dishes.
After all, fish is plentiful in Southern Italy, and the reason for the number 7 has more to do with “7” coming up as often as it does in the Bible – or perhaps there being 7 sacraments in the Roman Catholic rites.
Much of the fish is exotic – meaning you don’t necessarily eat it year round.
The centerpiece is the salted cod – or as we lovingly call it – baccala! It’s served in other cultures as well, but I think it’s popularity is due to the number of Southern Italians that have come to this country.
Their descendants (us) have upheld the tradition – so much so, that not having baccala as part of the night’s supper would be sacrilege!
However the other six can be left to your imagination.
If you’re traditional, you may go with some kind of pasta dish, such as linguine with clams (my favorite); crabs (not so much), or maybe if you’re Sicilian – pasta cu’ sard’ (pasta with sardines!)
You could go fried eels – like my maternal grandfather (who was from Sorrento) used to make. My mother would tell us of his frying them in a pan and how they’d jump out. (Eels have that tendency!)
Then there’s the fish salad featuring calamari (squid), pulpo (octopus); shrimp, scallops.
Rounding the meal off would be lobster tails, fried shrimp, and fried scallops.
And lest we forget, baked smelts for my brother in law (the pain in the ass!)
However, if you’re new age, add sushi to the menu. (Not something I endorse – but then again, who am I to tell you what to eat.
Of course there are other things to grace the pre-dinner table, like shrimp salad, the aforementioned sushi, and "scarole" pie, made with sautéed escarole, capers, olives, garlic, topped with a crust and baked.
If you’re flush with cash, figure you’re gonna spend about 5 grand easy.
But let us not forget dessert. For as long as I can remember, my mom used to make "struffule," which are these deep fried hard dough balls dipped in honey and topped with little dotted candies. Those and honey dipped deep fried bows made with the same dough were also part of the dessert tradition.
The standard ritual would be hearing my mother curse every time a bow would fall apart.
"Jesus Christ, I hate these f*&^in things!"
But then again, what would the Eve be without bows and struffules.
Topping it all off is my favorite dessert that no Christmas Eve table should be without. "Migliaccio", or cheese cake, made with farina, dried fruit, eggs, sugar, and plenty of ricotta. That and a nice cup of espresso and it's like heaven!
I say these are all necessary components of the "debone the baccala day" festivities. Yet, they're still only dishes.
What really makes them special - and I say this from the heart - is the companionship of family surrounding the table to share it all with.
And with that, I wish you the merriest of Christmases, complete with good food, family, and above all, lots of laughs and memories.