Saturday, October 19, 2013

La Familia

     Family is one of the most powerful connections one can have. Families can be the sources of our greatest joys and sorrows. This blog's aim is to share family traditions, especially food traditions, our forefathers--and mothers--brought from their own cultures and how we meld them into an "American" life.
     Being of Irish-Italian descent, my families' traditions are varied, and we tended to lean toward the Italian food  traditions. Who doesn't love Italian food?
     My all-time favorite tradition is the Feast of Seven Fishes, celebrated on Christmas Eve. The tradition originates in Southern Italy, and I am very fortunate that that is exactly where my father's parents are from.
     Traditionally, Christmas Eve is a fast day in the Catholic religion--meaning there is no meat to be eaten, although I cannot decipher exactly how that taboo began. I have surmised that early Christians, who were originally Hebrew, fasted for the Sabbath and their high holy days, so fasting comes along somewhere in all the Christian religions, as well. Compared to the fasting the Hebrews practiced, as well as Kosher households nowadays, foregoing meat one day a week does not seem like that much of a sacrifice, but that is fodder for quite another blog. I have not even been able to completely track down when the no-meat on Friday ban started, but I do know it was lifted in the mid-1960's under the Vatican II council of Pope Paul IV. Since Vatican II fasting is only required on Fridays during the Lenten season. Even that tradition has whittled down to next to noting compared to "the old days".
   My family also has continued "fasting" on Christmas Eve--however, I use the word "fast" very loosely here. The words "fast" and "feast" are only one letter different, but worlds apart in the culinary sense of Christmas Eve. Feasting on seven different fishes or seafoods, all non-meat fare does not sound like a sacrifice or a fast, and I am thankful for that.
    Our Feast of Seven Fishes consists of hectic planning and preparing a meal that uses seven different items. We usually start with shrimp cocktail and stuffed quahogs--hard-shelled clams. Then we head into the pasta course which is seafood fra diavolo--a spicy tomato based broth with stuffed squid, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and clams sometimes served as a soup with crusty bread, and other times over Penne. Either way, it is to die for!t The stuffed squid is something I remember my grandmother would make, then I watched my father make, and now I make. I hope to pass along the recipe to my boys. As of this writing only one of my sons eats calamari, and we share the tender stuffed morsels and smile that no one else at the table will touch them! More for us!

                       Here's a photo of some stuffed clams--also known as quahogs.
    The rest of of the dishes are quite simple: shrimp scampi, fried shrimp, and flounder fillets, and seared scallops just served with a variety of dipping sauces, hot sauce, cocktail sauce, tartar sauce and a nice big tossed salad of mixed lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green and black olives and homemade Italian salad dressing of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar with herbs and spices.
   The meal is far from over, however, we always save the crab legs for the end--sometimes we are too stuffed to eat them with dinner, so we wait a few hours and eventually everyone ends up back in the kitchen snooping around for the crab legs with drawn butter.
   Now that does not sound very much like a fast, does it? No, but it is a family tradition that I remember since I was a very little girl, and one that I still look forward to. It does this mom's heart good to hear my boys ask if there are any planned changes to the menu. I confess over the years I have pared down a bit, just not making quite the amount I used to try to stuff into one meal. We would end up eating leftover fish for a week. Now I make less, and have not taken away any more dishes. I used to also make shrimp Parmesan, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, it has fallen out of favor with all of us. I also used to make linguine with white clam sauce, but it was just too much food and too much cooking, so I now reserve the clam sauce for the evening of my youngest son's birthday, a week later. That has now become a tradition. He was the one who squawked the loudest when I removed it from the Christmas Eve menu, so I make it up to him by making it every year on his birthday. 
     That is how easy it is to create a tradition, just start something special for some occasion and just be sure to do it again and again, and make it "a big deal".
    Later I will get into the little of the history of the Feast of Seven Fishes and later I want to cover Easter traditions and perhaps share an age-old recipe that was almost lost to posterity because many grandma's did not write down or pass down their recipes. It is our duty to teach our children where they come from and celebrate the good and bad of their heritage--no matter where or what.
     So share share and please share. Help me turn this project into a resource.
Talk to you soon./barbara

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