The memories of my childhood holidays, numerous and varied, are all stitched together patchwork quilt style with our family traditions as the thread that binds them. With “Italian Hour” playing on the kitchen radio, the heavenly scents that I had come to associate with Christmas wafted from the kitchen and I knew the magic of the season had finally arrived.
Christmas Eve was marked with the feast of Seven Fish. There was shrimp cocktail and shrimp scampi, flounder, calamari, polpo, baccala, baked clams and steaming mussels over garlicky linguine. Endless baskets of Italian bread were passed round and round the table and the courses just kept coming. Fruit and nuts made an appearance and raw fennel to aid with digestion. Light and fluffy sfingi rolled in cinnamon and sugar were a Christmas requirement and of course the honey balls with sprinkles followed by trays of cannoli, biscotti regina and Sfogliatella. There were always cucidati– the fig cookies, so labor intensive that they took my mother two or three days to complete.
They are my Dad’s favorite but she locked them away and would never let him have any until Christmas. He often joked that he imagined himself in his deathbed, suddenly smelling the heavenly aroma of fig cookies and being filled with joy that my mother was making them for him one last time. He saw himself dragging his weak body from the bed and crawling to the kitchen, mouth beginning to water. He’d reach up, using every bit of strength he had left to take a cookie only to have his hand swatted away with my mother scolding, “Leave that! They’re for the funeral!” We laugh because, knowing their dynamic, it seems very plausible!
As my parents arrived for this year’s Christmas celebration, hunched over and shuffling, I couldn’t help but think about how time passes and the traditions inevitably change. My daughters and I have taken over the kitchen and the traditions are still there but modified.
We have a smaller crowd now so while Christmas Eve is still always seafood, we don’t always have seven fish. This year was caviar and crème fraiche on baby red potatoes, shrimp cocktail, and calamari. Then we did seared scallops over an arugula, goat cheese beet salad followed by home made fettuccine with smoked salmon in a lemon cream sauce. There was no flounder and even if there had been, I wouldn’t have fried it as my family always did. My father was aghast! We forgot all about the sfingi and the honey balls were never really my favorite so we skipped those.
I had hoped that my parents would arrive with the treasured tin of cucidati but it was clear that those days are gone and I got the recipe instead. Next year, it will be my turn to carry on that custom.
It takes a concerted effort to keep these family rituals alive. Even when we do get the recipes, have you ever noticed that they sometimes just don’t taste the same as when grandma made it? What is her trick? The secret?
So don’t just make sure you get the recipes, but set aside some time to actually make the recipes with your loved one together. Both the knowledge they have to impart and the memories you create will be beyond priceless.