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A Lionel in Winter
How a boy and his dad celebrated their railroad past... and present

Om Christmas Tree
How do Buddhists celebrate Christmas? Meditatively.

The Ghost of Christmas Past
A stage show leads to the true spirit of the holiday

  Fish Do Not a Feast Make

Tradition begone...until my inner Proust erupts

by Adrienne Martini

An Italian Christmas Eve—at least in my family—is not for the faint of heart.

It's not the sheer, mind-bending volume of laughter that seems to displace all of the air from any given room, nor is it the blinding array of holiday-themed ties and plaid pants worn by the men (the women tend to opt for velvet and pearls) in the room. What is scariest—the thing that will leave only the most intrepid still standing—are the seven fishes.

No one has ever been adequately able to explain this whole Italian Xmas Eve fish thing to me but I suspect it has something to do with the Pope, which is always the safest answer when trying to ponder the improbable things that large Italian Catholic families do, or, at least, large Italian Catholic families only very recently removed from Naples do. Somehow, the Pope always manages to pop his pointy hat into everything—and most of the eating on Christmas Eve takes a brief intermission while we all roll down the hill like engorged ticks to attend midnight Mass, which is then followed by dessert.

The whole meal is pretty pedestrian in terms of seafood options; what is truly unsettling is seeing all of them laid out in front of you. There always seem to be a couple of kinds of shellfish, like crab, shrimp or langostinas, and a couple of kinds of fish-fish, like scrod or smelt. One year there was scungilli—an Italian sea slug that looks about as wonderful as it sounds—on the groaning sideboard. Every year there is baccala, which is salt cod that must soak for weeks on end before it can be made edible and can also be used as attic insulation should a crisis present itself. There is also always a lot of wine.

Let me be the first to say that almost everyone—man, woman and of-age child—on this side of the family can cook. I'm sure every last dish is a journey to gustatory paradise. But, slipper-footed pontiff forgive me, I don't like seafood.

I know I should be thankful for the feast that has been set before me, when so many aren't able to enjoy salt cod and scungilli and barrels of wine. Yet I can't really eat most of it without having to suppress the little critic in the back of my head that makes a yucky face and gagging noises. It's not enough to say that most seafood is simply not to my liking—to be accurate, my body actively rejects it. I suspect it has something to do with my Scots-Irish (and Protestant) mother force-feeding me frozen fish sticks. Probably, though, it has something to do with the Pope.

My hatred for all foods from the water was worse when I was a teenager, which was when my folks moved back to Pittsburgh and it was once again possible to have Christmas Eve with the Italians. I would turn my nose up at anything vaguely fishy, choosing to stick with a bowl full of un-sauced pasta plus some strange nougat candies that taste almost the same as the little boxes they come in, each of which featured a saint in some kind of holiday-themed setting. My grandmother and the older aunts would shake their heads at me, as if my avoidance of the sumptuous spread constituted some kind of venial sin. Which it might, for all I know.

Like clockwork, one of the well-meaning younger aunts would try to shelter me from the guilt and pour a ladle-full of red sauce onto my nice, dry pasta. And, invariably, this ladle-full of red sauce would have tentacles floating in it, the bottom half of an unfortunate squid. The top half would be in the pot as well, stuffed and tied with thick, black thread, which would pile up on the rim of my father's plate as the evening wore on. Yech. It was always too much for the far-too-sensitive teen I was.

Years, as they do, passed. I went to college, the parents left Pittsburgh, I graduated, and moved to Texas. I was truly shocked to realize the Lone Star State holds few Italians, hence no real Italian food, and the paisan I did find planted their roots in different soil than the Martini/Martino/Mastandrea clan. Hence, no fish, no feast. Try as I might I could never find that strange nougat candy (still can't, in fact) but I'd boil a crab or two—probably the only seafood I can stomach—and drink too much wine on Christmas Eve in honor of the folks. But even that tradition faded, only to be supplanted with spicy Mexican tamales, a few slices of smoky beef brisket and too many margaritas.

And yet, yet, for all of my whining and complaining and loathing of the fish, I've started to miss it. No, that's a lie. I miss the ritual of the fish—of the aunts, of the grandmother, of the tradition of pleading to eat just a bite, of sliding down frozen streets to midnight Mass where I would watch the proceedings just this side of consciousness, of the demented, glorious ties and plaid pants. The fish in the flesh I could live a long life without.

In my secret heart of hearts, which is where I believe Proust may live in all of us, I long to recreate these Christmas Eves—seven fishes and all. It's impossible, though, or at least wildly impractical. Why cook a meal you have no intention of eating? Besides, I can't get half of the ingredients in this part of the country anyway—and I don't think that anyone in town knows enough about these dishes to cater. And, even if they did know how to clean a squid or braise a sea slug, they couldn't also import the ear-splitting volume and the aunts who would make you a plate of dry pasta, simply because it made you feel like you belonged to the family, despite your distaste for a tradition that helps hold them together.

December 14, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 50
© 2000 Metro Pulse