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The Tale of The Fishes

A Christmas Story by Maryann Ruperto (Maryann's mother's family is from Gamberale, province of Chieti).
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In my family Christmas Eve has always been our favorite day of the year. Not just because of the wonderful holiday but because it is our favorite meal of the year, our fish dinner. When I was a girl it was smelts and whiting. Breaded, fried fillets of flounder or cod. Squid in red sauce (tomato sauce) with homemade noodles. A modest amount of shrimp served 2 ways; boiled and served with a cocktail sauce and breaded and fried. Fried oysters. Scallops.

As I grew up, learned to cook, and our financial situation changed (for the better), the menu changed. We added more shrimp. We have shrimp scampi now, along with the shrimp cocktail and fried shrimp. Broiled salmon fillets. Crab cakes. Broiled tuna steaks or mahi-mahi. The perennial fried fillets and oysters. Oysters are my father's favorite and he is usually the only one who will eat them because no one else likes them. We have experimented with new dishes over the years. Fish soups, dishes made with cream sauces, or rolled and stuffed with rice, etc. Some dishes stayed and some we dropped.

Feast Seven Fishes
Accompanying these, but of much less importance, are a variety of other dishes. Some years we eat roasted potatoes, coated with oil and cooked until they develop a nice crisp crust. Other years, my risotto, made with red and green peppers.

A huge tossed salad with Italian dressing, which seems to never get touched until mom encourages us to eat the beautiful salad she has prepared. Fresh-baked, homemade Italian bread or rolls. Black olives. Cut up pieces of fennel. Roasted red peppers with garlic. Marinated artichoke hearts. A vegetable dish or two. And wine, always lots of wine.

The custom of eating fish on Christmas Eve stems back to the religious belief of abstaining from eating meat on Christmas Eve. Consequently, there is no meat in any form served at our Christmas Eve dinner. We have no set number of fish dishes that we eat. It wasn't a tradition in our family. People often write to me asking how many and what does the number mean? I say, "as many dishes as will fit on the table, and then some." I say that half-jokingly, of course. The number of fish dishes that many family's eat IS a tradition and it varies from family to family, but the number is always based on some religious meaning. For some it is 3, others 4, 5, 7, 9, 12. The number 3 signifies the trinity. 4 fish honors the 4 gospels. 5 signifies the number of wounds that Christ sustained on the cross. For some the number 7 signifies the 7 sacraments, for others, it refers to the 7 utterances that Jesus Christ made from the cross. 9 represents the 9 months of Mary's pregnancy. 12 refers to the number of Christ's followers. These are just a few of the dozens of reasons that people state for choosing the particular number of fish that they eat.

And lest you fool yourself and think that any of this food comes ready-made or frozen, you would be dead wrong. Nothing comes out of my mother's kitchen on Christmas Eve that wasn't lovingly prepared by hand by her or myself. The phrase "ready to serve" doesn't exist in THIS house.

The preparation for Christmas Eve dinner begins a few days in advance of the actual holiday, depending upon what day the holiday falls and when stores are open. Just buying the fish is an event in itself as so many others are doing the exact same thing. We always shop for fresh fish at the best fish market in the city, either a day or two before Christmas Eve, then take it home and clean it.

Early on Christmas Eve morning, we start preparing the fish, breading it or whatever is needed, then refrigerate it until we are ready to cook it. Our Christmas Eve dinner is typically eaten around 3pm. The house is fairly calm until an hour or so before dinner time. Then things happen quickly. The kitchen is a flurry of broiling, sauteing, stirring, and whipping of last minute sauces. Numerous electric fry pans and deep fryers are setup in advance. Timers are going.

"How long were those in? 2 minutes? Turn them and keep them in 1 minute more. Cover those. Keep them warm." It's all rush and excitement. Invited guests arriving. Everyone volunteering to help. Someone pours the wine. Another pours the beverages. Everyone having a task to perform. It's like a symphony of cooking.

And then the moment we've all awaited. Mom signals that the fish is ready and everything is rushed to the table. After grace is said, we toast each other with wine, saying "Salute!", which means "good health to you", in Italian. A massive passing of dishes occurs for what seems like an eternity. Finally, we settle down and begin to enjoy the great food and companionship of our loved ones. Everyone has a favorite dish that they've looked forward to eating on this night. The conversation is dotted with rave reviews.

Invariably, the conversation will drift to Christmas's past, deceased relatives or those who can't be with us and who are missed so much. Tears will be wiped away quickly, but a little ache remains in our heart. Before you know it one of the kids has told a joke or recounted a story, and the moment has passed. We are on our way to making new memories for another year.

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