Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Fishmas Carol, or How the Ghosts of the 7 Fishes Haunt Me...

I have to admit, I have become a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Italian food. I know that must sound crazy to a lot of folks. But there are some foods, despite all assumptions to the contrary, Italians just don't do all that well, at least not for my tastes. Cheese? I'll take a nice French brie or English cheddar over 168 varieties of bland Pecorino any day. Wine? Unless it's from so far north in Italy that they're practically speaking Swiss or German, I'll stick to France or Napa. Desserts? My white cake with butter-cream frosting, chocolate chip cookies, cheesecake and apple pie run rings around tiramisu and zuppa Inglese

#1. A plate of anchovies, to be eaten with bread.
No. Just no.
And so it is that fish and seafood in Italy gets a big "Bah humbug" from me. I grew up in Florida, where—prior to the devastating British Petroleum oil spill, at least—our Gulf of Mexico seafood was fresh, abundant and healthy. I adore boiled peel-and-eat shrimp, shrimp cocktail, even fried shrimp and hush-puppies. A blackened grouper sandwich? Bring it. Sautéed snapper? Nom-nom. Lobster bisque? Swooning now.  

In Italy, it’s not so much a question of freshness—though I’ve tasted some awfully fishy fish here—but of methods of preparation. Specifically, almost every fish and seafood (frutti di mare, to the Itals) arrives staring back at you on the plate, or looking like it’s ready to swim or crawl away. Eyes, claws, paws, tentacles, whiskers—you name it—nothing is cleaned prior to serving. Even something like fried shrimp, which one just assumes would be cleaned prior to frying, arrives intact. It’s usually part of a fritto misto, or mixed fried plate, which the Italians go nuts for. But since all the crustaceans are fried shells-on, you have to clean off the shells and the fried coating, prior to eating. In the end, you’re left with a piece of shrimp the size of the tip of your index finger, and a plate full of deep fried shrimp shells, tails and tentacles. I mean really, what’s the point? It’s the same reason I never liked to go eat steamed Blue Crabs when I lived in Maryland. I’d pick and pick and pick at the crab shells to get at the meat, and wind up still hungry, with bloodied hands, eating saltines and cocktail sauce.

#2. Mussels with tomato sauce, to be eaten with bread.
I can handle maybe 2 or 3 of these. 
So it’s because of Italian seafood that Christmas Eve has become my own personal incubo, or nightmare. It’s tradition in Italy to eat the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” on the evening of the December 24, which the Italians refer to as the vigilia di natale, or the vigil to await the birth of the Baby Jesus at midnight. There is no meat allowed on the 24th, so all meals must consist of seafood. (It’s bad news for land animals the next day, when pork, lamb, chicken and beef are served for Christmas lunch.)

But don’t let the idea of a “vigil” to await the Christ Child conjure up images of simple, austere dinners. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an orgy of shells, tentacles, claws and eyeballs. It is my worst nightmare of a meal, served up plate after plate. And it’s not like anyone stops at seven courses. Paolo’s cousin Diana and her mother Graziella usually host the feast at their home. I’ve grown to refer to it as the Feast of the 18 Fishes, because the platters and bowls just keep coming and coming: An appetizer of baby shrimp with what looks like Thousand Island dressing on top—the Italians call it “cocktail sauce.” A cold salad of tiny little baby octopus in oil and vinegar. Plates full of shiny silver sardines and salty anchovies. Bowls of mussels in tomato sauce. Soup with more eyeballs and pinchers than I could ever hope to count. Pasta with clams, shrimp and indistinguishable bits of crustacean. Pasta with salmon-vodka-cream sauce (actually, that one’s pretty good). Bacala. The inevitable fritto misto. The only dish that’s not fish-based is dessert, which is always tiramisu (yawn…).

#3. White beans with (peeled! cleaned!) shrimp. Not bad.
The first year I ate the 18 Fishes with Paolo’s family, I earned roars of laughter when I whispered to him—obviously a little too loudly—that I didn’t want the “soup with all the little animals in it.” I’ve since learned to eat a little of this and a little of that, and politely turn down the plates that threaten to hold staring contests with me.

I know it’s very American of me to expect the animals I eat to arrive on my plate no longer resembling animals. I know a statement like that just drives vegetarians around the bend, which I completely understand. But for as much as I’ve ventured forth from my burgers and fries, roast beef and potatoes culinary upbringing, I still like my seafood a bit more sanitized.  

#4. Fish soup, to be eaten with bread.
I know I'm supposed to like it. 
So this year, I was secretly thrilled when Diana announced that she and her mother would not be preparing the 18 Fishes. But, that still left us without a family dinner for Christmas Eve, and no one seemed particularly pleased about that, myself included. So I pitched what I thought was a brilliant idea of a Christmas Eve rinfresca in Franca’s garage kitchen. Everyone could bring an appetizer, drop in when they wished, stay as little or as long as they liked, snack, drink and be merry. I marketed my idea as a simple, low-key, low-pressure plan where no one was stuck cooking all day and there was no table to set for 25 people. I would bring artichoke dip and what Franca refers to as my “torta di prosciutto,” which is just prosciutto and cream cheese cooked in puff pastry—a dish she loves. Others could bring bread, cheese, cold-cuts. Simple, simple, simple, right?

Except that a few days into this plan coming together, Franca raised the ugly specter of Catholic tradition. It was vigilia. We couldn’t eat meat. Fine, I said, I’ll switch out smoked salmon for prosciutto. No problem.
#5. Pasta with salmon-vodka cream sauce. This is pretty
good, but by the time it arrived, I couldn't look
at any more food. 
And then things started to get complicated. Since it was vigilia, Antonella would bring fish soup. (Eyes! Tentacles! Claws! All swimming in broth!)  Graziella offered to make mussels and the salmon-vodka-cream pasta. Franca would tackle stuffed seppia, or cuttlefish.

I’m sure you know where this is going. Just like Mr. Scrooge couldn’t escape the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future on Christmas Eve, I can’t escape the inevitability of the Feast of the Seven, or 12, or 18 Fishes. The table was set for 25, and the eyeballs and tentacles and tails and claws and shells kept coming and coming. Humbug!

#6. Stuffed cuttlefish. Looks good, but see item #5.
This year, I made a few things I knew I’d like—crabcakes, the smoked salmon and cream cheese dish, and artichoke dip, which is always a crowd-pleaser despite its absence of eyes and legs. I filled up on appetizers and played with the baby, cleared plates and otherwise kept myself occupied while my Italian family downed their 18 Fishes. After all, I didn’t come here to try to change a culture and little by little, my Itals are learning that they can’t change me. But I sure do wish they’d clean their damn shrimp before they fry them. 

#7. Or rather, the remains of #7. I feel like someone is staring at me....