When I was little, I was convinced that everything my grandparents did in the kitchen was passed down from their families in the Old Country.
The scenes usually went like this: me standing in the thresholds of their kitchens, watching my grandmothers chopping onions and garlic and the contents of cans and cans of Cento brand San Marzano peeled tomatoes to smithereens, then slinging them into huge sauce pots and stirring with wooden spoons until the sauce was thick and deep red; me watching them pound breasts of chicken as thinly as possible then helping coat them in flour, dip in beaten eggs, and coat again in “Italian style” breadcrumbs before they dropped the cutlets, bare hands, into scalding hot frying oil; me painstakingly separating boiled lasagna to make sure each sheet laid down flat in the baking dish as they spread bolognese (“gravy”) and globs of ricotta straight from the bright yellow Polly-O container; me tasting and tasting and tasting despite their warnings of getting too full before dinner; me trying anything and everything they whipped up, whether it was “kid-friendly” or not. Each and every time, they’d explain, “this is how my mother did it.”
We weren’t exactly like the Italian-American families in mob movies eating heaping plates of baked ziti or spaghetti and meatballs or pasta alla vodka on an average Monday or Thursday night (although my memories sometimes like to trick me into believing we were). But we had our rituals: our Sunday gravy, our chicken cutlet birthdays, our special meals for the feast days of the favored saints of Roman Catholicism, our Easter pies, etc. In my young mind, this is what Italian people did. They made it so every occasion was celebrated with a specific dish, a particular collection of ingredients composed in a particular way in order to honor whatever was happening. There were rules of engagement, brands you could use and not use, an order to the way things were cooked, and a way to serve them. Of course, you were celebrating whatever holiday or feast day was at hand, but you were also following in a tradition that was minted way before your life was even a consideration.
My paternal and maternal grandmothers differed in which rituals held precedence over others, and for my maternal grandmother, the one that seems to have the tightest grip is the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes. Traditionally, the “feast” isn’t just one meal by any average, human standard. Really, it’s several small meals, or courses, served the evening of Christmas Eve. Because Italians and Italian-Americans are big time Catholics and because Catholics love body horror, the consumption of warm-blooded mammals is expressly forbidden on high, holy days in order to honor the life and death of Jesus Christ — who, consequently, was also a warm-blooded mammal. There’s no hardcore consensus over where the number seven comes from but again, because Catholics (!!!!), the number seven could be alluding to any number of things: the seven sacraments, the seven sins of the world, the seven days it took g-d to create the Earth, the seven days Mary and Joseph spent travelling to Bethlehem, or I don’t know, any one of the other over 700 times the number seven is used in the Bible. Like all other large Italian and Italian-American meals, there is an antipasti, a pasta and sauce course, and then a bunch of smaller dishes featuring one or more of the seven fishes chosen for that year’s meal. For as long as I can remember, my Nana’s Feast of the Seven Fishes menu has always been the same: antipasti of various smoked fish dips and spreads (we are also from South Florida, after all), linguine with lobster sauce, crab cakes (my grandma’s way with hefty chunks of Florida blue crab held together with just the slightest touch of mayo and then lightly fried in butter and oil), fried calamari, fried shrimp (“for the kids”), (if i’m lucky:) baccala with tomatoes and capers, and, always, Nana’s divisive fish salad.
I was convinced that this one meal, out of all the one meals, was the most quintessentially Italian thing my family did. I mean, how could it not be? The collision of all these dishes cooked exactly the way they’re supposed to be straight into the dark lore of Roman Catholicism being literally and figuratively served to me on a platter by my grandma whose hands never stopped smelling like garlic. Sure, the Neapolitan and Sicilian sides of my family had been in the U.S. since the 1930s and 40s, but when I was little, I wasn’t sure they’d ever really left. And being the oldest grandchild, I put a lot of pressure on myself to learn and revel in the customs of “our people,” which meant that, every year as we lined up in the kitchen to fill our plates, I always included a small scoop of the fish salad on mine and then tried to avoid it the rest of the night.
It wasn’t that the ingredients were gross or that I didn’t like them separately. It was just that this precise combination of ingredients in conjunction with much of my family members’ disdain for the dish made it seem like a gastronomic nightmare. Every year, my grandma does the same thing. She spends hours blanching and/or sauteing a medley of fresh octopus, shrimp, conch, lobster, and squid until they’re tender the way each should be, then chops each of them into bite-sized pieces, combines them, dresses them with olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper, and parsley, then puts the mixture into her special pastel-colored fish-shaped serving bowl and chills it overnight. Typing this out truly seems like heaven to me now, but back when I considered oatmeal creme pies and pepperoni pizza my favorite foods, just anticipating all those flavors and textures together made my tastebuds recoil in response. Not to mention the fact that almost every adult in my family, besides my mother (also an oldest child) and my grandfather, did whatever they could to avoid my grandma’s insistence that they have some fish salad, too. Regardless, I still did the thing that I thought good, first-born grandchildren do and feigned interest and delight the best way I knew how — by taking a small amount of it, ignoring it, and then cleaning my plate off after dinner when no one was looking.
By the time I was in my mid teens, this tactic had become so successful that my grandma never questioned my allegiance to the dish. Actually, she’d gush over the fact that I was the only one of her grandkids who thoroughly enjoyed fish salad along with the other dishes even the adults in my family generally hated (lamb and peas, braciole, the aforementioned bacala). For years, she’d bring the fish salad out on Christmas Eve and claim she was going to stop making it since “only four of us eat it.” I can’t pinpoint exactly how I felt the first couple of years I had my con going but the truth is, I learned to live so well with the guilt of it that eventually, I forgot to feel guilty at all. Mostly, I was just happy it made her happy.
During the fall before the Christmas Eve of my junior year in high school, I met a girl at a local punk show whose family had just moved to Ft. Lauderdale from Salerno. It would be an understatement to say I was completely enamored with her from the start. She was taller than me and wore the shortest cheetah print skirts I’d ever seen and had jet-black hair, a hoop nose ring, three tattoos I didn’t understand, and she drove an old Camaro that had her Italian license plate on the front of it. Plus, she had that accent with just the slightest bit of vocal fry, and we liked the same bands. She never said whether she was queer or not, but she knew I was and in retrospect, I’m positive she knew I liked her. We spent all of those fall and early winter months talking on the phone for far too many hours and meeting up at shows then going to IHOP or Denny’s to talk late into the night. As the holiday season was getting closer, she asked what my family did for the holidays, to which I responded with an overly confident: “The same thing as y’all do, I’m sure. We have the Feast of the Seven Fishes.” She quickly replied that she had no idea what I was talking about. I gave her a run-down of the menu, and she explained that yes, Italian people do eat fish on Christmas Eve (you know, Catholicism!!!), but she’s never heard of eating seven of them at once. In Salerno, they had their own traditions that involved a lot of vegetables and fried pastries, less eating so many different kinds of fish in one night. After she finished describing her own customs, I wondered out loud about which of our other traditions were a “scam” for 30 minutes straight until she finally got me to stop by asking me what’s in my grandma’s insalata di mare because it was her favorite dish back home. The ingredients I listed weren’t exactly what she was used to, either.
My Italian friend went on to teach me a lot about the differences between what we do here and what they do in Italy. I did my own research, too, and tried to figure out where the discrepancies came from and why. Even though it felt a little like a betrayal at first, I saw how the cultural differences mostly came out of adaptation, out of adjusting to a new place, out of making something out of absolutely nothing, out of trying to figure out your place in a new society while simultaneously grasping for any bit of home you could possibly get. No, the recipes and traditions didn’t come out of hundreds of years of learning and preservation. Instead, they came from seven decades of connection lost and of yearning for a place that wasn’t yours anymore. In some ways, it was also resistance, a way to fight against letting the tangles of assimilation take hold completely. I wondered if it really mattered that our traditions had such little connection to the ones from back where our story as a family began. At 16, I was already organizing against the death penalty and the American War in Iraq, listening to music that taught me about the evils of capitalism, and reading James Baldwin and Karl Marx and any Crimethinc. materials I could get my hands on. Identity — and the uses/usefulness of my own identities — was something I was already actively questioning and redefining without fully realizing it, so there didn’t seem to be any harm in accepting further intricacies and nuances to what I already knew to be true. And anyways, I never really felt Italian or American or Italian-American, for that matter. I realized that, really, I just felt like my grandma’s oldest grandchild, and I recognized the responsibility (for good and for bad) that came with my birth order.
When Christmas Eve finally came that year, I remember my grandma taking the fish salad out of the fridge and saying the same thing she always said, “I should really stop making this…only four of us ever eat it.” After she put it down, I grabbed a larger scoop than I had ever before, two large wedges of a lemon my grandparents grew themselves in their backyard, and I tried the fish salad for real for the very first time. I’ve been blissfully eating it — and even craving it — ever since.