Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Past Present

We had a quiet but good Christmas. We visited with our far-flung families by phone: I talked with my sisters in western PA., Margaret with her mother in Virgina, son in New Mexico and daughter in San Francisco. They and their families, and the rest of our families, all are healthy and solvent, so that's a good Christmas right there.

Our Christmas dinner included wild salmon, a very North Coast dish. My childhood Christmas memories also include fish, but on Christmas Eve at my Italian grandparents. They both came over from the same village in Italy (they'd grown up on the same street) in the 1920s (my grandfather first, then he sent the money back to bring my grandmother and my mother, who was not yet 4.) There were a number of families from their village who came at around the same time to settle in the same town, or a nearby one. In fact much of the substantial Italian immigrant population in our western Pennsylvania county came from the same region of Italy, the Abruzzi.

Theirs was the tradition of the meatless Christmas Eve--or vigil--dinner. Many Italian regions shared it, with variations. There were a variety of seafood dishes--different kinds of fish and other seafood (including squid), prepared in various baked, broiled and fried ways, served in the meal or just passed around as appetizers and complements to the main dishes, plus pasta with a fish sauce.

This tradition seems all but unknown where I am now, along with other food connections to my Italian family past. There are Italians here--including our nearest neighbor, who was born there--but they are mostly northern Italians who came here as diary farmers. Their food is much different. They would think of us as southern Italians, although geographically the Abruzzi is about dead center on the boot, on the Adriatic side. Sort of how San Francisco is called northern California, though we are almost as far north from the Bay as SF is from LA.

On my own, I tried to maintain some of the vigil tradition when I lived in Pittsburgh, where it was much easier. The fish dish I liked the best as a child was the fried smelts, and when I tried to find smelts here in Arcata, at first nobody had heard of them, and then someone told me, "around here, we call that 'bait.'" So I didn't ask for them again. (But it looks like the lowly smelts are about to have their environmental revenge.) These days the most I do to stay somewhat connected with those days is bake some jumbalone, which is a family recipe for a rather simple but tasty cookie/cake kind of thing.

Beginning with my generation, family in western PA has mostly lost the vigil meal tradition, as have others removed from the direct immigrant experience and no longer living in the old towns and neighborhoods. But I was pleased to see in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that there's something of a revival underway---only now it requires a course in how to prepare this meal, known as the feast of the seven fishes (a name I hadn't heard before.) Calamari, Baccala and sphagetti with tuna sauce--I remember those, and more.

But I do occasionally make sphagetti with fish sauce--my mother often made it on Fridays, back when you went to hell for eating meat that day. But when I make it it's not with tuna sauce. I use salmon. I got the idea from a friend. Since he's Karuk (an Indian tribe indigenous to this place), I'm an immigrant in his country. But it's nice to share traditions, especially when they're tasty.

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