(by Ellie Conniff)
I. Acciughe (Anchovies) - Tradition
Christmas Eve for my mother is the pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s the summit of Everest. It’s what she gears up for all year long. The Feast of the Seven Fishes. The Feast, or the Vigilia, is deeply Catholic in origin, and my mom insists that the seven fishes we eat represent each of the seven Catholic sacraments, but when I’ve asked her which is which, she says, “Well, you’ll have to look that up later.” When my mother was a kid, she grew up cooking and celebrating the Vigilia with her family, including her Italian-born grandparents, who wouldn’t let the kids drink water at the table for fear it would ruin their appetite. It’s always been her favorite day of the year.
II. Calamari (Squid) - Loss of Tradition
My mother is both warm and cold, asks too many questions, and isn’t interested enough. She says things that are contradictory, and has people she doesn’t like at work, and celebrity crushes, and things about herself she would change. Just like anyone else. She’s performative. When she’s in a room, she likes to be the center of attention, the funniest, the one with the best stories. And she’s a hostess. She shows her love by taking care of people. She can take all of the passion, complexity, and love in her body and turn it into miracles in the kitchen. It’s in every layer of her lasagna, from the umami of the ricotta to the tang of the sauce. When you’re full from her dinner, she asks if you didn’t like it, because you’re not helping yourself to thirds and fourths. She says things like, “Eat some more ravioli, honey, you’re too skinny.” When I was a freshman in college, I stopped eating meat. When I told my mom, she asked, “Are you still going to eat seafood?”
“Then what are we going to do on Christmas Eve?”
Ah, yes. The question I’d been dreading for weeks.
III. Puzzava (Smelt) - Thrift
When I moved to Los Angeles, there was an understanding between my parents and me. I was done being a kid. My brother’s wedding was in November, and I had barely enough money for my ticket home to Cincinnati, Ohio. But I promised myself that after I came back from the wedding, I was quitting my barista job to focus on my career as an artist. I retooled my monthly budget to see how little I could live on, and I went into December with enough gigs to make it work. On the 3rd, while chatting with a friend, she brought up how expensive it is to live so far from our families.
“Yeah,” I said. “It sucks.”
“Did you buy your ticket for Christmas yet?”
I started looking at plane tickets: $600, $635, $700. I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I called my mom in a panic, and choked out through hot tears, “Mom, I don’t think I can afford to come home for Christmas.”
IV. Scungilli (Conch) - Strength
I had recently reconnected with an old friend, Max, and we started dating. He found me a flight I could afford. I wouldn’t be able to fly into the nearest airport, but it was only a 90-minute drive from home. Not bad when considering the alternative. A couple of weeks later, I was snuggled next to him in bed when I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. It was a pain I’d had many times before, on and off for almost ten months. Multiple doctors had already told me I was perfectly healthy. But this time it was so excruciating that I got out of bed, ran to the living room, and lay on the couch, writhing and moaning in pain. I took all the pills that usually help, but none worked. I was vomiting uncontrollably and having diarrhea. I banged my hands into the floor, shook, did anything I could to release tension. When Max found me, it had been going on for hours with no sign of stopping. He scooped me up, laid me in the backseat of his car, and rushed me to a doctor, where I was told I had a peptic ulcer and given antibiotics.
V. Bacala (Salt Cod) - Travel
Two days later, I was on a plane. I like coming home from L.A. I feel like I’m the main character in a rom-com—a big-city girl who learns to love again by reconnecting with her roots.
VI. Polpo (Octopus) - Family
Ever since college, I cry when I get sick. I feel so helpless being sick and alone. I want my mom to feed me ginger ale and saltines and put a wet washcloth on my forehead. I arrive at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve, to the smell of the seafood and the holiday spices, the soft jazz of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, and the anticipation of our guests’ arrival. Most years, it’s exciting. My mom is the chef de cuisine, and the rest of us follow her orders, rushing around the kitchen, working as a team. But this year, the banana muffin I’d had for breakfast wasn’t sitting right, and I couldn’t bring myself to get up from the couch. At dinner, I barely touched my fish-less fish sticks. Later, my mom found me doubled over on the basement couch.
VII. Anguilla (Eel) - Prosperity
When my pain didn’t subside, my mom insisted on taking me to the emergency room. On her favorite night of the year, she stayed up until 2 a.m. with me, holding my hand. It turned out I’d been falsely diagnosed, and the real problem was my gallbladder, the organ that helps me digest the delicious, oil-soaked staples of Italian cuisine, the food my mother cooks best, the food that most reminds me of home. I felt guilty. I’ve always known that food is my mother’s love language, and any denial of her food has always been met with questions. Why don’t I understand that food is love?
“I’m sorry,” I kept saying, over and over. “I’m sorry I couldn’t eat tonight. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you today.”
“It’s okay, twinkle. I love you.”
As the doctors handed us the discharge papers, with detailed instructions of the new diet I needed to follow, I could tell the gears were already turning in my mother’s mind, thinking of all the new ways she could show me love.
2 lb. salt cod (baccala)
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 T. ground black pepper
1 t. salt
1/2 c. fine ground cornmeal
pinch of cayenne pepper
extra virgin olive oil or corn oil
pinch of cayenne pepper
fresh lemon juice, to taste
Soak baccala in water, at room temperature, for 3 days.
Cut baccala into 1-inch, bite-sized pieces.
In a shallow dish, combine flour, pepper, salt, cornmeal, and cayenne pepper.
In another shallow dish, beat eggs.
Keeping one hand dry and one hand wet, dredge each baccala piece in flour mixture,
dip in beaten egg, then back in flour mixture.
Shake off any excess, then set aside.
Repeat until all baccala is coated
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place coated baccala on parchment paper with 1 inch between pieces.
Drizzle with olive oil or corn oil to lightly coat, making sure all raw coating is covered.
Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, until coating is golden brown and fish flakes easily.
Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Drizzle with lemon juice to taste.