I stood in my mother’s kitchen in Dunmore, Pennsylvania—outside “Beautiful Downtown Scranton” (I always promised her that I wouldn’t say anything nasty about Scranton)—on the morning of Christmas Eve, armed with a notebook and an apron. I was there to learn about the longstanding Italian Catholic tradition called “The Seven Fishes.” For 40 years of marriage, she carried on the tradition, including several helpings of Catholic guilt. As in, “You’d better come home on Christmas Eve. I’m making Seven Fishes.”
“OK, I’m ready,” I said.
“Most of it’s already done.”
“What do you mean already done?”
She gave me a look. “The baccala’s been soaking since Tuesday, and I cleaned the calamari yesterday—well, most of it. I saved a couple for you to clean. And all the baking has been done for a week. Now, you know that Bettiann [her niece, my cousin] is bringing the smelts. [Along with her father, her husband, and her three sons.] Remember how Joey and Greg would never eat the fish? I had to make them spaghetti. But now they love it.”
Part of the longstanding tradition of The Seven Fishes is that no one under the age of 17 touches the stuff. But my mother was relentless; she figured by their 18th year, she’d have them hooked. After all, it’s tradition.
I had one burning question: “Why seven fishes?”
“Because…” My mother paused. “Gee, I don’t know. We just always had seven.”
The cooking lesson was interrupted by my father’s contribution to the meal: carrying a case of soda and a couple bottles of wine in through the kitchen door and dumping them on the table.
“Dad, any idea why we make seven fishes?”
“Ask your mother.”
“Seven is symbolic in a lot of cultures,” offered my older brother, the college professor. “And isn’t there some Catholic thing with five loaves and two fishes? No, that can’t be it.”
My sister, the other college professor and the Yankee fan, said she thought it was “because seven was Mickey Mantle’s number.”
Maybe we were getting warmer.
My mother and I moved on to the main part of the feast, the stuffed calamari (squid, pronounced “calamad”). She placed three ugly-looking creatures in front of me.
“OK, now you’re gonna clean them,” she said. “See the big black eyes? Pull them off first. Now pull the tentacles and the knob off. Discard everything but the tentacles. Now take each of the tentacles and pull the dark purply skin off with your fingers.”
“This is really disgusting.”
“Yes, it is disgusting, Lisa, but you have to do it—it’s Christmas.”
The telephone rang. It was Aunt Frances, my mother’s big sister, who’d been doing The Seven Fishes for 62 years (of marriage). If anyone would know why The Seven Fishes, Aunt Frances would.
“Oh….” A pause. “Gee, I don’t know. The Polish people know more about that. I think they’re the ones that started this.”
“The Polish people?”
“I think so. Ask Aunt Helen.”
We’re an enlightened family. We intermarry.
Back to the calamad—making the stuffing with a little chopped onion sautéed in olive oil, garlic, crumbled bread that was left out overnight, an egg, some cheese and parsley, and surprisingly, a can of baby shrimp. “Aunt Frances doesn’t use the shrimp,” Mom said, “but I think everything else we do the same.” Then she whispered, “Some people don’t put any egg.”
The lesson continued with a big pan of anchovy-laced tomato sauce and bowls of pasta. “Use cappellini,” she said. “And you should always serve a platter of sliced oranges garnished with black olives. This is the perfect thing to cleanse the palate between fish courses. Drizzle a little, very little, oil over the top and sprinkle with black pepper.”
Midway through our Christmas Eve feast, I whispered to my mother, “Mom, there’s only five.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, baccala, smelts, calamari, pasta with anchovies…the shrimp in the stuffing is pushing it.”
“Remember,” said my mother. “We didn’t start this.”
Josie's Stuffed Calamari (Calamad)
4 lb. calamari, cleaned, including some tentacles
1/2 c. olive oil
1/4 onion, finely chopped
4 or 5 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 loaf stale Italian bread (left out the night before), crumbled
1 egg, beaten
1 c. Italian-flavored breadcrumbs
2 T. grated Locatelli or pecorino cheese
1/4 c. Italian parsley, chopped
freshly grated black pepper to taste
1 small can baby shrimp
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 or 3 (28-oz.) cans crushed plum tomatoes (or whole tomatoes pureed in food processor)
1/4 large onion
1/4 c. Italian parsley, chopped
1 t. dried oregano
1/2 t. garlic powder
1 bay leaf
red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
1 small tin of anchovies
1/2 c. wine
1 1/2 lb. angel hair pasta or thin spaghetti
grated Parmesan (optional)
Chop the tentacles by hand or in a food processor.
Heat oil in a small sauté pan and add onion and garlic.
Add chopped tentacles and sauté a few minutes.
In a large bowl, combine tentacle mixture with crumbled bread, moistening with a few drops of water if it seems too dry.
Add the egg and the Italian breadcrumbs.
Add cheese, parsley, and black pepper.
Add shrimp and toss lightly.
If the stuffing seems too dry, add another egg. If it seems too wet, add more breadcrumbs. It should be crumbly but still hold together.
Gently stuff the calamari using a demitasse spoon or fingers, and close the opening with a toothpick. (Or sew them with a needle and thread if you really want to be authentic.)
For the sauce:
In a large pot like a Dutch oven, sauté garlic in oil.
Add tomatoes and onion.
Add parsley, oregano, garlic salt, and bay leaf, broken in half.
Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes.
Add 1 or 2 cups water and continue to simmer for 15 minutes.
Carefully drop in the stuffed calamari. Stir very delicately.
Let simmer until your house smells wonderful. (The key to cooking calamari is: less than a minute or more than an hour.)
Add anchovies with their oil and wine, and let simmer until anchovies dissolve.
Cook pasta in salted boiling water and drain.
When ready to serve, remove onion from the sauce.
Take calamari out of the sauce with a slotted spoon and remove the toothpicks. Serve on a platter.
In a large pretty bowl, toss the pasta with as much sauce as you like. Top with the calamari.
Note: It is totally fine to serve this with grated cheese. Don’t listen to the no-cheese-with-fish stuff.