That's Italian: Holiday food traditionsPasta, fish rank high among this nationality’s Christmas traditions.
By: Jeff Tiedeman, Grand Forks Herald
Have you ever wondered about the origin of the food you serve on or around Christmas?
Much of the foods we serve in our homes over the holidays are the same ones our grandparents and great-grandparents put out on the table in their day.
In our house, I still employ holiday recipes my grandma used 50 years ago, which she passed on to my mom and her siblings. And I know some of my cousins still are making homemade stuffing or dressing and baked oysters just as our grandma did.
The oysters always were a tradition at Christmas for my grandma’s family. She used to make oyster stew on Christmas Eve when my mom was little. And Grandma’s dad, who lived with them, used to eat raw oysters at the same meal.
I don’t know if the oysters were a Swiss Christmas tradition or just one of his quirks (Great-Grandpa Burkhardt’s family emigrated from Switzerland), but many food traditions around the holidays are steeped in ethnicity. Take, for example, the Norwegian-American tradition of serving lutefisk at Christmas. (And I can’t forget to mention fattigman, krumkake and lefse.)
Those thoughts, along with a chat I had with Adam Sorum of Grand Forks, got me contemplating Christmas food traditions of various cultures and how readers might find them interesting. It made me decide to feature traditional holiday cuisine (main courses and side dishes) of four different ethnic groups — starting today with Italians — on the Food page in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (Next week: traditional Hispanic holiday foods.)
Adam, a fitness trainer at my gym, told me he makes a spaghetti sauce (with some tinkering) that was passed down from his grandmother, a native of Italy. (He also makes homemade pizza.) I then told Adam about a friend of mine who a few years back shared a spaghetti recipe that a friend had given him. It came from an elderly Italian woman who was his neighbor when he was growing up. The spaghetti recipe, of course, had the usual meatballs and sauce and also contained Italian sausage and pork ribs. It was her family’s traditional Christmas Day meal.
Italians have some interesting Christmas food traditions, but most of revolve around fish and pasta.
The Christmas feast, called “la vigilia,” begins on Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It’s a long-standing religious tradition that represents the Catholic seven sacraments. The meal usually consists of a variety of different seafood dishes (seven, eight or nine) from baccalà (salt cod) to calamari.
In the Calabria region of Italy, Christmas Eve is celebrated with a meal of 13 nonmeat dishes, some say representing Jesus and the 12 apostles.
And here in the new country, especially in the San Francisco area, a fish stew called cioppino, has become a favorite Christmas Eve meal. (It was developed in the late 1800s by Italian fishermen who settled in the North Beach section of San Francisco. Bay Area cioppino typically contains Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels and fish with fresh tomatoes in a wine sauce and often is served over spaghetti or other long pasta and toasted buttered bread, either sourdough or baguette.)
On Christmas Day, many Italian families start off with an antipasto followed by a a soup or broth. Italians do not have a set-in-stone main course that is traditionally served. The main courses are usually a tradition made within a family. Some may serve duck while others may provide rabbit or veal. And the main courses would not be complete without pasta dishes such as lasagna, ravioli or spaghetti. Or just plain pasta like vermicelli topped with a bolognese or bechamel sauce.
Now that’s Italian!
Tiedeman is food editor at the Herald. Reach him at 780-1136 or toll-free at (800) 477-6572, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.