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December 1999 Issue
by Rossana S. Tarantini
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You know, when I think of Christmas, I immediately think of sleeping on Nonna's couch -- or at least pretending to sleep.

There we would be, all the cousins -- piled up here and there in Nonno and Nonna's living room -- our parents all gathered 'round the dining room table playing Tombola or Sette e Mezzo. We were all so excited that sleep was the furthest thing from our minds. First, we were all together. Second, Santa was coming. But, we knew that He wouldn't come if we didn't sleep. We would giggle, we would peek, we would get up a million times. "He's taking too much blanket!" "She kicked me!" "Mom! The baby stinks!" And so it would go until somebody's mother would get fed up, and come sit with us until we were asleep, or at least pretending to be.

And then, when we were all settled and seemingly asleep, Uncle Val would disappear quietly upstairs and suddenly reappear as Santa. We all knew it was him, but each year, we would immediately react. Those of us who had been playing possum would awaken the others and we would be treated to a hug and a treat from Santa and then be allowed to watch, mesmerized as he loaded the tree with gifts. Even after we were old enough to know who it really was, the magic of that moment never failed. He may have been zio the rest of the year, but he was Santa every Christmas Eve without fail. And I think the younger ones among us believed he had some pull with the great man himself all year long.

Memories of Christmas aren't complete, however without memories of the great feasting that always takes place. As far back as I can remember, Christmas meant going to Nonna's. We would pack up our pajamas . . . our gifts, and our contribution to the feasting and gather at my mother's parents home for the holiday.

My mother has six brothers and sisters and when they all gathered with their spouses and children, the house just overflowed with noise, fun and the smells of wonderful things coming from the kitchen. The activity actually started the day before with the trips to the market for all of the ingredients that would make the next two days so memorable. As we got older, some of us kids would be allowed to go along and "assist" in the selections. The most fun, at least for me, was the fish market.

Christmas Eve, being a meatless day, was always a show case of fish and seafood. Our Catholic faith dictated that no meat was to be eaten that day, but even now, long after the Vatican relaxed its rules about meatless days, we still follow the tradition. Some habits just don't need to be broken, after all!

I can still recall vividly the sights, sounds and smells of a day spent at the market, carefully selecting the ingredients for our feast. The tiny clams that would go into the sauce for the linguine. The sardines that became Pasta alle Sarde. The mussels, cod, shrimp, squid, clams and octopus that went into the obligatory Zuppa di Pesce. Carefully chosen prawns, cuttlefish and sole fillets that would become the Frittura Mista. And all the different kinds of fish that my mother or one of the other aunts would turn into scrumptious offerings, either poached, baked or fried.

We start about 6:00 pm on Christmas Eve with everyone gathered around the dining room table, but the cooking and shopping went on all day. The first part of the meal is always pasta. Remember that this meal is totally meatless. Even the pasta sauce has no meat in it. For the adults there was always Spaghetti con Alici. For the kids, they usually made a marinara or butter sauce since we unfailingly turned our noses up at the anchovies in the adult dish. These days we make a White Clam Sauce or any other favourite. I guess we still haven't learned to like anchovies that much!

The pasta is followed by a great big pot of Zuppa di Pesce. This is a tomato based kind of stew that is chock full of all kinds of seafood. It's similar to a Bouillabaisse except that there are no vegetables in it and it usually has more shellfish in it. Lots of fresh, crusty bread went with this part of the meal to dip into the wonderful broth and savour every drop.

Then came the poached cod, this was simply cod fillets that were poached until just tender and then seasoned with olive oil, garlic, parsley salt and pepper. It's a very simple thing, but oh so good. This was always followed by some kind of baked fish, again a fairly simple dish, usually some red snapper adorned with garlic, parsley, tomato and olive oil and then baked until just flaky. Over the years we've added new dishes, my favourite being a whole salmon laced with lemon, tarragon, butter and fresh black pepper, wrapped in several layers of parchment and baked, for ten minutes per inch of thickness till it's beautifully flaky. And then for the piece de resistance . . . my favourite part of any Christmas Eve meal . . . the Frittura Mista. As in most of the dishes presented this night, simplicity is the key. Usually a selection of various seafoods -- jumbo shrimp, squid rings and tentacles, scallops, finger sized strips of sole or other fillet -- dusted lightly with seasoned flour and shallow fried. Served hot or room temp with plenty of lemon, this rounds off the Christmas Eve meal and -- at least at our house -- stayed out and was nibbled at throughout the night's festivities.

The meal was always one of those affairs that went on for hours. A selection of fruit and nuts always followed the meal. It never ceased to amaze me that as the night went on the ladies always had something else to offer, whether it was slices of the wonderful imported Panettone or roasted chestnuts or the tiny mandarin oranges that we kids loved, there seemed to be a never ending supply of "something to snack on" while we all waited for time to leave for midnight mass.

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