In my family, the big day of holiday cooking is reserved for Christmas day. And typically, Italian food is an obvious choice. And while we did a big Italian meal Christmas day, I volunteered to cook Christmas Eve dinner as well. The night of the 23rd, my father texted me asking me what I thought about doing the traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. Having very little knowledge of what that was, naturally, I did some googling.
I realize it’s only six dishes, technically.
But if you count, there are actually eight different types of fish.
Festa dei Sette Pesci, I learned, is an Italian tradition of eating fish dishes on Christmas Eve. It’s based on the Catholic practice of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays or the eve of Holy Days. And there are lots of ideas about where the number seven came from but apparently the number is pretty insignificant among people who participate in the tradition of Sette Pesci. Most things I read about it say that it’s more of an Italian-American practice these days. Nonetheless, we tackled creating the menu for what resulted in a pretty ambitious undertaking.
After an entire day of cooking non-stop, the result was pretty incredible. But for me, the dinner didn’t really compare to the process. I realized that cooking is art for my father. Like great painting and drawing and writing, great cooking begins with an image or a concept or bits and pieces of ideas waiting to be assembled and created. I think great painters, artists, writers, and chefs manage to make beautiful things by mixing skill and vision with a balance of spontaneity. Half of the magic comes from the artists ability to work with unavoidable mistakes. And for a day, I was in the studio.
As I continue to grow up and holidays begin to mean different things as they did when I was a kiddo, I’ve recognized a few new things this year. I annoyingly used the line “The only people you have obligations to on Christmas is your family” many, many times as an excuse for my mother to not have to go to the Christmas party of some family friends of ours, even though she wanted to go. And while I said so to be annoying more than anything, I think it’s important. And sometimes, maybe even often, your friends are that family. And I think it’s okay if Christmas becomes less about honoring religious beliefs if it means reminding us to show love just a little bit more. It’s okay that it gives us an excuse to call family members we speak with only once a year. It’s okay that it gives us a day to say ‘thank you’ to friends that keep us alive every other day of the year, to remind them that they’re significant and important. Sure, ideally we’d talk more often and say thank you more often. But today, for me, it’s enough.
On the drive home from the craziness of Central Market in the morning on Christmas Eve day, with a long day of cooking ahead of us, my mom asked my dad if he would be joining her for Midnight Mass that night.
He responded (most perfectly, I think), “Honey, I’m going to be in church all day.”
And that we most definitely were.