Christmas Eve is once again here. I’ve documented how much I love everything about the holidays! Throughout my life good things have happened to me in the month of December. My son kicked off the month years ago by being born in December. There are the Slovak Christmas Eves of my childhood where for 20 years of my life we spent this evening at my maternal grandmother’s house. There was the magical Christmas Eve when we were surprised with the amazing news that we were to be grandparents for the first time! There was the beautiful Christmas two years later when we were told we were going to be grandparents again! In fact I wrote about some of our Christmas Eves a few years ago in a blog posting called, appropriately enough, “Christmas Eve.” https://revelinginretirement.com/2016/12/22/christmas-eve/
But the other night, my husband and I watched for the umpteenth time, the movie The Green Book, a biographical comedy-drama that won numerous awards this year. I loved the whole story but I particularly loved the character played by Viggo Mortensen, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a New York nighclub bouncer who takes a job as a driver for a black classical pianist, driving through the segregated South in 1962. This is a story based in truth about the friendship that is forged between these two men from very different backgrounds and experiences. But apropos of this blog post is the very last scene of the movie which captures the Italian Christmas Eve where the pianist joins the Italian family at their boisterous dinner that brought back for me all the memories of Uncle Tony’s Christmas.
Tony was not my uncle in a blood relative sense. He was the brother of my mother-in-law’s second husband. But he and his wife, Rose, were steeped in the Italian love of family and food, love of laughter and people in general and the celebrations with which I grew up. Tony and Rose were warm, fun loving people and we first met them when they were in their 60’s, soon after my mother-in-law married his brother. And that was good enough for Tony and Rose – my husband, son and I were family from then on.
Tony and his wife, Rose, were just simply wonderful people. The fact that they went out dancing every Saturday night into their eighties, tells you all you need to know about Tony and Rose. Tony was the oldest brother in a family of seven siblings and he and Rose hosted Christmas Eve every year and they loved it. I call this post “Uncle Tony’s Christmas” knowing full well that Rose was the driving force behind all the work that it took to put the dinner together. Their home in a working class town in far western New Jersey, on the Delaware River, is what back East we call a “half-double” – referred to as a duplex in the Midwest. It was a smallish house set up shotgun style where you walk in on the first floor and are immediately in the front room, adjoining a sitting room that morphed into a dining room when needed, followed by the kitchen in the back. In the front room and the dining room, various tables were set up and the kitchen table was set as well to accommodate the 30 or so people who would come to this narrow house for Christmas Eve dinner.
In this house, no one was ever a stranger. Everyone was invited to sit down to their table whether for an impromptu cup of coffee and cake or for the annual Christmas Eve feast.
For many Italians, the tradition is that meat is not eaten before midnight on Christmas Eve and the dinner is comprised of seven fishes – usually some variation of calamari, octopus, cod (baccala), shrimp, possibly a flounder or haddock, scallops, eel, and then some form of delicacy called stauka. I have grown up knowing Italian traditions but I had never heard of stauka before going to Tony and Rose’s home. Stauka (probably misspelled here!), I learned, is only eaten at Christmas and, like cod, is soaked for days prior to Christmas Eve to help remove the salt from the fish before frying. In the soaking process, it looks and feels like beef jerky. In the cooking, it takes on a sour, fishy odor that permeates the house. I call it an odor because calling it an “aroma” would be too kind. Stauka , it is thought, is actually a form of whiting or smelt. Unlike baccala, there is no red sauce to downplay the salt or the pungency of the fish. As you walk into the house, the smell of the stauka almost takes your breath away and makes your eyes water.
Christmas at Tony and Rose’s home was raucous and fun. Laughter could be heard from room to room. And it wasn’t unusual that a conversation that started in the front room would be yelled for a response from the kitchen at the back of the house. In the dining room, the four brothers – Nick, Sam, Tony and Joe – invariably reminisced about what things cost when they were children and what they currently cost. Tony in his usual exuberant way actually took off his shoe, pounded it onto the dining table between the manicotti and the stauka and said, “Hey Joe, what do you think I paid for this shoe.” The shoe stayed there until they finish the discussion and resolved the cost, maybe 15 minutes later. The rest of us just continued eating and ignored the shoe. My son, twelve years old at the time, eyes widened, looked at me and smiled across the table, stifling a laugh. I also smiled but passed him a look that said, “Just keep on eating.”
Now 38 years later, Christmas Eve is still the big family dinner for us. I have shrimp or calamari to begin the meal but cheat on the rest of the seven individual fishes by making a cioppino in which I use the six other fishes, and call it a day. Sometimes my mother-in-law and I make a dish of baccala for the small group of us who like the tradition, if not really the taste, of it. But the stauka is not represented at my table. There is also no shoe on the table but invariably my son will say at some point in the meal – “Hey, Joe, what do you think I paid for this shoe.”
I love and appreciate the elegance of a beautiful table setting for this lovely, peaceful, holy evening. But, really, in that staid setting, I wonder if one remembers for long what was served or what the table looked like. But 38 years later we remember the sensory overload, the fun, the no-holds-barred decibel level, and the warmth that was Tony and Rose’s Christmas.
Wishing everyone reading this a very Merry Christmas! Be joyous, enjoy each other and every moment and laugh like you mean it!