Feast of the Seven Fishes
I was also there with Grandma to cook, probably from the time I was 10. I would arrive at 6 in the morning, when our day was supposed to begin, but it was always clear that Grandma had been in the kitchen at least a couple of hours already. She would set me to work kneading dough for pizzas (“Keep going, honey — knead it until it blisters”), then cleaning squid (“such a good job for small hands”), grating stale bread on the box grater for crumbs, washing the greens, or trimming the mushrooms.As I got older, Grandma let me advance to more complicated jobs, then to sauces, and then to making (under her eagle eye) some of the dishes myself. It was an apprenticeship. And Grandma, as chef, always took credit. How could she not? This was her holiday.
Christmas Eve is mine now. The families don’t gather, but I keep up the tradition with friends. Last year there were 12 of us, including three young ones who do not squeal at new food. Unlike Grandma, I serve the meal in courses.
I see the feast of seven fishes as a party, so I start it off with drinks and a few of the fishes — baked clams hot from the oven, tuna pate shaped into a fish on its platter (both dishes are easy finger foods), and then sweet and sour flounder.
The soup starts the table portion of the meal. Then pasta, followed by Grandma’s mackerel, then branzini poached in “crazy water.” (Yes, I brought out boiled potatoes to serve with the branzini, breaking the cardinal rule of no potatoes when you’ve already had pasta. Come on, we were all full, but the potatoes taste so good with the crazy water.)
It’s a big feast, but small portions and breaks between courses make it realistic. You need time to talk at the table — it’s a holiday.