Ah, the legendary Feast of the Seven Fishes. More commonly known as the legendary “Cram as Many Loud Italians as you can into a Tiny Room filled with Fish” Feast. I’ve been an esteemed member of the Christmas Eve Fry Crew for as long as I can remember, and I think that’s mainly because my grandmother, her sister, and their four daughters were simply not enough hands to fry the countless pounds of seafood that filled their cozy basement every year. So I was born, and brought on immediately (as was my younger cousin) to this treasured tradition in our Italian-American family.
The feast can be done in my different ways, including varying quantities and selections of fish. Some families prepare seven types, some prepare nine, or some brave tribes attempt to prepare thirteen different types of fish once a year for their Christmas Eve celebration. For the past 26 years that I have been present, we have stuck with seven, but the crew only fried up four: flounder, calamari, scallops, and shrimp.
At the crack of dawn, my mother and I set out for a pre-determined frying spot in the heart of Tuxedo Park, NY. Then we set up our stations: moms on the fryers, kids on the prep table. The fish is carted down to us by the tray, and then dunked individual piece by individual piece in flour, followed by a bowl of ice cold egg yolks and milk, and bread crumbs and dropped in the vats of frying oil. My cousin and I have always fought (and will continue to do so until we take over the fryers) over the flour station, because no one wants a hand full of numbingly bitter yolk or sticky bread crumb clumps- those stations are for rookies.
Approximately four long hours later, we are dismissed and released out into the world reeking of the seven potent fishes that we shared our morning with. After a shower, a nap, some light afternoon snacking, and another shower, the doors are opened to the masses and the fish feast can begin. I usually keep it simple with a plate of pasta, salad, and flounder that my mom referred to as “chicken nuggets” until my cousin blew her cover to me in 2005.
I share this with you because this year, for the first time since my induction into the family Fry Crew, I can finally eat everything on that fish-full table. A joyous announcement from my allergist has set me free to try every type of shellfish that we serve, and my dreams of sugarplums have since been replaced with dreams of scallops, king crab, and lobster tail.
That’s the beautiful thing about traditions: while people may change or move far away, families may grow bigger and Fry Crews might take on new leadership, traditions will always remain the same. And for me, the magic of Christmas Eve lies in its remarkable ability to bring the same amount of excitement for love and fish (and the same stories that we have all heard a million times) with an equal amount of sincerity every year. That, followed by a drive home that I will always spend looking for Santa’s sleigh, is the joy of Christmas Eve; or as we like to call it by the fryers, the joy of Fishmas.