I realize that many people – okay most people – equate the night before Christmas with Santa squeezing down the chimney and all that. But for me, nothing is so evocative of the holidays as the three-day prep and ultimate enjoyment of some Christmas Eve oh-so-flavorful baccalà, the salt cod staple of Italians’ Feast of the Seven Fishes.
In fact, it was my mother’s baccalà that ended a months long estrangement between us when, at sixteen, I left her house with no immediate intention of returning. The source of our discontent: her disapproval of my love life. I had been dating the same boy all through high school. He was a great kid, she admitted, but we were too settled as a couple and she didn’t like it. “It’s not healthy,” she’d argue. “You’re too young!” My mother wanted me to play around. Talk about progressive.
Her perspective, that there’s danger in becoming too cozy at so tender an age, is quite obvious to me now. At the time, though, I was in loooove and would have none of it. One evening our ongoing argument grew violent. My mother slapped me (I probably deserved it), and in a rage I packed my bags and “ran away” to live with a friend’s family a few miles from our house. You might ask why this family so readily opened their doors to a runaway teen. I’m not really sure but I always suspected that the families were in cahoots, that my mother decided it best that I stay with people whom she knew and from whom she could get regular updates simply by picking up the phone.
My newly adopted family, the Steingrebes, were German-American. They lived in a 1700s farmhouse that they had restored and furnished to authentic perfection. Their home life, in comparison to my own, was placid. No shouting. No slapping. Nothing. The calmness of their life was reflected in their obsessions, things like the ideal dovetail wood joint. To the Steingrebes, food was a necessity, and more often than not an afterthought. In their kitchen was a huge walk-in hearth. How cool is that, I thought. Imagine the roasts we’ll prepare! But nuh-uh; the hearth was not for cooking. That’s what the microwave was for. The quality and color of “milk” paint was as close as we came to discussing anything food-related.
Whereas, I grew up in a mixed household, Italian and Ukrainian; from both sides our lives were about great food. Bring on the next meal, baby! With my mother I regularly pilgrimaged to Lancaster County for eggs and cheese, to south Philly for cured meats and porchetta, and to Conshohocken for hot Italian crusty bread to slap it all on. The Steingrebes? Not so much. Calling their food bland would be an insult to bland.
But at sixteen I was stubborn and unforgiving and remained with the Steingrebes for six months, an eternity in teen years. In fairness to my hosts – their disinterest in food notwithstanding – they couldn’t have been more kind and generous, treated me as their own, and during my time with them I learned a tremendous amount about early American art and antiques; it was a unique, formative experience that I’ll forever be grateful for.
At the same time, I was starving…for my mom’s food and for the cacophony of our dinner table.
One day, a few days before Christmas, I ran into my mother at a local drugstore. Our meeting was like a Mexican standoff, tumbleweed wafting through the aisle, neither of us fully prepared to make the first move. At last, she broke the icy silence: “Do you want to come home?”
“Will you make me baccalà?”
I was back home that night.
Eventually I did break up with my boyfriend. But on my terms.
I now have a son verging on teen-dom, and we don’t always see eye to eye, which makes this story all the more horrifying for me. Might, one day soon, my independent and headstrong kid serve up my comeuppance for the way I treated my own mother? If so, I hope he will be mollified by the comfort of some home cooking, and that it will take six minutes – okay, six hours – instead of six crazy months for both of us to come to our senses.
Tonight, however, while we won't be decking the halls with boughs of holly, we will be enjoying Grace's baccalà-la-la, la-la la la...
GRACE'S BACCALA SALAD
2 lbs. Salt cod
2 Celery stalks sliced, plus leaves
¾ cup Green olives with pimentoes, sliced or any mixed variety of cured, pitted green olives
Pepperocinis or hot cherry peppers, sliced
2 cloves Garlic, minced
Juice of 1/2 Lemon
Good Olive oil & red wine vinegar to taste
2 T. chopped Flat leaf parsley
1. Rinse the dried cod in cold water to get some of the salt off and make it more pliable. Soak the cod in a pot of cold water in the fridge for three days, changing the water once each day. The third day, replace the water and soak with a combo of milk and water.
2. Boil cod on the stove (not long) until it flakes. Drain and rinse if still very salty. Rid of any skin or stray bones.
3. Flake the cod in a bowl and add all the ingredients from above. Add oil and vinegar to taste and toss gently. Make a day ahead to let flavors meld. Store in refrigerator. Toss periodically. It is definitely better with age!
Makes 12 appetizer servings.