Christmas Eve in Cranford is More than Seven Fishes
A Holiday Tradition with Global Flavors
Family takes many forms and can be flexible and expansive, especially during the holidays. This time of year brings people together, sometimes in unexpected ways, creating lasting relationships over platters of food, glasses of wine and pints of beer.
Such was the case when friends invited me to a Seven Fishes dinner on Christmas Eve in 1995 at the Cranford home of Joe and Sandy Attanasi. I joined about two dozen people that night for a marathon dinner we would not soon forget. This dinner has become one of my favorite food experiences for the last twenty years. Growing up in a large Italian-Polish family, the “Seven Fishes” had never been a part of my own Christmas traditions, but now I can’t imagine the holidays without it.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa dei sette pesci), has its origins in southern Italy and the Roman Catholic tradition of eating seafood as a form of abstinence on the vigil of a holy holiday. The Christmas Eve tradition commemorates the Vigilia de Natale, the vigil of the midnight birth of Jesus. It has become an important Italian-American holiday tradition.
“We first went to the house of my mother’s family, the Serratellis, for Christmas Eve, in Elizabeth,” recalls Joe Attanasi Sr. “Like my father, they were from Salerno, near Naples, and Christmas Eve was always a big deal, a big family night. I can remember as far back as when I was five, the kids in the family used to have to make up a little skit to perform for everyone during dinner. And then we would pass the hat around! It was always a lot of fun.”
Attanasi, a real estate investor and entrepreneur, adds, “My parents, Emil and Mary, moved the Christmas Eve dinner to their house in Union, starting in 1938. We moved to Union that year, and where our house was, it was all woods, no road to the house yet. They didn’t build a road from Galloping Hill Road to near our house for another year. But my mother, she was the oldest of 12, she decided to move the dinner to our house to lighten the burden on her parents.” The Attanasi Christmas Eve became an even bigger gathering, set up in the basement, where a large second kitchen had been installed.
“My father would go to the old fish markets in Elizabeth and Newark,” says Attanasi, “and he’d bring back these little fish, he called them Sterling fish, an inch and a half or two inches long, and my mother would fry them up along with the smelts for the dinner. My father would come home with live eels, too,” Attanasi continues. “He’d keep them in the sink downstairs, all squirming and swimming, until it was time to coat them in flour and fry them.”
Preparations began more than a week before the dinner, when dried cod (bacala) and snails would be obtained. “They would soak the bacala for days,” says Attanasi, “to get it the way they wanted it for my father’s bacala salad. And he would buy snails. They’re considered a delicacy now, expensive, but back then you could buy a bushel of them for almost nothing. He’d bring the snails home, put some lettuce in the basket to feed them until Christmas Eve, and the next day we’d find a few that escaped, climbing the walls, on the fl oor, and it was my job and my brother’s to catch them.”
Other parts of the dinner had to be made in advance as well. “My father would get a bushel of ripe tomatoes,” Attanasi continues, “and we would help my mother to make the marinara sauce. We had a hand grinder and we would take turns grinding up the tomatoes, and she would make a big pot of sauce and then homemade cavatelli. Hours and hours of work, but nothing was better. She also used her sauce to serve one of her favorite dishes,” Attanasi remembers, “stuffed squid, which she stuffed with breadcrumbs and seasoning. No one wants to make that anymore, but it was delicious.”
As with the current Attanasi gathering, the vigil dinner in Union was an all-night affair, stretching into the early morning hours.
“Dinner would start between six and seven o’clock and it would go all night,” Attanasi says.“Until two, two-thirty in the morning. It wasn’t all eating, but it was never rushed, and when the smelts and eels and mussels and squid and pasta and then finally the bacala salad were done, out would come the coffee, the nuts, fruit and all the cordials—Galliano, anisette, the grappa, other ones too—to help you digest. Some friends or family would stop by late just for some dessert or a drink, and we’d have even more people in the basement.”
“Then the women would start cleaning up,” says Attanasi. “The men and the kids would sit on the couches and fall asleep. When they’d wake up, they were hungry again! So out would come cheese, mozzarella, scamorze and then, believe it or not, prosciutto and bread, and we’re all making little sandwiches and heading home.”
It was 1988—exactly 50 years after his parents began hosting the Seven Fishes dinner—that Joe, his wife, Sandy, and their children, Joe Jr., Faith and Mark, continued the family tradition at their home in Cranford. It was a responsibility Joe Sr. took very seriously.
“This was a big deal to my parents,” recalls the elder Attanasi. “My sister had moved away and my brother Dom, he was older than me, but he was more relaxed about the dinner than I was. I loved all of it. I watched my father buy the seafood, how particular he was about everything, learned how to make the bacala salad and the scungili (conch) the way he did, watched my mother make everything. I really tried to learn everything, because I knew it would be me, not Dom, that would take it over someday.”
Even the most casual observer would notice Joe Sr.’s attention to detail and the high quality of every ingredient, from the plump, perfect shrimp cocktail that begins the dinner to the fresh mozzarella at the end—and the joy the Attanasis take in sharing their tradition with others. A core group of over a dozen relatives and friends has been part of almost every Christmas Eve, with another dozen or so different guests filling the seats every year. Joe Sr. and Sandy usually commandeer the kitchen during the dinner, with help from Joe Jr.’s wife Cindy and occasionally a few friends.
As some of the older friends passed away, more kitchen work and courses fell to Joe Jr., a financial planner; his wife, Cindy, a school principal; and me. As more hands became involved in preparing dinner, the menu has become less traditionally Italian and more international in scope. This has kept the dinner fresh and interesting and produced some new favorites.
“I used to go to the same places to buy seafood that my father went to,” says Joe Sr., “but many of them are gone, especially Italian grocery stores like Sutera Brothers in Elizabeth. So now I find myself shopping at Costco, believe it or not, besides the local stores I like. That’s where I found the scallops for the dish everyone seems to go crazy for, the scallops wrapped in prosciutto.”
The simple dish has become a highlight of the Attanasi feast. Large New Jersey sea scallops are carefully surrounded by a thin slice of prosciutto de Parma, dusted with a pinch of fresh dill and baked. The dish marries salty, herbal and sweet flavors, allowing the ingredients to shine.
The same could be said for the dinner’s most popular course, Attanasi’s linguine with clam sauce. Although it contains just a few ingredients, it has a depth of flavor and richness seldom found in restaurant versions of the dish. “Always fresh clams,” says Attanasi, “but my thing is to add butter along with the olive oil when I first make the sauce. I make it a couple of days ahead and refrigerate it. That lets everything marinate together.”
The elder Attanasi has experimented with Asian flavors in recent years, preparing tuna and tilapia glazed with soy, sesame and ginger. At his urging, I’ve made courses featuring spice-rubbed salmon filets with a maple glaze and Spanish-style garlic shrimp with saffron rice and peas, as well as mini crab cakes from a Philadelphia jazz club’s recipe. The salmon course is now a permanent fixture at the Attanasi gathering.
Joe Jr. has taken over making the cold bacala salad and has remained true to the original recipe. “Years ago, we made a video of my father making the bacala,” says Joe Sr., “and Joey makes it exactly the way his grandfather did.” The dish is made with chunks of reconstituted salt cod, fiery-hot cherry peppers and generous amounts of garlic and extra-virgin olive oil.
In recent years, Joe Jr. has added a Peruvian-style ceviche to the dinner’s menu, using diced tilapia, tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and lemon juice to create the popular South American dish.
An avid craft beer aficionado, he also pairs a half-dozen brews with the sequence of courses. “That’s another personal contribution,” Joe Jr. says. “My dad added things he liked to the dinner over the years. Now I’m adding a little.”
The younger Attanasi has now taken over the full responsibility for the dinner, moving the dinner to his home in Linden. “It really was becoming too much for my parents as they got older; even with all the help, it’s a lot of work. My dad’s 85 now, and Cindy and I realized we had to take it over, to do what my parents did for my grandparents and continue the tradition.
“When we were dating, Cindy used to wonder why the dinner had to take so long,” recalls Joe Jr., “running so late into the night, but I explained to her the tradition of staying till midnight to wait for the birth of Jesus. Then she knew it was a tradition worth preserving.” Joe Jr. and Cindy now do almost all of the dinner preparation, under the watchful eyes of his parents. Desserts are still made by Sandy, as well as her daughter Faith, Cindy, and other relatives and friends.
“As I was growing up, I always looked forward to the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve,” says the younger Attanasi. “I didn’t ever want to miss it. I used to just love to sit and listen to the conversations, drink it all in. I know what it means to keep it going.”
Joe Sr. is happy to see his son and daughter-in-law preserving the tradition, but wistfully wonders if it will continue. “After Sandy and I are gone, who knows?”
His son has little doubt. “Will there be people to come?” Joe Jr. asks. “We’ll have to expand the circle, like my folks did. I’d like to keep this alive for a long time, absolutely.”