Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 2, 2020

Resurrecting an Italian Christmas culinary tradition

By FRANK GUERRIERO | December 5, 2019

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Every time I return from a break in the espresso-stained, red sauce–laden part of New Jersey I call home, I feel uneasy. I just spent a week consuming at least three cloves of garlic a day and beginning all conversations at a 7/10, but as I try to settle back into Baltimore, I wonder if I need to tone it down.

Hopkins can feel like something of an identity proving ground. The University is far from forming an adequately diverse faculty and student body, but for most of us, arriving here means joining a far more heterogeneous community than that of our hometown. 

For some, that feels like an opportunity to assert your unique contribution, to make yourself feel a little more at home by seizing every chance to remind this foreign place of where you came from. 

It’s why I insist on cooking my friends meatballs I can’t eat, on hanging an Italian flag in my living room and writing this obnoxious column.

But for plenty of others (and these two groups are far from mutually exclusive), there’s the dilemma between owning your heritage and, alternatively, announcing yourself as an alien. 

Perhaps worse, you might feel anxious that expressing pride could easily veer into becoming a caricature of your own culture. As an Italian American, these impasses have far less intensity than they do for friends with under-served, formerly colonized or significantly oppressed backgrounds, but it remains a nagging, pulsing anxiety for me.

This and other experiences have led me to confront a recurring question: Just how Italian am I? I speak the language fluently but not natively. I like anchovies but only in moderation. And there’s always that pesky 12.5 percent of Irish heritage that found its way in a few generations back.

Plus, there’s something about Hopkins that makes it harder to demystify this element of my identity. Even if I’m no more guinea or guido now than I was when I got here three years ago, I’m constantly worried that I’m taking my Italianness too far, which means either exposing myself as a crass, uneducated wop or fulfilling stereotypes I’ve always known to be false.

This tension is most palpable on one particular day of the year: Christmas Eve. It’s probably the most culturally significant holiday for Italian Americans (no, not Col**bus Day). The entire extended Guerriero family gathers for at least four hours of successive courses, but we’re missing a certain element.

Most Italian Americans ostensibly celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes the night before Christmas. Nobody’s exactly sure where this tradition came from (it’s most likely derived from southern Italians abstaining from meat during the Christmas Vigil), but it’s something of a mark of our heritage. The thing is, very few members of my family actually like fish, so we tend to do without this supposed obligation, instead opting for more gluttonous plates of pasta, braised beef and greens. Some shellfish may make an appearance (clams oreganata is a regular) but, strangely enough, we’ve never indulged in the full maritime tradition.

This Christmas Eve I’d like to experiment with restoring the feast, or at least a part of it. I’ve dug through family recipe archives in search of an appropriate dish, and this stewed, salted cod seems like a good place to start. Don’t let the slightly unusual base alarm you — when done right, baccalà is an exceedingly clean, mild fish, and it’s not too hard to master. If you’re searching for a plate to bring to a family event this holiday season, join me in giving this typical holiday recipe a try.


Christmas Eve Baccalà

Prep time: 1 hr 

Serves 8-12  

Ingredients

3 lbs baccalà (salted, dried cod), boneless

1/2 c extra-virgin olive oil

1 small yellow onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

6 small potatoes, peeled and cut

into large chunks

1 1/2 c water

1 c crushed tomatoes

About 25 black olives

Steps:

Prepare the fish: cut the cod into large chunks and soak it in water in the fridge for three days, changing out the water and rinsing the fish three times each day.

Add the olive oil to a Dutch oven or other heavy pot set over medium heat. Add the potatoes and cook for five minutes, being careful not to impart too much color. Add the onions and sautée for five minutes or until softened, then add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the water and tomato sauce, then simmer the mixture until the potatoes are soft.

Remove the potatoes and add the rinsed fish (it’s best to place the largest pieces on the bottom). Add the olives and bring to a boil before lowering the heat to a simmer and cooking, covered, until the fish is tender and flaky. Return the potatoes to the pot and warm them through before serving.

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