When I was a child growing up in Millbury, Massachusetts just outside of Worcester, Christmas Eve was a big deal on my mother’s side of the family...that is, as my Norna affectionately called us, the Wops! My Narna would be cooking for days before, preparing The Gravy and The Calamad and The Broccoli. (It was, and still is, always THE, elevating the food to a fitting ritual status. And The Gravy, by the way, is what Americans call tomato sauce, but we never did.)
My Granny-in-the-Back (great grandmother) would be making home-made spaghetti using a curious pasta cutter that looked like a miniature dulcimer and absolutely fascinated me. Even at a young age we kids could help with this. We placed the long ribbons of pasta over dowels to dry, filling the kitchen with Italian tinsel.
And in all the other Italian households, our neighbors around us, and our relatives in the big city of Worcester, were cooking too---each their own specialty. My Uncle Midge with his Pickled Octopus. Aunt Rose with The Eel. Aunty Philly with The Baccala. All traditional regional foods lovingly preserved from their emigration to this country.
Come Christmas Eve, the celebrations began and according to some system I never understood, we went from house to house feasting well into the wee hours of Christmas Day itself!
In fifth grade, my family moved to Bellows Falls, Vermont. Sadly, that took us out of this festive loop. For a long while, we returned, but as life goes, trips became less likely as we grew up and more entangled with our new place. Often my Narna and Norna would visit us, bringing the special foods they made. That would be a very good Christmas, indeed.
They have passed away now, though, along with most of the old people who kept alive the making of those traditional foods. For a time, those Italian Christmas Eve’s were lost to us.
Fortunately, I missed them enough, and loved the food enough, to suggest we revive them for ourselves here. Even more fortunately, my family acted on this suggestion before the old ones passed away. We were able to capture the recipes for some of our most beloved dishes: The Broccoli (braised in olive oil, garlic, and red pepper), The Calamad (squid stuffed with a peppery garlic/parsley bread filling and cooked in Gravy), and The Baccala (salt cod salad). If you would like the recipe for that last one, just follow this link to my website.
My Vermonter wife and fellow author, Jessie Haas, has grown fond of the Broccoli and The Baccala. The squid, not so. As we sit down to our Christmas Eve feast this year, I will be pleased to think that, like the immigrants of old, we’ve preserved some Italian traditions in this far northern waste---as my grandparents surely viewed our move to Vermont!