The Salted Star of Christmas Eve Dinner

December 23, 2011
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Ellen McCarhty, The Two River Times, Red Bank New JerseyI can’t help but be flooded with wonderful memories as I hurry through the specialty markets during this time of the year. Last night, as I visited my favorite fish monger, I felt my heart skip a beat: directly in front of me was a white slab of petrified cod.  It was baccala. I was immediately transported to the Queens neighborhood where I grew up.

For Italian traditionalists, Baccala is the dried, salted star of Christmas Eve dinner. But I didn’t share the same enthusiasm for the fish as the treasured cooks in the family.

Not only was it known in my childhood home as eau de Night Before Christmas because of it’s perfume of the sea, but it has a briny taste and rubbery texture that most children wouldn’t appreciate.

But baccala was another word for Christmas in my house. Where to “catch” this king of cod, with its distinctive aroma, was discussed months prior to the holidays.

I’d bait my dad every Thanksgiving with the same hypothetical question: “Are we having baccala for Christmas Eve?”

Of course, he had an answer. “I’ll probably get it downtown this year.”

“Andy, wait! Lucille (our neighbor) is getting it from her husband’s friend out on the Island,” Aunt Tina would correct.

No matter how the baccala got to the table each year, the suspense was second only to waiting for the announcement of the Best Motion Picture winner in a long-winded Oscar presentation.

“The usual?” I heard a voice say.

I was roused from my daydream and replied, “No, not the usual.”

“Do you have baccala?” I asked the fish monger. “If you do, I’d like some.”

While he meticulously wrapped up my prize cod, I thought of how much I wished I were bringing it to Grandma’s house, to once again see it immersed in a pot on her stove. And of how much I would have enjoyed sharing it (and the accompanying stories) with my family — my mother, aunts, uncles and grandmother – who are now a lovely memory.

This time, I’m sure it would taste heavenly.

Happy Holidays.

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