We met Frank Tenaglia through a letter. It was addressed to my husband and his brother, and it was in response to an article that had been written about their seafood market, and the Italian tradition of eating seven different kinds of fish on Christmas Eve.
"Dear Hay Brothers," it began. "More than seventy five years ago, my mother used to make this meal and I loved it. She would have fried smelts, fried anchovies, baccala, stuffed squid, calamari, oysters, scallops, or crab." Frank gave his address and a phone number, and said that he hoped he could get the makings for a meal for two this year.
Last week, my husband and I drove to West Hyannisport to meet him. We sat down with Frank and his wife Carolyn, and he told us his memories of Christmas Eve dinner in an Italian household. He remembers his mother as a wonderful cook, and said that for the big meal—Feast of the Seven Fishes—she battered almost everything in flour and egg and deep fried it in olive oil. His favorite were smelts—small, oily, migratory fish—that she cooked whole, gutted but with the scales and skin on and the skeleton still in. He also loved anchovies and baccala (dried, salted codfish), and his mother's specialty, stuffed squid.
His memories of the meal reach way back—back to the 1930s, when he was six, seven, eight years old. He remembers helping his mother in the kitchen—not with the fish, but with mincemeat shaped like a horseshoe, and long snakes of fried dough, cosas frittes—literally, fried things.
But Frank never learned to cook himself. When he was younger, his mother did the cooking, and when he married his wife Carolyn took over the cooking. She was Irish, so they didn't celebrate Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. But recently, Carolyn's gotten less mobile, and Frank's taken over in the kitchen. And this year, he's hoping to make his very first Feast of the Seven Fishes.
I don't think he's planning anything complicated—just seven fishes, battered and fried—but if you're interested in the tradition, there are lots of menus from Italian-American chefs online. I found a good-looking one in Saveur (check out the story here and the menu here) and another from Mario Batali. I'm not sure yet what we're having for Christmas Eve dinner, but we almost always have some seafood. And if we make it to seven fish dishes, here are my top picks for this year:
What would you make? I'd love to hear.