Tess on the Town: Catholics put touch on Christmas Eve

Many Catholics might remember — or still observe — the tradition on Christmas Eve of serving fish.

When I was growing up, we always had clam chowder or red snapper stew on the table on Christmas Eve. When we were old enough, we capped the evening off by going to Midnight Mass.

Only when I became an adult and spent the holiday with other families did I realize that the tradition was widespread.

First, I celebrated with a friend and her Polish-American family.

The Jaskiewicz’s served perch nestled atop sauerkraut with handmade to-die-for pierogis and apple sauce. Ah, I realized, it’s not just a Irish Catholic thing, it’s a Catholic thing.

Then, by marriage, I became part of an Italian-American clan. Mama DiCunto recalls her mother heading down to the fish market in Naples, Italy, early on the morning of Dec. 24 to purchase an array of cheap fish and squid from the Mediterranean. Even in the lean years of World War II, families scraped together a tuna or salted cod and pasta dish.

The long tradition dates from the Roman Catholic observance of abstinence, either fasting or abstaining from meat and milk during Lent, on Fridays and on the eves of holy days.

While many cultures observed the no-meat tradition, the Italians made it an art form.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. The celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, the midnight birth of Jesus, when Roman Catholics fasted (in earlier times) or abstained from meat until receiving communion at Midnight Mass.

A Feast of the Seven Fishes sounds wonderful, if someone else were buying and cooking it. But I can settle for Feast of One Fish.

Beyond any religious significance, it seems a good idea to enjoy a light, simple repast on the day before you slip into the all-out gluttony of Christmas dinner.

Unless you have a friend or relative who is a fisherman, the choices for fresh fish in this part of our landlocked state are not abundant.

Fish and seafood in the grocery stores were most likely frozen at one time. Fin’s Grill manager Eric Magnabosco advises staying away from anything caught overseas, because you can never tell when it was caught, or how many times is was frozen and thawed. “It may be perfectly good quality when caught over there, but the process degrades the fish,” he said.

Here are three sources for a seafood variety in western Colorado:

■ Mountain Valley Fish & Oyster in Montrose branched out from a wholesale business and now operates a retail shop from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Fridays. Because they sell to many restaurants in the area, they have a dozens of suppliers and offer quite and array. Besides the usual array of fish, shellfish and bivalves, you might find some gems. When I called yesterday, they had stripped bass, marlin, soul, grouper, walleye, little neck and cherrystone clams and mussels. 25 N. Willerup Ave. 970-249-8335

■ Crossroad Fine Foods procures shipments of seafood to order in less than a week. The always-fresh seafood often comes from the docks of Hawaii, Alaska or New England. 611 24 Road. 257-1557. http://www.crossroadswineandspirits.com

■ Fisher’s Market, supplied by Seattle Fish Co., has the full complement of mostly fresh products and sushi grade tuna. 635 24 1/2 Road, No. B. 245-2500

TRIVIA: This food product came into being about 1902. It’s packaging was designed with a string attached to it so it could be hung as a Christmas tree ornament. What is it? Answer next week.

QUOTE: “If I could work my will every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” — Ebenezer Scrooge

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