Lou Rodia, 86, died Aug. 15, 2013, at his home in Court House. For Christmas 2012, he wanted to have this published to ensure that the cherished recipe would continue to be used on Christmas Eve.
Time runs out for me. I suddenly realized it’s almost Christmas. There was a time I’d be busy helping to gather the dozen varieties of seafood that highlight traditional Italian pre-Christmas dinners.
If you are Italian, you are automatically considered a lover of good food and good seafood.
Italian affinity for seafood is no accident. A map of Italy shows that you are never too far from the sea. If that's not enough to compel Italians to eat seafood, the traditional Italian Christmas Eve seafood feast is.
As far back as I can remember, there was a Christmas Eve seafood feast in our family, and in most Italian families we knew. Some vestiges of the tradition remain in our family circle these days.
The nieces and nephews still put together a pre-Christmas feast but its smaller in size and preparation. Families no longer live close by as they did when I was a youngster. It is hard today to gather the whole family for holiday festivities.
I had four maternal aunts and uncles. Counting the four of us, there were 22 cousins in the family. Three families lived within sight of my grandfather’s house near Hammonton. We lived 17 miles away. It was easy for us to get together on frequent occasion.
It was easy to assemble family members to prepare and enjoy traditional Christmas Eve seafood dinner. The best Christmas Eve dinner offered the most varieties of seafood.
There were no home freezers back then. Fresh fish was available at Italian markets in South Philadelphia, an hour’s drive from Grandpop’s house.
Preparation started with a trip to Joe Angelo's store in Rosedale, or Calderone's Market in Hammonton to purchase dried and salted cod. We never figured why anything which smelled so God-awful bad in its pre-cooked stage could taste so good when it hit the table.
The baccala had to be soaked forever in cold water. That started a week or so before the actual dinner.
There was always a trip to Ninth Street in Philadelphia for the other fish that wound up on the dinner table. Cooking started early in the day. There was plenty of help. Since it was open house when the feasting started, it took lots of food to prepare to feed all who showed up.
The older folks passed on, and families spread away from home to other parts of the country, and a war intervened. The tradition was set aside for a few years.
It came alive again with my late father-in-law. He enjoyed seafood more than anyone I know. He said if it came from the ocean and you knew how to cook it, it was edible.
Mike was a cook in the army in World War I. He made his living with cement, bricks, mortar, and stone, but he also created in the kitchen. Mike cooked a lot and loved it.
He had interesting ways of cooking everything. Mike's shark fish sticks put Arthur Treacher's to shame. His herring and shad had no bones.
Skate wing salad was a delicacy. Mike pared the outer skin off the top and bottom of the skate wings, diced the meat and poached it. Chilled, it was served with celery, onions, garlic, basil and parsley, oil and vinegar. Cooked with tomatoes, it made a fine fish stew with potatoes, celery, carrots, onions and fresh green peppers.
Sea robin fillets, breaded and deep-fried became hors d'oeuvres. Stuffed squid, baked in tomato sauce was standard table fare.
His spaghetti with conch sauce was a delight. Conch salad was a treat. Mike cooked everything I brought from the sea to him.
I always believed that If I brought him a piece of driftwood out of the ocean, he'd find a way to cook it.
He even had a way of cooking shiners. He would behead them with a small pair of scissors, flour them lightly and deep-fat fry them to a crisp. They were addictive like potato chips. No way you could eat just one or two.
But he outdid himself on Christmas Eve. The menu was varied. Seafood specialties such as fried and steamed shrimp. fried squid rings, baked and stuffed squid, squid in tomato sauce, conch salad, baked eels, stuffed artichokes, cauliflower breaded and fried, spaghetti with seafood sauce, salad and lots more graced a groaning buffet table from which we served ourselves.
Many old customs die as the old folks pass on, and the next generation finds less enthusiasm for the work. Our family Christmas Eve dinner still survives. Younger family members pitch in to help with the cooking. And with the gusto with which they approach the table to load up their plates, we think the custom will remain around for a long time.
Some of Mike's recipes remain in the family. His seafood chowder recipe is as broad as imagination and availability of ingredients. Since it feeds a lot of people, it takes a big pot and lots of seafood to prepare it. Cut quantity amounts for smaller batches.
Mike's Christmas Eve Seafood Chowder:
1 cup Crisco oil. 2 large onions, diced. 2 green peppers, cut in strips. 4 cloves garlic, minced fine.
6 No. 2 1/2 cans tomato puree. 2 No. 2 1/2 cans peeled plum tomatoes. 1 cup diced celery. 2 lbs. diced flounder fillets. 2 lbs. sea bass or other fish fillets. 1 lb. scallops. 1 lb. shrimp. 1 lb. squid. 1 lb. crab meat. 2 dozen unshelled mussels. 2 quarts clam juice. 50 unshucked small clams.
2 tsp. sugar. 2 oz. Worcestershire sauce. 1 oz. Tabasco sauce. A dozen Bay leaves. 1 oz. oregano. A few sprigs fresh parsley, diced fine. Salt and pepper to taste.
Heat oil in skillet. Add celery, onions, peppers, and garlic. Cook until tender. Dump into large pot. Add tomatoes, tomato puree and clam juice.
Bring to boil and simmer for a half hour. De-vein, peel and dice shrimp. Clean and cut squid into one inch squares. Cut flounder and other fish into 1 inch squares. Add half the shrimp, 1/3 of the fish, bay leaves, parsley and oregano. Set aside remaining fish and other ingredients.
Cover pot and simmer for one hour. Stir frequently. A half hour before serving, thin the stock with water equal to the amount of liquid in the pot. Bring thinned stock to a boil and add the rest of the ingredients except crab meat.
Boil briskly until the clams and mussels are open. Add Worcestershire sauce and enough Tabasco to give the stew a tang. Salt and pepper to taste.
Remove from heat and add crab meat. Stir and serve with Italian bread to mop up the sauce. The above can serve 15 or 20 persons. Alter by adding or subtracting items. Seasonings can vary according to the cook's taste.
Enjoy the food and the holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.